Friday, May 22, 2020

Examining Six Self-Portraits of Shibu Natesan in the Context of Covid-19

(Shibu Natesan Self-Portrait Number 1)

A self-portrait, as far as an artist is concerned, is a very special and significant moment for he/she does not come to model for him/herself that often. That means self-portraiture is a moment of arrival and a moment before departure. Mostly done in a single sitting, a self-portrait heralds the arrival of the artist to that moment which finds himself too inspiring to avoid. And he would hanker around for long as the moment of arrival engenders the moment of departure as well. Hence, we could say self-portraits are a spontaneous yet very volatile moment that anticipates an ‘exist’ rather than a virtual sojourn within the space and time. It is different from a photographic self-portrait because in photography the portrait happens in a moment though after much deliberations that would result into the desired (self) portrait but in the case of painted self-portrait the result spreads through many moments which could be a single sitting or an extended one segmented into various times of the day or over a few days.

An artist, while doing a self-portrait examines himself, exposes his inner thoughts, turbulences and vanity he also inadvertently lets the people to come and take a good look at his ‘original self’ which remains hidden on a normal day at any given point of time. Before the easel where he does the act of self-portraiture he is also in an interim space, not exactly between the entry and exist points as mentioned before, from where he looks at his reflection on a mirror and at the canvas or surface where he makes the portrait. In this sense, an artist is an observer and the observed, the subject and the object, the object of his own desire and the very image of it. He may be flaunting his artistic prowess to create a likeable self-portrait in terms of likeness and an impressive one, in terms of its execution. He stands to gain accolades but at the same time he is at the edge of a cliff where he could lose the grip on his ego and fall into a ditch of self-exposure. A posturing could betray the underlying fear and trepidation and even if he denies his weaknesses the apparent strength itself could collapse in the weight of the denial. In short self-portraiture is a dangerous game, and adventurous pursuit, creation of a brittle auto-fiction, if not a plain confession.

(Shibu Natesan Self-Portrait Number 2)

In this short essay an attempt is made to locate the six self-portraits by the noted artist, Shibu Natesan (b.1966), done during the lockdown days in March 2020 in Wales, England. He was in London, spending time with his family when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in the world. Wales, a country side location where Natesan’s wife, Kate Bowes, an artist herself, has her ancestral home, became a retreat for the artist and family as they found the place safe from the virus attack. A retreat is a happy retreat when the move is willingly done but when locked down from outside even the best place in the world could exude a sense of jail. Any creative person overcomes such moments of locked up feeling by engaging with it directly or by taking the attention away forcefully from it. Natesan seems to have done both of these; in his profuse landscape paintings one could see how the artist takes his energies away from the threat of the virus by indulging deeply into the beauties of nature and painting it. But when it comes to the direct engagement with the sense of the pandemic lashing out all over the world, he could do nothing but looking at his own self and paint it.

Natesan has been a master of self-portraiture. His mastery has also been seen in making portraits of unknown and well known people, always willing, patient and enthusiastic sitters for him, whom he meets while his innumerable journeys to make plain air paintings of the landscapes. Perhaps, he treats the given landscapes in front of him as people and models who prod him to paint their likeness, most importantly, the way he wants. In the context of the pandemic the models are always possible distractions and sensible engagements than a dialogue with the situation. Misery cannot always be dipped into beauty though misery has its own beauty when captured in forms and shapes, in moving or frozen pictures. Misery of the human beings in any part of the world has to be addressed and if they are within the means of addresser it should be alleviated. But alas, an artist is just an individual who could flag out, scream out and point out, but never offer solutions or means of it. In art there are no immediate or long term solutions to problems. But there are locations in art where one could see how the world should not repeat certain follies.

(Desperate Man by Gustav Courbet)

Self-portraiture is a self-examination; the way a woman searches her bosom to make sure that she does not have any carcinogenic lumps there. It is tender yet apprehensive; it is curious but pregnant with the possibilities of future miseries. It is self-assuring but doubt inducing. It is a private act yet once doubts confirmed it is liable to be exposed and treated. That means self-portraiture is a beautifully rough act; a violent yet pleasurable and dangerous self-indulgence. Natesan takes this risk and the risk becomes too palpable and visible when we see very few artists have done self-portrait in contemporary Indian painting. Self-portrait as a part of the narrative or as a surreptitious intervention by the artists who did miniatures and votive paintings for the patrons is a different genre altogether though art historically they too are treated as self-portraits. But Natesan’s is more independent and less interventionist like those in the lineage of Rembrandt and Courbet. In India, an artist like A.Ramachandran has dared to involve his self-portrait in his narrative works but the prolific doyens like Ram Kinkar Baij and K.G.Subramanyan have always resisted the impulse to make self-portraits in or as their works of art. This gives a unique position to Natesan in the art historical discourse in India.

Self-portrait number one shows Natesan sitting in an erect posture, palms on his knees and giving a side glance with the lips held tight. The summer in Wales is pleasant yet there is a nip in the air as the round neck full sleeve sweater worn by the artist suggests. The background is plain. The flowing locks are open and the light falls on his face from the right side of the painting a la a Vermeer painting. As we know that the Covid 19 was around then, the artist’s erectness shows his alertness to the situation. The tight lips suggest that he is yet to make head or tale out of the pandemic condition. He seems to be a bit tensed for the sudden shift to the Wales. The Grey tone of his clothes though a bit mundane should reflect the undecided nature of his mind for the time being.

(Shibu Natesan Self-Portrait Number 3)

In the Self-portrait number two Natesan seems to have grown familiar with the surroundings and has decided to put up a show for his own enjoyment. The half cushioned hacked and apparently the same grey t-shirt seems to make a good blending. What makes the portrait interesting is the red cap whose reference should be to the reggae musicians like Peter Tosh. His gaze is sharp and is directed at the imaginary viewer who is none other than himself. The gaze is quite piercing as he tries to look into himself and the show that he has put up for himself. The semi parted lips show a bit of ‘I do not care a bit’ attitude often exuded by the Rastafarians. Still the facial muscles are tensed and there is no chance of him relaxing internally. The work has certain self-referential qualities as similar posture could be seen in some of his early self-portraits.

The third Self-portrait seems to have originated from Natesan’s mental dialogue with Gustav Courbet who had done the self-portrait as a desperate young man. Courbet’s face is upfront and to the viewer. The eyes are wide open in it and one could sense the pang of a wounded soldier in his face. Natesan perhaps avoids the pain on face. But the expression betrays the desperation that he feels inside. The light falls from the right on his back highlighting the contour of the body as well as the folds of the clothes. He refers back to the works of Jean Ingres, perhaps in this work. As the gaze is averted and an extra sharpness given to the edge of the nose gives a sense of inquisitiveness about the surrounding that has just beckoned him back. Perhaps Courbet and Natesan have the same thin moustache!

(Shibu Natesan Self-Portrait Number 4)

The fourth self-portrait is more typical of Natesan where he seems to have adjusted to the pandemic situation that has held him back in Britain for more than expected. The gaze is direct and there is a sense of reconciliation in his eyes. The same clothes as in the first portrait show that he has been home bound for some time and his outing to do landscapes has not really been regular. The scarf around his neck in the previous portrait seems to have obscured deliberately to give a look of a lowered mask, which has become a health protocol all over the world. Once again the gloomy grey has come back as a background and the summer light hasn’t really lit up the mood or room. The extended left had must be holding on to the frame of the canvas on the easel but he leaves it obscure and lean as he thinks it is unnecessary to think about the details and go for what is apparent.

(Shibu Natesan Self-Portrait Number 5)

It is quite Zizekian as we come to the fifth Self-portrait of Natesan. He has all braced up to face the world. Covid or no Covid, I am here to work, he seems to declare the world. Zizek says that when we are afflicted by an illness we go through five stages of dealing with it, namely Denial (No it cannot happen to me), Anger (What on earth it came to me, why didn’t it spare me), Bargaining (Oh good Lord, give me some time so that I could finish my duties and tasks), Depression (No way…I am down now..), and Acceptance (Come what may let me live the rest of my life happily and I ready to die). Natesan in this painting seems to have reached the final and fifth stage; acceptance. The red sweater and apron shows the sanguine nature of the determination. Like Ernst Ludwig Kritchner, Natesan holds an erect brush in his right hand to assert his decision to live and paint. A portion of the adaptable easel is seen reminding the convention of Velazquez or Van Eyke. The mandatory mask is around his neck and what makes the painting assertive is the background where the flat emptiness is replaced with a traditional wooden shelf where crockeries are beautifully arranged. The gaze is more direct and cheerful. The apprehensive holding of lips is gone and they are shown full below the greying moustache.

(Shibu Natesan Self-Portrait Number 6)

Once all five stages are over and the summer has made the surrounding more beautiful than ever and the hope is fully back in the minds of the people as well as in the artist, the self-portrait number six shows an absolutely different feel. Natesan is seen more like a contemporary troubadour, with a Neruda like hat and a high neck Indian half jacket. A middle dandy with flowing hairs has his chin up and a quizzical look in his eyes. Like the second portrait here too you could see an act, a posture but with more lightness than the former one. Though the eyebrows are crooked to show questioning look, it is not really a serious one but a moment before the exit, a laughter perhaps. Natesan has also done a series of oil and watercolour landscapes immediately after March 2020. Rembrandt was examining himself through is self-portraits while registering his ageing but in Natesan’s case it is not the registration of ageing but the time that has held one and all in thrall without letting know anyone about their lives or deaths. One could see how the emotions festered in each person in the world which must have taken different forms of expression including poetry, painting, music, pornography, self-portrait, short film making and domestic violence. Natesan’s self-portraits are not his picture alone but the picture of all the people who have lived in March 2020 and lived beyond it.

-          JohnyML