Saturday, June 21, 2008

Bacon, Freud, Mehta, Souza — Human figure in the shadow II War and India’s partition

India’s emerging muscle in global business arena is widely recognised and increasingly respected. It is said that art and economics feed each other. The years of economic sluggishness also reflected in the tough time for Indian artists economically. There were artists with finest expressions who struggled to keep their bodies but it must be said they did not allow their soul—their art—to attrition. To the long list of artists who fought their battle for material survival the likes of M. F. Hussain and Nikhil Biswas should be put in the forefront. While Hussain painted cinema hoardings to invoke his art muse, Nikhil Biswas used old newspapers to paint on. The folklore of the struggle of Indian artists is long, varied, and full of verve and fortitude. We should, as a nation be grateful to the ilk of such courageously obsessed artists that today we have a vibrant patrimony of Indian art that is increasingly been appreciated not only in India but globally.
While India struggled against the long yoke of British imperialism, the II World War intervened in Europe to enact a human catastrophe unknown and unimagined in the history of mankind. Nazi armies singed and devastated life, habitation and cultures going back to human history. The concentrations camps spread all over Europe systematically decimated men women and children in diabolic gas chambers. Franz Kafka vividly portrayed demented diseased mindset of Nazi war machine in his short novel, In the Penal Settlement. A visit I made to one of the most dreaded concentration camps The Auschwitz left me with nightmares for many months. The art and literature of Europe would change forever as a result of the war. From Diaries of Anne Frank, to the autobiography of Polish pianist Szpilman (made into a film by Roman Polanski) a new interpretation and portrayal of Man would be essayed in literature, films and art.
A new human situation was to emerge from the creative imagination of artists. The suffering, bent, traumatised humanity as in the drawings of Henry Moore of the people in underground bomb shelters and in the hopelessness of hope as in the play No Exit (Huis Clos) by Jean Paul Sartre or The Plague—an allegory of innate violence of Man by Albert Camus. The Guernica by Picasso will resonate a Kafkasque universe of futility and absurdity. The impact of II War will devastate the artists’ sensibilities. Satish Gujral spending time in Mexico under likes of Diego Rivera will paint another catastrophe—the partition of India.

Death destruction and suffering of II War helped create a dissembled, distorted human figure like never before. Picasso played a kingly role in this decimation of the accepted tenets of human form drawing. Picasso in his Cubist renderings treated human form as an assemblage of a mechanical contraption—devoid of the inner dynamics of being.
It is in this socio-historical context of the II War and the time thereafter that I locate the works of the four artists— Bacon, Freud, Souza and Tyeb. Francis Bacon the first of these artists with his grotesque open mouth figures, at times prevaricating between human and animal (one is reminded of Gregory Samsa—the man transformed into a giant spider in Metamorphosis by Kafka) disturbs our inner core. It is in line with existential anguish which Norwegian artist Edward Munch in his The Cry resonated before him. Bacon studied pictures of mouth diseases and created paintings with gaping, distorted mouths. Though Lucien Freud happens to be grandson of the great Sigmund Freud, but it is to Bacon’s works that some psychologists apply psychological interpretations and suggest that his open mouths are suggestive of vaginal anxiety of falling in a dark mysterious bottomless pit and as a homosexual it instilled fear and foreboding in him. Whatever may the source of his open mouth figures what is of interest is that he was able to put a mirror to the ugly warts of humanity in post War period.

The other artist who comes nearer to Bacon in expressing anguish, angst, and a kind of dualism and guilt bread through a spiritual conflict was Francis Newton Souza. Growing up in Goa as a Catholic wrought a conflict in him between the canons of religion and his own bohemian spirit. He revolted against the Puritanism of church and regaled in the portrayal of voluptuous female bodies. But the feeling of guilt never deserted him. His expressionistic style carried this conflict of body and spirit. Many of his works from this early period are in the private collection of the gallerist and theatre doyen Ebrahim Alkazi. I had the opportunity to savour these works in Nineties in an exhibition mounted by Alkazi in Arpana Caur’s gallery in Delhi.
Souza’s women figures are always large, rotund, fleshy presence. But it’s the way he renders the face that turns them into horror apparitions. It is this tension between his joy of the physical and the guilt he felt because of his Catholic upbringing that runs through his most landmark works. The faces of women with popping eyes and upturned distorted faces became the hallmark of Souza oeuvre. Souza carries the influence of Pablo Picasso in this. In the present exhibition a chestnut horse with nervous energy rearing to break away is held back by a rope is symbolic of the conflict Souza had between raw bodily desires and their reigning in. The horse is the raw crude libido and the rope the guilt and the effort to tame it. This work I reckon is among masterpieces of Souza’s art and I am sure not many people have been aware of its existence.

Lucien Freud the other British artist, son of émigré Jew parents at the threshold of II War is a practitioner of realism. His is a personal world of capturing the body with uncanny honesty. He does not gloss over the scars and blemishes of sitters. Those of you who regale in the neo-Romantic soft, dreamy figuration of a Suhas Roy or Angalie Ela Menon will find the portraits of his sitters nakedly vulnerable. He does not use a photo shop soft ware to the make skin young and taut—he just presents what his artist’s eyes see. It brings back to me the time I spent on beaches in Europe and Anatolia in Turkey. The Mediterranean sun brought in focus the contrast of flesh young and old. It was so dichotomous that I became pensive on the ephemeral nature of beauty specially the body. In 1999 in Vienna I saw a video art by an Egyptian artist. It was titled the hamams and was shot in a public bath for women. The nude figures from childhood, youth to old age led you to a journey of human body and its decay and distortion. Lucien is no painter of Grecian demi gods and goddesses. Lookup his etching in this exhibition—Woman sleeping and you will realise how with uncanny honesty he presents to us the material body truths.

In the end I will talk about Tyeb Mehta. He like the rest of his generation was witness to the bloody mayhem of India’s partition. He has evolved a style of flat colour surfaces and to build up diagonally flat colour figuration in alternate colours. He entwines dual images in unified pictorial space. He uses a smudged drawing line to render images that are flat and like paper cut outs. His sinewy drawing line brings the eye in to the figures from the surrounding flat surfaces and enhances the turmoil of his imagery.
His palette is frugal but his play with limited colours results in simple and direct expression focussing on the diagonalised gravity-infected imagery. What Bacon did with built up of painterly surface using oils Tyeb does with flat colours using acrylics. While Tyeb as a young man was appreciative of Bacon’s art, he found his own instruments of expression that combines pain and pathos using Indian iconography.

In sum the artists in the exhibition were witness to a period of gory history of Europe/India or had their personal crisis of faith (in case of Souza). Their artistic expressions are not only a lesson in fine aesthetics but also in diabolic war and hatred. The history did play a role in shaping their expressions. But in case of Lucien Freud it is the individual sitter’s persona that comes out crystallised in his realism. We hope more such exhibitions will come our way in India as juxtaposition of Indian and European and in this case British art.

Victor Vijay Kumar
Painter, Assemblage artist

(Published in Creative Mind magazine)

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