Midnight to the Boom

Two paintings bracket the entry to the Peabody Essex Museum’s newest exhibition, Midnight to the Boom: Painting in India After Independence, and chances are you’ve never heard of either one before.

There’s M.F. Husain’s Man (1951) on the left, and Atul Dobiya’s Bombay Buccaneer (1994) on the right. You likely haven’t heard of them because modern painting from India isn’t often seen in Western museums. That’s a shortcoming this compelling show, based on works in PEM’s Chester and Davida Herwitz Collection, rectifies. The Herwitzes came upon India’s modern art movement in the late 1960s, decades before other Western collectors focused on it. Their collection, and this show, afford the rest of us the opportunity to meet a previously under-known crop of artists, and to explore the energetic dialog these Indian modernists had with both their native traditions as well as Western art. The question, How to be a modern artist?, runs like a leitmotif through much of the work in this show. It’s what ties them to their place, and unites them with modern art elsewhere.

The exhibition taunts us with an enigmatic title: Midnight to the Boom, alerting us to politics and economics: “Midnight” refers to the Aug.14, 1947 speech by free India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru: “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.” The evocative image of a nation born “at the stroke of midnight” inspired literature when Salman Rushdie explored 20th century India’s political and social tensions in his novel Midnight’s Children. Then, in the 1990s, after decades of a centralized, state-controlled economy, came economic liberalization and “the Boom”: a growth in entrepreneurship, a middle class, and a staggeringly wealthy elite. The twenty-three artists in Midnight to the Boom touch on these socio-political aspects of Indian modernity as they also grapple with artistic modernism.

M.F. Husain “Man,” 1951. (Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum)

Take Husain’s Man. In the center, we see a naked, seated black figure (Is he the artist or model? Subject or object?) rendered in blocky, opaque strokes. His pose evokes Rodin’s Thinker, but this thinker is surrounded by paraphernalia that suggests an artist’s studio in which he takes center stage. The surrounding objects are presented in a series of planes, with no trace of any kind of vanishing point perspective: all is flatness, very much like European modernism of the time — except that the most important figure is dark-skinned. In 1854, French painter Gustave Courbet said, “The world comes to be painted at my studio,” and his The Painter’s Studio shows the artist as someone who distills and reflects his time. Courbet also celebrates heroic individualism; Husain’s Man, with its pensive central figure, claims its stake in that artistic tradition.

Over four decades later, Atul Dodiya’s Bombay Buccaneer (1994) has shed mid-century expressionist abstraction and opaque flatness. His Buccaneer is rendered illusionistically, as if the subject were photographed. But while Husain’s Man presented himself as a thinker in a studio, the pistol-toting Bombay Buccaneer evokes a movie poster. The painting enters into a dialog with a commercially successful art form (Bollywood). At the same time, the Buccaneer’s shades reflect two figures from the world of “high art”: the painters David Hockney and Bhupen Khakhar, British and Indian, respectively.

Atul Dodiya, “The Bombay Buccaneer,” 1994.(Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum)

Both Hockney and Khakhar wanted “to make the ordinary extraordinary in [their] work,” as the show’s curator Susan Bean puts it. Dodiya wants that connection to ordinary, commercial art (in this case Bollywood), but without losing the extraordinary that art can evoke. Layered on top of the illusionistic portrait and scaffolded behind are horizontal and vertical lines (a checkered pattern on the Buccaneer’s shirt; a series of rectangular panels behind him). Nothing is rendered at an angle, all is presented in perfect alignment with the picture edges, or held (like the Buccaneer’s hand) level with the flat of the canvas. Even the two heroes (Hockney and Khakhar) are rendered on the flat screens of reflecting sunglasses. It’s Dodiya’s knowing nod to Western high modernism, the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Man and Bombay Buccaneer begin to suggest the breadth of this fifty-year overview. In order that viewers might get to know each of the twenty-three artists individually as well as learn about them contextually, the show is divided into three roughly chronological sections, starting with the Pathbreakers, followed by Midnight’s Children, and capped by New Mediators. At six different points in the exhibition, an Indian artist is juxtaposed on the one hand to a Western (or in one case, Chinese) artist who inspired him or her. Usually, the juxtaposition includes as well a traditional Indian art form that also inspired the work.

The first section, Pathbreakers, consists of the generation who were young men at the time of India’s independence. One of the juxtapositions here is S.H. Raza’s painting Uhdo, Heart Is Not Ten or Twenty (1964), flanked by a Cézanne landscape and an 18th century Rajput miniature. Raza learned about construction from studying Cézanne, who built his paintings as carefully constructed visual records, using brushstrokes held strictly parallel to the canvas surface. Raza doesn’t emulate Cézanne’s evenness, his all-over, edge-to-canvas-edge method of construction. He instead adapts Cézanne’s method in combination with the broader color fields typical of the Rajput style, effecting a marriage between his Western and Indian sources of inspiration.

In the second section, Midnight’s Children, viewers can explore another juxtaposition, North Calcutta-based Bikash Bhattacharjee’s The Lady with the Gas Cylinder (1986) and Andrew Wyeth’s Charlie Ervine (1937). Wyeth, an artist who remained rooted in his home areas (Maine, Delaware), inspired Bhattacharjee, who rarely left his home city, with his localism. The paintings obviously look very different, but they share what curator Susan Bean calls a “realism tinged with mystery.” It’s an effect created by the artists’ use of light and shade, whether it’s eyes shaded by American hat brims or Indian sunglasses, or figures semi-obscured, semi-lit. “It keeps us with these paintings,” Bean notes, since we keep wanting to explore them.

Bikash Bhattacharjee, “Durga,” 1985. (Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum)

This second section also starts to include women artists (absent from the Pathbreakers section), as women found new freedoms in the new India. One outstanding representative is Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990), a disciplined abstractionist whose precise renderings suggest the patterns that underlie the natural and the manmade environment. Her work captures the essential marks, finds the patterns, and distils them into pure abstraction.

The third section, New Mediators, shows artists who gained stature in the 1980s and ‘90s. They’re mediators in two senses: they use the new media that became available in this period in the wake of economic liberalization and the lifting of import restrictions; and, as liberal-progressive artists, their work mediates the rise of fundamentalisms that threaten progress and tolerance in India. Two works in this section use video directly. The first, Stains (2002), Nalini Malini’s video loop of a painting being created (and uncreated?), evokes primal chaos, abstraction, but also intermittent figuration, as limbs, figures, faces appear and disappear. Her work has resonance to Nancy Spero’s, American feminist artist, as both meet on the ground of some kind of politicized primitivism or deliberate formlessness hedged by ritual.

The journey from Husain’s Man to Malini’s Stains is a vast and rewarding arc that parallels India’s journey from freshly-minted Independence to 21st-century hyper-capitalism and sectarianism. It also parallels modern art’s trajectory, with a particularly Indian flavor. The twenty-three artists and their works in this exhibition have a lot to tell, and they each do so with energy and verve. It’s a show you don’t want to miss.

Midnight to the Boom: Painting in India After Independence is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum until April 21, 2013. The exhibition catalog by Susan Bean, with essays by Homi Bhabha and others, is available at the museum gift shop as well as through Amazon.

Yule Heibel lived in Beverly during the 1990s while teaching art history in Cambridge. In 2002, she moved to Victoria, BC, home-schooled her kids, and read Jane Jacobs. Now back on the North Shore, she is passionate about fostering vibrant urban development that gets people out of their cars.

*Feature Image: Tyeb Mehta, “Sequence,” 1981. (Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum)

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