Two important exhibitions at The National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore bring eclectic works to the viewer, writes Giridhar Khasnis.
Curated by noted art historian and critic, Prof R Siva Kumar of Visva Bharati University, ‘The Last Harvest’ presents a selection of more than 60 drawings and paintings by Rabindranath Tagore, culled from the collections of Rabindra Bhavana and Kala Bhavana at Santiniketan, and the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA).
Commissioned and supported by the Government of India as part of Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary celebrations, it is said to be the largest curatorial project of the paintings and drawings of Tagore. The exhibition has travelled to Berlin, Rome, Paris, London, New York, Chicago, Ontario, South Korea and Kuala Lumpur.
The first non-European recipient of a Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) is primarily known to the world as a visionary poet, playwright, musician and philosopher. Although he was interested in visual arts all his life, it was only well into his 60s that he ‘fell under the enchantment of lines’ and began drawing and painting at a furious pace.
A restless person always looking at new ways to express himself, Tagore took to art confessing, “Just as a mother lavishes most affection on her ugliest son, so I feel secretly drawn to the very skill that comes to me least easily.” He is said to have produced more than 2,000 works in just over a decade as an artist.
The 14th child to his parents, Tagore never had any formal training in art. He said, “The only training I had from my young days was the training in rhythm in thought, the rhythm in sound.” When he started producing drawings and paintings, he was not sure of their merit, but that did not prevent him from trying. From early free-form doodles on the pages of his manuscript (crossing out lines that he did not like and turning them into forms and shapes), he ventured into many areas, enjoying the absolute freedom that his untutored perspective granted.
Tagore asserted that his drawings and paintings began with a line of a form with the idea emerging later, rather than the other way around. He derived inspiration and influences from many sources — from the tribal art and artefacts to the sophisticated art movements of the world. He produced unique forms and characters, but never titled his works. He created portraits of men, women, animals and landscapes (both real and surreal), as well as abstract forms and patterns, with gay abandon.
Tagore said that in art, man, not the object, revealed himself. For him, lines and colours in art were no carriers of information; they sought their rhythmic incarnation in pictures. The truth of art was not in substance or logic, but in its expression.
Critics and historians generally agree that rhythm was the essence of Tagore’s work, and that the images he produced conveyed an experience and expression of the world and life around him with wonder.
While his landscapes uncovered a dark, haunting and mysterious world, his portraits with pensive faces, soulful eyes and intensely lit profiles often highlighted a sense of eerie silence and excruciating loneliness. Artist and scholar K G Subramanyan avers that Tagore’s work was like a breath of fresh air in his time as the unorthodox ways in which he realised his paintings opened up new vistas to younger artists in coming years.
Tagore’s first exhibition was mounted in Paris in May 1930, a show which received heartening reception; it travelled to Europe, Russia and the United States. While some critics saw ‘expressionist’ designs in his work, others felt that they were closer to ‘surrealism’.
Watching the exhibition at NGMA, one cannot help but be drawn and intrigued by both the form and content of the works on display. The show provides more than a glimpse of Tagore’s vast repertoire of haunting heads, romantic figures, and melancholy landscapes.
Featuring the work of 28 contemporary artists from the British Council collection, ‘Homelands’ is a unique take on contemporary British art. The exhibition, which is conceived as ‘a 21st century story of home, away and all the places in between’, seeks to explore notions of what constitutes a homeland, revealing a plurality of meanings in the ideas of belonging, alienation, history and memory. The highly engaging four-city touring exhibit which is on its last lap in Bangalore (after New Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai) has been put together by the young Delhi-based curator, Latika Gupta.
Among the major attractions of the show is a set of prints by acclaimed artist David Hockney (b.1937) whose ‘A Rake’s Progress’ (portfolio of 16 prints/1961-63/Etching, Aquatint Image 30x40 cm) is a contemporary relook of a series of paintings by the 18th century English artist, William Hogarth.
Known for her works which are essentially about conflict and contradiction, Beirut-born and London-based installation artist Mona Hatoum (b.1952) presents a fascinating kinetic piece titled ‘+ and –’ (1994) made of wood, sand, stainless steel and motors. It is a small yet evocative work which raises many silent questions on construction, erasure, patterns, plainness, life, fatality and so on.
The set of 20 colour photographs from the series ‘Dem Ol Bod Ose: Creole: Architecture of Sierra Leone’ (2004) by British-American photojournalist Tim Hetherington (1970-2011) is poignant and offers its own version and perspective on aspects of human suffering, dislocation and resettlement. Hetherington, who won World Press Photo awards, captured varied experiences of war in West Asia and the Middle East before being tragically killed in a mortar attack while covering the conflict in Libya.
Cornelia Parker’s twin pieces, ‘Meteorite lands on Buckingham Palace’ (1998) and ‘Meteorite lands on St Paul’s Cathedral’ (1998), made using the Gibeon Meteorite found in Namibia in 1836, are absolutely riveting; as are Lisa Cheung’s series of posed photographs with exaggerated expressions transferred on to found China plates; and Nathan Coley’s Camouflage Bayrakli Mosque (2007), created out of painted hardboard and placed over a mirror.
Well known for combining the act of walking in different landscapes with the artistic practice of sculpture, Turner Prize-winning artist Richard Long (b. 1945) sets out his Stone Line (1979) as a floor piece, with several stones of variable shapes and sizes evoking a sense of abstract rhythm and expression.
Other eye-catching works at the exhibition include Irish photographer Anthony Haughey’s pictures of daily life of families in a housing estate in Dublin, Raymond Moore’s photographic landscapes of border towns, Martin Parr’s simple but effective photo-documentation of small market towns and their people, and Suki Dhanda’s photographs from the series ‘Shopna’, featuring a 15 year old Bangladeshi-British girl.
Both the exhibitions — ‘The Last Harvest’ and ‘Homelands’ — will be on view at NGMA, Bangalore, until August 14 (closed on Mondays and national holidays).