The silent maestro

Different strokes

The silent maestro

Reclusive artist V S Gaitonde painted parsimoniously and never craved for market acceptance, writes Giridhar Khasnis 

Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde (1924 - 2001) was in the news throughout last year. March 19, 2013: At the Sotheby’s New York auction (The Amaya Collection of Modern and Contemporary Indian Art), Gaitonde’s untitled oil on canvas (50inch x 30 inch/ 1962) came with an estimate of 6,00,000 - 8,00,000 USD and sold for 9,65,000 USD (about Rs 5.35 crore).

June 11, 2013: At the Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary auction in London, another 1962 painting of Gaitonde, titled Painting No.1, topped the event by fetching GBP 6,98,500 (over Rs 5 crore).

December 19, 2013: At Christie’s first auction in India held at Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai, a record for the costliest modern Indian painting ever sold in the country was set when Gaitonde’s 1979 abstract was lapped up by a telephone bidder from the US for USD 3.7 million (Rs 23.70 crore), far exceeding the reserve price of Rs 8.50 crore.

In the meanwhile, the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum announced that a retrospective exhibition — ‘V S Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life’ — would open in New York in October 2014, followed by an international tour through 2015. Organised by Sandhini Poddar, adjunct curator of the museum, the show would comprise 30 major paintings and 20 works on paper drawn from leading public institutions and private collections across Asia, Europe and the United States.

Early recognition

All these, an observer commented, would be enough to make Gaitonde turn in his grave! By all accounts, the Bombay artist (of Goan parentage) had remained aloof all through his life. He painted parsimoniously, in sharp contrast to many of his prolific peers, and was known to be totally indifferent to the vagaries of the art marketplace. Not one to hesitate destroying his own works which did not meet his high expectation, Gaitonde decried artists who craved for market acceptance and critical appreciation. “I don’t work. I relax. I wait and then apply colours. To work under pressure is escapism.”

His self-imposed reclusiveness notwithstanding, Gaitonde’s reputation as a significant artist was well set quite early. He completed his training at the J J School of Art in 1948 and went on to win a prestigious award at the Young Asian Artists exhibition, Tokyo, in 1957. 

He first exhibited in New York in 1959, and then in 1963. His works drew enough attention for the John D Rockefeller III Fund to offer a year-long fellowship in the city in 1964, followed by a solo exhibition at Willard Gallery in 1965. The Fellowship allowed him to travel across the United States and included a stipend to travel to Bangkok, Tokyo and Hong Kong. The Padma Shri award came not much later — in 1971.

Among his early collectors was Dr Homi Jehangir Bhabha (1909 - 1966), the nuclear physicist and founding director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. For Bhabha, who had befriended almost all modern artists of the era, including M F Husain, F N Souza, S H Raza, and K K Hebbar, Gaitonde was a personal favourite. His Painting in White was among the works purchased for TIFR collection. 

Bhabha introduced Gaitonde, among others, to Bernard Peters (1910 - 1993), a cosmic ray physicist, who not only collected his paintings enthusiastically, but also struck a personal connection with the artist. 

“Today, Gaitonde picked me up and we went to see his studio, a small place with large terrace,” wrote Peters in a letter to his wife on December 17, 1977. “He is a very sympathetic man, bachelor with no family; reads, plays music and paints. He has only three canvases at home, sells all he makes.”

Among others who collected Gaitonde’s paintings were Ursula Bickelmann-Aldinger, a pre-eminent art historian and pioneer in the history of Indian contemporary art; and Dr Robert E Marshak (1916 - 1992), the famous American theoretical physicist (who was among the select group of scientists involved in the development of the atomic bomb; but when he witnessed the explosion, he was profoundly shocked and affected by its impact).

Fiercely independent 

For all his talents and achievements, Gaitonde was known to be “a quiet man and a painter of the quiet reaches of the imagination.” According to art critic Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni, the central characteristic of Gaitonde’s artistic personality was that he was fiercely independent and liked to stand alone. “He isolated himself very early in his career from everything in his environment that he considered irrelevant to his intensity as a painter.”

Gaitonde’s primary concern was not with representation, but with the painted surface itself. He believed that there was nothing called abstract art; he preferred to be called ‘a non-objective painter.’ He drew inspiration from Indian miniatures, ancient calligraphy, Zen philosophy and abstract expressionism. A constant learner, seeker and innovator, he took pleasure in the slow, meticulous, lyrical process of painting.

According to one estimate, he might not have painted more than 300-350 paintings in his whole life. “Painting is a struggle,” he said. “You have to enquire; you have to have a thinking mind.” Gaitonde wanted each painting to be unified by a single colour. He preferred to use a roller and a pallet knife instead of a paintbrush in order to bring out the sensitive arrangement of colours and to give expression to his innermost ideas and concepts. He built up his creations with multiple layers of translucent paints of varying viscosities. “A painting is simply a painting — a play of light and colour. Every painting is a seed that germinates in the next painting. A painting is not limited to one canvas, I go on adding elements, and that’s how my work evolves... There is a kind of metamorphosis in every canvas, and the metamorphosis never ends.”

Interpretation

Critics and viewers were amazed by the meditative tones and textures in Gaitonde’s works and the way his canvases exuded a luminous depth. “Gaitonde’s teasing translucency of paint and seemingly shifting forms that inhabit space with apparently random interest were the mainstay of his nearly five-decades-long career,” observed art critic Gayatri Sinha. “Critics have given his works a range of interpretations from a purely formalist language to metaphysical readings. However, in the dogged fidelity to an idea and its execution, Gaitonde’s standing in Indian art is unique, as is his contribution in plotting the graph of one stream of Indian modernism.”

Viewers across the art world too responded to Gaitonde’s paintings in their own individual ways. Pune-based architect, writer and academic Narendra Dengle, while confronting a Gaitonde painting, had this to say: “As I stared ahead at it, I was drawn into the deep. For a moment I bathed in the silence within its depth... I knew I wanted to go on observing it; but what exactly was I looking for? Each time I glanced at the ‘green canvas’, it seemed to set me swinging, as though I were on a roller coaster.” On his part, Gaitonde wanted his viewers “to imbibe as much joy on viewing my paintings, as I did while creating them.”

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