Pasts & present

Pasts & present

Pasts & present

It was a double treat for art aficionados in Delhi with National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) presenting two totally distinct yet engaging art shows at its sprawling precincts in the heart of the city. While one show, restrained yet historical in content, presented myriad vistas of Indian life and landscape as seen through the eyes of western artists, the second commemorated 50 years of diplomatic relations between Indian and Colombia with Colombian sculptor Claudia Hakim presenting life-size sculptures in metallic nuts and bolts, perhaps the first such new-media show at NGMA.
Titled ‘Indian Life and Landscape by Western Artists — Paintings and Drawings from the V&A 1790-1927’, the main gallery exhibition consisted of more than 90 paintings and drawings culled from the collection of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and showcased rare and interesting watercolours, sketches, aquatints, lithographs and engravings by European artists who visited India between 18h to 20th century.

Said Prof Rajeev Lochan, director, NGMA: “The first visual representations of India by western artists were of imaginary landscapes and settings. They were based on the written accounts of travellers to India from across Europe. It was only after professional European artists began to travel to India that they painted, for the first time, scenes based on direct observation. Their passionate interest in this new and exciting land led to the creation of a comprehensive pictorial record of India, in a visual style familiar to western audiences.”

India’s spectacular architecture, the immense natural beauty of her landscapes, and the great diversity of her people have inspired many artists world over. No wonder then, the show aptly captured this diversity through paintings divided into four sections.
A visit to the first section was like taking a picturesque tour across India’s splendid forts, temples and palaces. Titled ‘The Picturesque’, actually a reference to the major literary and aesthetic movement in England that led to a revolution in western art and promoted a particular way of observing and depicting landscapes, this section depicted the fancy mid-18th century European artists had begun to nurture for India.

Priceless record
The picturesque tradition of the 18th century helped create the order, balance and serenity of the magnificent aquatints of Indian scenery and architecture created by artists such as Thomas and William Daniell. The uncle-nephew duo travelled widely in India painting magnificent buildings that have now crumbled to dust. Hence, these paintings are a priceless record. Ruins of the Palace at Madurai, Fortress of Gingee, in the Carnatic and Hindu Temple at Agouree on the River Soane are few examples of their noteworthy works.

The second section showcased works by amateur artists who were captivated by the landscape and architecture of India. Many of these amateurs were East India Company employees, who transferred to canvas their personal experiences and sketched and painted for their own private pleasure, rather to earn a living. ‘The Taj Mahal’ by Thomas Longcroft, ‘A Natch Party’ by Robert Smith and ‘Suspension Bridge’ at Alipore by Charles D’Oyly are few examples of works by amateurs that were in no way inferior to their professional counterparts.

A different view of India was presented by those influenced by the succeeding Romantic movement which emphasised the wildness and drama of the natural world resulting in some of the most striking and decorative paintings of India. The movement encouraged artists to focus on their intuition and imagination and create paintings that evoked strong emotions. The dramatic mountainous regions of India and the grand monuments lent themselves to free romantic interpretation while people were often idealised and portrayed in an enchanting manner.

Artists used their imagination to enhance their work, some, who had never been to India, embellished the sketches of others and created engaging and powerful images. Perhaps the most striking of such paintings on display were William Carpenter’s glowing rendition of the marble interior of the Neminath Temple, titled ‘Interior of the Neminath Temple, Dilwara, Mount Abu’. ‘Ancient Observatory’ by William Simpson, ‘A Hindoo Female of the Konkan’ by Robert Melville Grindlay and ‘A Leopard Attacking an Antelope’ by Samuel Howitt are other examples of the Romantic school of practice.
From the 1860s, the arrival of photography and increased access to western illustrations, cultivated a taste in the Indian public for real-life pictures. Indian artists began to use western modes of representation which included figure drawing. Artist John Lockwood Kipling and John Griffiths were appointed to head the JJ School of Art in Mumbai, which has produced many top Indian artists, including MF Husain and FN Souza.

Kipling was commissioned by the government to produce a series of studies of crafts people, some of which were also displayed in the exhibit. His sepia-toned images revoked an era gone by, with sweetmeat sellers almost hidden behind mounds of sweets, farmers harvesting cotton by hand and weavers creating fabric on the loom. One of John Griffiths’ most memorable paintings titled ‘A Woman Holding a Fish on her Head Bombay,’ is his lifelike sketch of a local fisherwoman balancing a massive fish on her head, a classic Mumbai scene that can still be seen today.

Colombian show
While one needed to spend hours to fully grasp the magnitude of this show, the smaller yet similarly evocative show that boasts of NGMA’s growing penchant to showcase new-age art was ‘Signs of Skin’, a solo show of metal sculptures by Colombian sculptor Claudia Hakim.
Born in Bogota, Claudia Hakim began her artistic career in the late 1970s and has since explored different thematic interests. Once a textile designer, she has worked in mediums such as concrete and resin before turning to metallic springs, rings, screws, nuts and bolts for sculptures that are often grand in scale yet minutely detailed. During the years in which she worked with fibres (1978-1990), preparing the basic modular element implied weaving the fabric. In the last two decades, her work is being made out of industrial remnants.

Of nuts & bolts
Said Claudia Hakim, “When I was asked to do this show at NGMA, I read a lot about Indian arts and culture. I was fascinated by the intricacy of Indian jewellery and textiles. Thus, I decided to make this new body of work inspired by jewellery design.”
While all the sculptures in the show appeared to be magnified rings, bangles and necklaces, a 200-kilo bangle made out of 7000 nuts and bolts was easily the showstopper!

Claudia Hakim’s sculptures have the capability to induce senses to the point of generating a wish to interact with them. “I want people to touch the works and feel them. It’s like wearing a second skin…we often think metal is very heavy but I wanted to also express that it is also a flexible material that can be molded to what you wish.”
The skin symbolises in her work basic geometric figures such as scales, zigzags, triangles, broken lines, circles, filled and empty spaces, high and low lumps that are structures yet take form and movement at will…so on the walls of the gallery hangs a tapestry-like flowing curtain made of thousands of small car wheel caps while another wall mounted installation is made up of nothing less than 8800 metallic springs that are coloured red to give a coral-reef like feel.

“I treat the metal with various chemicals to give it the right colour and texture so you can see various shades of reds, greens, black, gold and silver in my work,” she said. It’s not the colour variation alone in something as mundane as metal that lends an artist’s touch to her work. While the constant in her work is the presence of industrial materials, the nuts and bolts are not merely screwed to create forms, albeit tied up in a manner as to create intricate patterns like paisleys, leaves, flowers…all symbolic of jewellery design.

Claudia Hakim is, thus, a weaver of dreams and of radiance, who works with materials that result from the industry and language of weaving, and she applies it and transports it to the realm of sculpture, where an oscillation is created between the rigidity of the material and the flexibility of the results. There are hardly any Colombian artists who can handle such extremes. In the hands of Claudia Hakim, industrial refuse is turned into sculptures of tremendous artistic magnificence.