The appeal of self-taught Art

A lack of academic training should never be the basis to dismiss anyone's talent.
Last Updated : 03 June 2023, 20:15 IST

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What do Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Frida Kahlo, and Raja Ravi Varma have in common? Apart from being artists, all of them were essentially self-taught and lacked formal training in art. Interestingly, as some may argue, it was this lack of academic guidance and unconventional approach that may have allowed them to forge their own path and make a name for themselves.

Van Gogh, known for his uniquely expressive brushstrokes and vibrant colours, was home-schooled initially and although he did a brief stint at Brussels’s Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in 1880, at the behest of his brother, Theo, he is considered to be fundamentally a self-taught artist. So is Claude Monet, a foremost member of the Impressionist Art movement, famous for his water lilies, and the study of light and changing sky in his landscapes. He began painting in the open, which was a less common phenomenon till then; he had been introduced to this practice by Eugène Boudin. He then went on to paint in the open for a large part of his practice, capturing the effects of light and transferring his perception onto the canvas.

Frida Kahlo was keen to study medicine but had to rethink her choices after a traumatic accident, which was instrumental in changing the course of her life. While confined to her bed, she began doing self-portraits and then went on to develop her unique style further, adding elements of Mexican folk traditions, and motifs of local and vernacular interest. In India, the well-known 19th-century painter Raja Ravi Varma was largely self-taught. He learnt oil painting primarily by observing the works of European artists and by studying art books, and he was able to successfully combine Western aesthetics with Indian iconography to leave a rich legacy of paintings and lithographs.

While it cannot be generalised that every self-taught artist will find the same amount of success as these artists mentioned above — these, incidentally, are just a few examples from a long list of artists who have been extremely successful in their artistic careers — at the same time, lack of academic training should not be grounds to be dismissive about anyone’s talent.

Outside the canons of art education is an extensive range of artists practising a wide variety of art forms such as folk, vernacular, and graffiti among others. For instance, artists such as Baua Devi and Ganga Devi known for Mithila and Madhubani art, Jangarh Singh Shyam, a legendary name in Gond Art, Jivya Soma Mashe known for the Warli tribal art form, etc., are key figures in folk and vernacular arts, who have carved a niche for themselves and paved the way for others from their community. Their art training remains outside the boundaries of any formal art education system.

In such a scenario, conventional Western definitions might be too restrictive in the Indian context, especially in today’s times when both multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary self-study approaches play a huge role in contemporary art. A keen interest in art, an aptitude to self-study and learn, and the will to experiment can be some of the differentiating factors that can contribute towards being successful as an artist.

The author is a Bengaluru-based art consultant, curator and writer. She blogs at Art Scene India and can be reached on artsceneinfo@gmail.com

Dab Hand is your fortnightly art world low-down.

Published 03 June 2023, 20:14 IST

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