This French connection

Rooted in India

Flowers on curtains. Flowers in vases. Flowers as backdrop. Flowers cluttering a canvas. Trees made of flowers. Dresses with flower chintz. Flowers, flowers and more flowers. Pink. Orange. Yellow. Red flowers.

And naked women. Lithe, straight-nosed, large-eyed, mostly black-haired women. Naked women. Alone in the canvas. Contemplative. Not a thread on their body, yet not a hint of eroticism. Not even subdued sensuality. Not frigid, either. Their nudity merely staring out of the canvas as a piquant fact. Not often does one see such matter-of-fact nakedness. 

I was leafing through French artist Maite Delteil’s catalogue titled The Yellow Room and was dazzled by bright flowers and unambiguous naked women. That march afternoon, Delteil was painting a night complete with snow and stars. Not one flower was blooming in the canvas, not one woman walking alone in the starry/snowy night. My curiosity about her unseen work from the 1960s interrupted her painted night. 

Coming into view

“Flowers did not bloom as a concept. Or as a series. Or a phase. That was not the concept. There was no concept. I lived in the countryside in France; there were flowers around me. At that time, I was impressed by artists like Berthe Morisot, Edouard Vuillard or Pierre Bonnard. Hence, the flowers. I wanted to make pleasant paintings that people would like, and hopefully, buy,” Delteil confesses in actuality. 

“And why only women?” I was still piqued about her paintings never seen before in India. “No, I was not making a statement about absence of men, and of women as a dominant motif. It was not meant to be ‘nude’ art. Aesthetically, a woman has better form. That is one reason. Plus, during that time, my personal life was tangled — social life in France in the 1960s was a bit conservative. So, when I married my Indian friend Sakti Burman, my father rejected me as part of the family. I was caught in unpleasantness, which also brought along alone-ness. I might have thought unconsciously that women have to find their place in the society, without the guidance of anyone. So, unconsciously, the work I was doing at that time was mostly of single women in their own thoughts. The women of my 1960s art wear a contemplative appearance, more than a banal sentimental vision,” says the artist who straddles New Delhi and Paris — winters in New Delhi, summers in Paris.

Born in France in 1933, Maite Delteil studied art at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and later honed her creativity in Spain and Greece on fellowships from the Government and Institute De France, and worked under painter Roger Chapelain-Midy and the engraver Robert Cami. In 1959, she received the prestigious Prix De La Casa Velazquez. 

Love & family

It was in École des Beaux-Arts that she met a young Indian artist. His name: Sakti Burman. They discussed art, got inspired by the same masters, and later married. Art has held them together for 63 years now, with their daughter Maya Burman adding another arty thread to the Delteil-Burman narrative. 

Burman, to begin with, was Delteil’s sole Indian connect. Even while in Paris in the conservative 60s, she blended happily with the Parisian Bengali community. India became a permanent fixture on her itineraries and her first show was held in 1964. In 2016, she exhibited together in India with her daughter Maya Burman, and the current New Delhi show will include 25 to 30 works in small format. 

Says Sunaina Anand, who is showcasing Delteil’s unseen work in her New Delhi Art Alive Gallery: “On my visit to Maite’s country house studio in Anthe, France, in June 2018, I saw Maite’s earlier works kept in a closet. These small, intimate works of Maite reflect deep influence of the European masters reflecting her own environment in the works influenced by the French countryside where she had spent a major part of her childhood.  I was excited to see these amazing works and show this collection that was never seen before.” From 1960s to now, how much has changed? Is the palette still loaded with pinks and oranges, and do women still stand naked in your canvas? I return with questions for Delteil. 

Painting is all

“No, the colours have not changed. I still use the pinks and reds and yellows. Forget motif, I have not even changed the paint company with which I started six decades ago. I still use Old Holland paints. The same tube. The same colours. I still love the masters of Italian Renaissance. I still want to make aesthetically pleasant paintings. Even that remains the same,” the artist adds between fumbling for a perfect word and a long breath. “I know nothing else to do in life. I paint when I breathe. I paint when I eat. I paint all the time,” Delteil sums herself and returns to painting the night on a canvas.

I returned to The Yellow Room, the catalogue. I noticed the woman sitting on a red pouffe looking into the mirror in a room with an orange wall, yellow flowers on a pink curtain, pink flowers on a white bedsheet. In the painted woman’s eyes, an alone-ness. Not incompleteness.  

(Maite Delteil’s show is on at Art Alive Gallery S-221, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi, until April 15, 2019)

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