The last week, has been an arty week – first the annual Art Fair and then two exhibitions at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA). This does not happen often. Although these days there are many art exhibitions and galleries, reaching Delhi from where I live for these events, even with the best of intentions is not easy. But I do try. But why? I had some time after walking around the exhibits at NGMA and tried to analyze my interest in art. Am I a knowledgeable connoisseur? No, I have limited knowledge of the technique, medium etc. and that too gathered from my daughter who is more into this line. Am I doing it because it is one of ‘those things’ that is perceived as highbrow. I would say no to that too – as I do not think of myself as ‘highbrow’ or move in circles where such activities would be par for the course!! I think my interest is because I occupy the polar opposite position from an artist, that of pragmatism and a scientific temperament. Art inspires me to admire something that I could never do myself as well as the capacity and resilience of the human imagination and spirit.
As you have gathered, I am no artist or even remotely artistic – the closest I have come to drawing is the Botany and Anatomy drawings I had to do at various stages of the educational process. There were no artists in our family – and during my growing years, the only artist in our immediate environment was a neighbor, Cukoo Aunty (Mrs Khurana). The walls of her sarkari flat were filled with her art work – she had studied Art in London and used to have an easel set up, all of which we were in awe of – but the paintings themselves I do not remember much of! And then during the great South Indian sojourn of 1960, my father took us to see Raja Ravi Verma’s works at Mysore and Trivandrum.
Being the book worm that I was, I think my real introduction to art was through the famous novel “Lust for Life”, based on van Gogh’s life. The book fascinated me – and when I had an opportunity to spend a year in London I trudged through most of the galleries in Central London on my own. And the initial forays, were to see the works of the Impressionists, the characters in”Lust for Life’. Looking back, it was strange way for a 18 year old to spend her time – but I was studying for my A levels in a private college, with no friends and generally a misfit of sorts. The Galleries were free and indoor, heated spaces – finally I think I just got hooked. The college was near Trafalgar Square, walking distance from the National Gallery. Over the many hours I spent there, and with my familiarity with European history (again thanks to my reading), I gave myself a self-taught course in European art. From the early Spanish works of El Greco, Velasque etc., the Flemish school, the Italian Renaissance, the English artists such as Hogarth, Gainsborough and Turner to the French Impressionists – London offered the whole range of European art within a couple of square kilometeres. And once bitten, its a potent bug. I have been a museum addict ever since – mostly for the visual arts.
The next phase of my self-education was the 2 years I spent in Bethesda – which is close enough to Washington to make the Smithsonian very accessible. Many week ends were spent in the Art Museum – again alone – as I could find few of my friends had the inclination. And since then, the Art gallery (if one existed) has been a must in every city I have visited – San Francisco, New York, the many, many galleries in the Netherlands, Paris, Barcelona etc…. and it has always been hours spent as in another world. Of course, through all of this, the Impressionists and post-Impressionists have been my favorites.
Over time, I have come to enjoy the process of looking at visual art, internalizing it and enjoying the experience (or not, as the case maybe) – it is a unique form of sharing something with another, someone who you have not seen or met – the artist! . And from that perspective, the Art Fair and the NGMA exhibitions were all different. The Art Fair, is an annual extravaganza where galleries from all over the globe exhibit a large number of artists, with the aim to sell the art. It is vibrant, contemporary, and gives you a kind of bird’s eye view of the current trends in the field. It tends to get crowded, and there is too much of it, so it all gets a bit overwhelming!! I did the rounds with Udai and my friend Bashabi, (Mukta has blogged about this trip) – the trends towards mixed media, incorporation of technology (which fascinated Udai) – so much is changing. But it is not an outing – a three hour dash through the many halls – in which you can really absorb very much except the general flavor!
The exhibitions at NGMA were something else – one contemporary, the other sober, traditional. Subodh Gupta has made quiet a name for himself with his large installations made of various items of daily use – and the current exhibition ‘Everything is Inside” is well curated and displayed. You see every kind of metal utensil, old cycles, motorbikes, toilets, doors, other kitchen accessories ……. the overall impact is dramatic and you can relate to it in a very personal way.
The other exhibition was the paintings of Amrita Sher-Gil – marking the end of the centenary celebrations. Again a well put together assemblage with representations from her Paris, Hungarian and Indian periods – an iconic figure in Indian art, who was meteoric in her rise and died when less than 30 years of age. She learnt art in Paris, was strongly influenced by the post-impressionists (very obvious in her work) and produced a fairly large body of work. These are more traditional, oil on canvas paintings and the earlier works are more realistic with many self portraits. Her evolution as an artist are evident in her later works done in India – wonderful representations of life of ordinary Indians.
Seeing both these artists one after another, I was struck by the diversity as well as the con-temporariness of
the works. And although very different in every way, both were fulfilling for the eye and the soul.