Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-1965

Guest contributor Ananya Mukhopadhyay reviews the exhibition, on view at Haus der Kunst, Munich, until 26 March 2017

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Image courtesy Grosvenor Gallery

Haus der Kunst’s ongoing exhibition Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945 – 1965 takes as its premise the ruptured discourses of nationalism and humanism which were sharply brought to light during and following the Second World War. The exhibition traces the global artistic response to the cataclysmic events of the Holocaust, the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the enduring political schisms of the Cold War. In addition to rehabilitating waning and Nazified ‘degenerate’ European modernisms, Postwar surveys the contributions of artists from pan-Asian, African and American backgrounds. In doing so, curators Katy Siegel, Okwui Enwezor and Ulrich Wilmes follow in the footsteps of Rasheed Araeen, whose seminal exhibition The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain was held at the Hayward Gallery in 1989. In another sense however, Haus Der Kunst goes further than to simply subvert the hegemony of Western Modernism. ‘Postwar’ becomes a condition that is not topographically constrained: it is a global consciousness of a violent modernity which counts partition conflicts, decolonisation and the rise of new technologies among its various geopolitical faces. Indian and Pakistani artists are featured prominently in this recent survey of alternative voices.

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Image courtesy Grosvenor Gallery

Baroda artist Jeram Patel is on view alongside Araeen, Anwar Jalal Shemza and Mohan Samant in a section of the exhibition dealing with materialism, entitled ‘Form Matters’. Patel is perhaps most well-known for his experimental brutalisations of the picture surface with a blowtorch, and also for his black abstractions on paper which are seen as in-betweeneries, or illustrations for the interstitial spaces of experience. Postwar, however, exhibits a dark, highly textured oil-on-board composition. A luminous window floats atop the murky abstraction which dominates the picture plane. The curious referentiality of this window element suggests a beyond, a concealed au-delà which emphasises the very instrument of its obscurity: the material blackness of the foreground. The physically ruined postwar landscape had prompted a concern with this kind of material manipulation, with the surface transformed from mediating membrane into the primary site of expression. Highly prized by Alfred Barr, Mohan Samant’s tactile Green Square (1963) is also presented as an embodiment of this trope.

Another area of the exhibition focuses on ‘New Images of Man’, highlighting the major crisis of humanism which characterised the postwar period. Existential questions are combined with a concern for nation building in the works on view here, including Man (1951) by M.F. Husain and Head of a Man Thinking (1965) by F.N. Souza. Husain’s monumental canvas is largely articulated in the colours of the Indian flag, featuring folk dancers, nude female bodies and the sacred cow. The central character of Man is a pensive black figure, drawing the eye by virtue of its chromatic negativity, and raising the question of identity in a newly independent India. Souza’s Head is a similarly charged work of dappled blackness, a stigmatised colour in the context of ubiquitous racial conflicts and migratory movements across not only Indian but global borders.

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Image courtesy Grosvenor Gallery

In the context of modernity as cosmopolitanism, Postwar posits the work of Krishen Khanna, Avinash Chandra and Pakistani artist Sadequain. Chandra’s typical blurring of the line between abstraction and figuration permits the entwinement of various different figures, distinguished by their varied colours and rotund, interlocking forms. While Chandra’s Early figures (1961) is decidedly erotic in its staging of heterogeneous characters, Krishen Khanna’s News of Gandhiji’s Death (1948) uses depicted newspapers to divide up and isolate the various figures on the canvas, thematising separateness within a community, despite their unifying interest in a tragic event.

Krishen Khanna, News of Gandhiji's Death (1948) Image courtesy Grosvenor Gallery

Krishen Khanna, News of Gandhiji’s Death (1948). Image courtesy Grosvenor Gallery

Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-1965 is on view at Haus der Kunst, Munich, until 26 March 2017.

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