Saffronart’s Winter Online Auction on 9 – 10 December 2019 features three significant paintings that chart the trajectory of S H Raza’s career. We take a look at some of the places that influenced this seminal artist.
1. Bombay: A Room with a View
“I loved Bombay and I painted its street scenes, Ferozeshah Mehta Road or the Parsi temple from the Express Block Studios where I was working from 10 to 6… I painted the city because there was no time to go out to nature. The expression was limited to cityscapes.” – S H RAZA
In his early years, Raza painted mainly landscapes and cityscapes. A recent graduate of the Nagpur School of Art, Raza moved to Bombay in 1943. At 25, a budding artist with immense potential, Raza was to join the Sir J J School of Art, but arrived too late for the admissions. He decided to stay on and pursue his art while working as a designer at the Express Block Studio in the central business district of Flora Fountain. From his window, Raza would take in scenes of the busy metropolis, recreating them in his lyrical watercolours. Bombay from Malabar Hill, an unusually large watercolour painted in 1948, and three other watercolours won Raza the Gold Medal at the Bombay Art Society’s Diamond Jubilee exhibition in December 1948.
Raza’s watercolours of Bombay attracted the attention of fellow artists F N Souza and M F Husain, with whom he co-founded the Progressive Artists’ Group, as well as critics such as Rudolf von Leyden, Walter Langhammer and Emmanuel Schlesinger – whose presence, patronage and influence was crucial in the burgeoning art world of then Bombay.
2. Kashmir: Meeting Henri Cartier-Bresson
“With advice from (Walter) Langhammer and remarks by Bresson, I set to thinking quite a lot and ultimately, in 1949-50, I was already constructing pictures with a lot of geometry in them.” – S H RAZA
In 1948, Raza travelled to Kashmir, a place which impressed him greatly, and inspired him to paint with a renewed passion and intensity. That year marked a turning point in Raza’s life. Here, he met the influential French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who urged him to seek structure in his work. “If I hadn’t met Bresson, I would have continued painting white crosses to symbolise resurrection and black crosses for crucifixion,” Raza had said in an interview with India Today in March 2006. Cartier-Bresson advised Raza to study the works of French artist Paul Cézanne to understand construction in painting.
Kashmir also inspired a number of landscape paintings, for which Raza won another Gold Medal from the Bombay Art Society. These paintings were showcased in New Delhi from 1 – 6 September 1948 at an exhibition organised by Rudolf von Leyden, titled Raza: 100 Paintings of Kashmir.
3. France: Constructing Landscapes
“The French landscape is extraordinary: the villages seem situated so beautifully in the context of nature.” – S H RAZA
Raza sailed for France in 1950, and thus began a journey and adventure that was to influence his practice for decades. In 1951, he began studying at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris on a French government scholarship. This was a period of exploration for Raza, who travelled across France, as well as to Italy and Spain. During this period, the French landscape was a recurring theme in his work as he followed, literally, in the footsteps of the French artist Paul Cézanne.
This exposure combined with his formal education led Raza to understand and appreciate Renaissance and European art, and the use of light, colour and structure. His unique expression led to his art being featured in solo and group exhibitions around the country, and he gained the attention of many important critics and gallerists, including Jacques Lassaigne, the Director of the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris. In 1956, he became the first non-French artist to win the renowned Prix de la Critique award, gaining widespread recognition.
Having spent a decade in France, Raza’s artistic methods had evolved by the early 1960s – as seen in Paysage, 1960, which will be up for sale in Saffronart’s Winter Online Auction. Raza’s precisely structured landscapes evolved into unrestrained, gestural ones with colour and texture as the primary focus. While they continued to be inspired by his travels through rural France, they were, at the same time, beginning to recall his Indian roots and associations. Both the change in medium – Raza had started to paint with oils instead of gouache and tempera – as well as the evolving style of his painting “signified a fundamental change of attitude. The scholar, who had measured and calculated, burst through the confines of a limited understanding of colour and space-created-by-colour into a sphere of full realisation.” (Rudolf von Leyden, Raza, Bombay: Sadanga Publications, 1959, p. 19)
4. Madhya Pradesh: Memories from Long Ago
“Away from India, I am constantly concerned with all that is happening at home. I am keen to reach the sources that have nourished me as a child, the ideals and concepts that have grown in my mind during the years, with greater awareness and meaning.” – S H RAZA
By 1970, Raza’s gestural style had become more fluid as compared to works created in the previous decade, underscored by a deeper, more contrasting palette. Influenced by the Abstract Expressionism of American artists – whose work he came across while teaching in Berkeley in 1962, as well as in Paris – Raza sought more to communicate emotions rather than images through his canvases.
The role of memory and his early experiences in India now began to increasingly manifest in his work, which was poised between his past and present. The colours seen in La Terre 3, 1970, which will be up for sale in Saffronart’s Winter Online Auction, evoke the darkness of night and the dense forests of Raza’s hometown in Madhya Pradesh, juxtaposed with brighter tones signifying colour and life. The artist perhaps sought to highlight the co-existence of these two aspects. This abstract preoccupation with his Indian origins opened the gates to a whole new world of inspiration for Raza, and structure, geometry and cosmological symbolism – including the concept of the bindu – would become critical elements of his later work.
5. Rajasthan: A World of Colour
“The form analysis and the evolution of pictorial thought from Cezanne to de Stael is a logical growth. Following the direction, one enters the domain where colour is energy with innumerable situations and possibilities.” – S H RAZA
In the 1970s and 80s, Raza made frequent trips to India, travelling to his hometown in Madhya Pradesh as well as other parts of the country, including Rajasthan. These visits to places new and old ushered in a phase that drew from the emotional content of his journeys. The 1976 paintings of two Rajasthani cities, titled Jaipur and Jodhpur, represent an important place in the artist’s oeuvre, representing a shift in style, medium – he switched to the more versatile acrylic – and subject. He began to concentrate on a few selective colours, assembled and reassembled to simulate the passion and warmth of India’s tropical climate. At the same time, he turned to the spiritual and metaphysical aspects of nature, and began incorporating these principles into his work. Raza’s compositions became more structured, with geometry, framing and panels separating forms within the canvas.
It was also at this time that his famous motif of the bindu emerged, as a result of Raza’s concern with “pure plastic order” combined with his preoccupation with nature. “Both have converged into a single point and became inseparable; the point, the bindu, symbolises the seed, bearing the potential of all life, in a sense. It is also visible form containing all the essential requisites of line, tone, colour, texture and space. The black space is charged with latent forces aspiring for fulfilment.” (Artist quoted in Geeti Sen, Bindu: Space and Time in Raza’s Vision, New Delhi: Media Transasia Ltd., 1997, p. 134) This leitmotif would remain a constant in his oeuvre, recurring in later works such as Bindu – Nad, 2005, which will be up for sale in Saffronart’s Winter Online Auction.
Saffronart’s Winter Online Auction will be held on 9 – 10 December 2019. The auction is preceded by viewings at the Saffronart gallery in Mumbai and New York through 10 December.