What’s with the Fascination with Paper?

Kanika Pruthi delves into the world of paper works in anticipation of Saffronart’s upcoming auction of Works on Paper

New York: March is a bustling time for us at Saffronart as we gear towards two auctions this month. Our upcoming Works on Paper sale will feature a collection of artworks on paper by modern and contemporary Indian artists. The focus on paper works enables connoisseurs and collectors to view a group of works in multiple contexts, which may otherwise elude their attention or take a back seat given the simplicity of the medium.

The use of paper in the arts of India has a long documented history.  Paper came to India from China via the famed Silk Route. Indian miniature tradition is the only available surviving evidence of the widespread use of this material in the arts from the sub-continent. The humble medium went on to become an integral part of the genesis and development of the modern and contemporary Indian art movement. Raja Ravi Varma, considered by many as the first Indian modern painter, developed an artistic style which has come to be associated with beginning of the modernist art movement. His grand canvases adorned with mythological themes and royal portraits played a vital role in shaping early modern Indian visuality. The assimilation of his iconic images in the popular culture of India was possible through the dissemination of his works to a wider audience. This was made possible through the intervention of printing press which reproduced his works as oleographs for mass circulation. The medium of paper made it possible for ordinary people to partake in the modern art movement in an unprecedented manner.

The early 20th century gave rise to the Bengal School of Art, the first revivalist nationalist art movement of India. The artistic enquiry and fervor at the turn of the century gave momentum to other art movements and independent artist initiatives over the proceeding decades, which have come to form the canon of modern Indian art. Art works on paper from different movements and artists abound and provide rich documentation of the trajectory of Indian art. Works in this sale cover the oeuvre of some of the seminal artists and artistic movement of the 20th century in India.

Gaganendranath Tagore, Untitled, 1907, Watercolor on paper

Gaganendranath Tagore, Untitled, 1907, Watercolor on paper

The continued use of paper as a medium of choice can be attributed to its ready availability, ease of usage and adaptability to different techniques and other mediums. As the group of paper works in the upcoming auction demonstrates, paper has lent its surface to ink, tempera, gouache, watercolor, pencil, acrylic, oil, pastel etc. In many cases it is indispensible to the technique employed by the artist, like in the case of lithographs, photography and select mixed media works.

M.F. Husain, Untitled, Pen and pencil on paper

M.F. Husain, Untitled, Pen and pencil on paper

Other than their usage, paper works have often time lent themselves to narrate untold stories and unknown episodes. From the 1950s onwards, many modernist painters travelled to Europe to enhance and expand their practice. Paper works produced during their travels give us a glimpse of their experiences and its impact on their art practice. At other times paper works inform us about the development of certain iconography and themes associated with artists- for example the many erotic drawings, nudes and portraits of F.N. Souza or the fissured bodies of Jogen Chowdhury- both of which are featured in the sale. In many cases the image on paper presents a fragment of a bigger work or a series undertaken by the artist- giving the viewer a chance to closely look at the elements of a work at closer proximity and in isolation from the larger narrative. Lot 85, a work by M.F. Husain brings together a collection of small jottings which bring to mind many of the iconic images that have graced his canvases.

Baiju Parthan, Caput Motum-7, 2008, Acrylic and transfers on arches paper

Baiju Parthan, Caput Motum-7, 2008, Acrylic and transfers on arches paper

Contemporary artists in recent years have used paper to produce large scale works as well. It is worth noting how the medium is adapted to their particular technique and artistic discourse.One of the larger works in the upcoming auction is Baiju Parthan’s Caput Motum -7a work teeming with visual tropes, drawing the viewer deeper, eyes wandering in an attempt to decipher the artist’s intention.

Our recent evening sale saw S.H. Raza’s “Haut De Cagnes” setting a record price for a work on paper by an Indian artist. Traditionally seen as a lesser form in the hierarchy of artworks, paper as a genre is claiming its rightful place. Our upcoming sale of Works on Paper further reinforces the significance of this medium and its marked position as an independent collecting category. 

Bauhaus in Calcutta: The Opening of an Exhibition that Revisits 1922

Gaganendranath Tagore, "Poet Rabindranath on the Island of Birds," 1920s; Image credit: www.timerime.com

Gaganendranath Tagore, “Poet Rabindranath on the Island of Birds,” 1920s; Image credit: http://www.timerime.com

Guest blogger Tracy Buck shares details on a forthcoming show of Bahaus artists

Dessau: On March 27, 2013 the Bauhaus Dessau will open “Bauhaus in Kalkutta,” a show of works by Bauhaus artists including Kandinsky, Klee, and Feininger as well as Indian artists such as Gaganendranath Tagore.  Described as a “special laboratory of the transcultural avant-garde” on the Bauhaus’ website, the show looks back for the first time at the artistic exchange and political climates of the original 1922 exhibit on which it is based.

Wassily Kandinsky, "Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle)," 1913Image credit: www.ngma.gov

Wassily Kandinsky, “Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle),” 1913
Image credit: http://www.nga.gov

Art Historian Partha Mitter – one of the present show’s curators – has referred to the December 1922 exhibition as an entry point for modernism in India in his seminal work The Triumph of Modernism: Indian Artists and the Avant-Garde, 1922-1947 (2007).  Indian artists (or, at least Bengali intelligentsia) began to move away at this point from naturalism towards non-representational art.  As Mitter describes, however, neither the artists’ reception nor the path towards experimentation was necessarily smooth and even.  Earlier press had depicted cubism in particular as bizarre, distorted, too extreme; others, particularly artists and intelligentsia, welcomed the influx of new inspiration, talent, and the opportunity for international exchange.  Important, then, is the present show’s interest in reconstructing and revisiting the political conditions and international environment of that original 1922 exhibition.

Rabindranath Tagore, "Dancing Woman," ca. 1910Image credit: http://ngmaindia.gov.in

Rabindranath Tagore, “Dancing Woman,” ca. 1910
Image credit: http://ngmaindia.gov.in

Many of the Indian artists featured in the exhibition were affiliated with Rabindranath Tagore’s experimental educational site, Santiniketan, and with the Bengal School that was centralized there.  The Bengal School, in these formative years of early Indian Nationalism, developed a style that was considered uniquely Indian – a new art for the development of a new nation – that looked inwards and eastwards rather than westwards for its inspiration.  Its members – Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Gaganendranath Tagore, among others – were internationalist in perspective and lifestyle and were focused largely on Indian subject matter.  Perhaps because of the Bengal School’s interest in avoiding the adoption of Western stylistic and formal artistic conventions for political reasons, the 1922 Calcutta exhibition – with its largely cubist focus – did not receive much attention lasting interest until several decades later, in the 1940s.  According to Mitter, Kandinsky was lauded, the organizers were congratulated for bringing important artists’ works to India for the first time, and critics were reminded that the interests of the Bengal School and the European artists were not dissimilar.  Most of the works, however, remained unsold.

From the perspective of today, however, this fact and the resulting avoidance of the works’ far dispersal has facilitated an important look back at that landmark and historic show.  The Bauhaus Dessau’s “Bauhaus Kalcutta” – opening in March – is set to offer insight into the internationalist gaze and the virtual and actual communities that print media and artistic exchange formed and helped shape.

The exhibition is curated by a group of curators including Kathrin Rhomberg, Regina Bittner, Partha Mitter and Ranjit Hoskote, and will be on view till June 30 2013. Read more.

Images appearing in this article do not necessarily reflect the images included in the Bauhaus Dessau exhibition, but rather are representative works of the artists featured.

Guest Contributor Tracy Buck is currently pursing a PhD in Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles.  She holds MA degrees in South Asian Cultures and Languages and in Museum Studies, and has worked as Collections Manager and Curator in several history and art museums in Seattle and Los Angeles.

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