Watch Now: V S Gaitonde, Untitled, 1975

Saffronart CEO Dinesh Vazirani talks about V S Gaitonde, one of India’s greatest Modernists, and an enigmatic canvas he painted in 1975 that merges his interest in Zen Buddhism with the principles of calligraphy.

Read more ›

Imagine a very important religious subject. Now go back a thousand years, and think of a thousand ways of portraying three figures and a donkey. Ran out of options at #999? Not if you’re Jehangir Sabavala.

Rashmi on Jehangir Sabavala’s Flight into Egypt – I

Flight into Egypt

Lot 65: Jehangir Sabavala’s Flight into Egypt – I

On the Surface: There’s something at the bottom of the painting that looks like two human figures on an animal. Impressive interplay of light and shadow. Menacing. Reminds you of the closing scene of The Two Towers when Gollum leads Frodo and Sam to Mordor. Title says something about fleeing to Egypt, so maybe that’s what it is, though you probably don’t know who they are or why they’re fleeing to Egypt. But wait, the title of this blog post says something about it being a religious subject, so it must be…

What lies Beneath: …Joseph and Mary’s Flight into Egypt, mentioned in the Bible. They’re fleeing with baby Jesus from Bethlehem, after learning about King Herod’s plot to kill all infants in the region.  Ahhhh I see, you say. So those two—no, three figures are negotiating dangerous paths and curves in the hopes of surviving this evil king. How wonderful, it suddenly makes sense.

But no. It doesn’t end there.

Question: What, there’s more to it?

The Story Goes: So let’s go back in time some nine centuries or so *plays that groovy song by Huey Lewis and the News*.

From the Collection of the Glencairn Museum Source:

From the Collection of the Glencairn Museum

You’re in the year 1145, at the Abbey of Saint-Denis, France, and you see this lovely stain glass depiction of the Nativity. Here you witness baby Jesus in full glory, commanding a palm tree to bend so tired, hungry Mary can pluck a fruit off it. And of course, befitting of a church window, they’re both haloed.

Giotto di Bondone’s Flight into Egypt, executed as a fresco for the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy. Source:

Giotto di Bondone’s Flight into Egypt, executed as a fresco for the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy.

You’ve jumped ahead to 1304. You’re prowling around Giotto di Bondone and watching him complete this fresco in the Scrovengi Chapel. More haloes! You’re thinking you might tap him on the shoulder and try mentioning that you’d seen them before on a stain-glass painting you’d seen a second ago—no, 200 years ago—and that he should try out something different, but it’s probably wiser not to mention it. So you wait two years till the fresco is done. Bright colours, stern/sombre expressions, flat renderings and attractive colours. The donkey trots, no one seems to be in a hurry to flee. Perhaps they’re weary. There’s a hint of a narrative here—the figures look worried, they’re whispering to each other. But you’ve guessed the purpose of this work—its focus is on religion. The Church had an agenda, and it had the means, and its purpose was to spread Christianity. Moving ahead…

Venetian artist Vittore Carpaccio’s Flight into Egypt  Source:

Venetian artist Vittore Carpaccio’s Flight into Egypt

You find yourself in the year 1515. Oil paints are in. There’s definitely more depth to this painting than there was in Bondone’s, and the fabrics and figures bear closer semblance to reality. The halo isn’t bright anymore, but appears as a faint rim around Mary, Jesus and Joseph. The painting appears brighter, more positive, owing to the rich colours. The focus is still on the figures. They trudge on against a twilight sky. Coming back to the present—which you will do later—you learn that the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., suggests that “it was made for a religious confraternity”. Maybe it was just a fad in Italy, you reason. Okay, let me take you to Germany, and rewind to ten years prior.

Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut ink-on-paper of Flight into Egypt, part of the V&A collection, London Source:

Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut ink-on-paper of Flight into Egypt, part of the V&A collection, London

Dürer’s 1505 depiction is full of detail—crammed with it, and there is a nebulous presence of fear and urgency in the work. Mary holds Jesus on her lap, slightly slouched on the donkey. Joseph appears to be carefully turning around to check on them. Stealth and clandestineness matter here. But yes, the focus is on the figures.

Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn’s Flight into Egypt Source:,_1627)

Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn’s Flight into Egypt

You’re now in 1627, the age of Baroque/Dutch splendour. You’re viewing Rembrandt’s version, with the light dramatically falling on the three figures assuming centre stage. It looks like a scene out of a play—a huge, huge turn from the preceding works. You feel like you’re in the midst of the drama, but with the focus again on the figures, you feel like they’re never shaking off the past completely.

German Romantic Carl Spitzweg’s “Die Flucht nach Ägypten” Source: Wikipedia

German Romantic Carl Spitzweg’s “Die Flucht nach Ägypten”
Source: Wikipedia

Move ahead 252 years. Soaking in the Romanticism of 1879, you see Spitzweg’s Flight into Egypt. So now it’s larger landscape + smaller figures, you observe. You’re quick at noticing how the landscape dominates the work. Joseph, Mary, Jesus and the donkey are diminished in size in comparison to the steep ravines behind and around them. Spitzweg has either captured or chosen to portray a calmer part of the flight through his shading and tinting.

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Flight into Egypt, from the Met Museum Collection Source:

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Flight into Egypt, from the Met Museum Collection

Closer to a recognisable timeline, you’re in 1923, and you stumble upon famed African-American artist Henry Tanner’s version. You quite like Tanner’s version, it’s refreshingly different in its treatment. You especially like that the figures and the path before them are illuminated by a lantern in the painting, rather than a divine source.

But before you reach any conclusion, take one final look…

Flight into Egypt

Flight into Egypt

…at Sabavala’s Flight into Egypt-I.  And you’re back in 2014.

Sabavala avoids the glory of religious icons, the vibrancy of colour, the assurance of a recognisable face. His figures aren’t wasting time. They’re on the move, working their way carefully around towering ranges, riding to a distant land. You understand how dangerous this mission is. You feel it in his clever use of angular forms, his use of greys and browns to convey the mood. All that initial enamour you shared for colour, light, beauty have you second-guessing. Sure, they’re present here, but their function is so different. Here, the trio are in mortal danger. Their concerns are very much human, and you can feel a bond with them.


A drive down the French countryside would yield this…if you were in the 1950s…and if you were S.H. Raza

Rashmi Rajgopal picks Raza’s Terre Jaune from the upcoming September Modern Evening Sale.

Lot 20: Terre Jaune

Lot 20: S. H. Raza’s Terre Jaune

On the Surface: Can identify houses, choc-a-bloc. They’re sandwiched between yellow—possibly some kind of field—and a deep blue sky. Nice use of primary colours there. Colour appears in swatches. It appears to be almost emotive.

What Lies Beneath: A countryside? The French countryside. Specifically, central and southern France, perhaps Carcassonne or Provence, which he mentions while referring to the countryside. What’s the yellow bit? Could be either poppy or sunflower fields. The choc-a-bloc homes? Typical of French villages.

Question: How can you be so sure it’s not just any countryside?

The Story Goes:  Many, many decades ago—1949, to be precise, Raza set sail for more artistic pastures. Paris called, with its thriving art scene and multiple art movements fast gaining in momentum. It wasn’t just that. On a trip to Kashmir a year prior, Raza had bumped into Henri Cartier-Bresson. Bresson’s advice to him was something like, “Well, you’ve got talent, but you need to pay more attention to how to ‘construct’ a painting. Why don’t you take a gander at Matisse, Cezanne and co.?” Those words stayed with him, and that’s precisely what he did while at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts. But what did Bresson mean by ‘construct’ a painting? Put very simply, he had asked Raza to look more closely at why artists did what they did, and how they went about it. Think of it as building something: you lay a solid foundation, then you erect the outer skeleton, then you fill in the gaps to create the final structure and voila!

Of course, education is incomplete if you don’t throw in some travelling for good measure. Raza did just that—travelled around, imbibed as much as he could from what he observed. But it was the French countryside that he took a strong liking to. So it kept cropping up in his paintings, and Terre Jaune is one of those beautifully made scapes.

Sunflowers in Provence Courtesy:

Sunflowers in Provence

Then, after a period of “I’m going to construct gorgeous landscapes”, Raza segued into a more “I’m going to spontaneously and emotively create gorgeous landscapes”. Why? Partly because that was the trend doing the rounds at the time, and partly because he kind of ‘evolved’ to this phase. A trip to University of California, Berkeley, pushed him towards it after he encountered Rothko, Hoffman and others.

Or you could also look at it as mastering a particular technique, and then, after years of working on it, deciding that it’s easy; it’s perhaps got some limitations, and it’s time to move on to another way of looking at things.