Released April 09, 2013
The Wall Street Journal | 9 April 2013
"An Emerging Democracy's Far-Ranging Art"
By Tom L. Freudenheim
The beautiful and carefully edited exhibition of modern art from India now at the Peabody Essex Museum reminds us that the global interaction we associate with that nation's economy has precedents in art. A focus on Indian artists' engagement with other art makes this show especially important. Selected from 1,200 works in the museum's Chester and Davida Herwitz Collection, the 70 paintings and works on paper by 23 artists track the fertile artistic period from India's 1947 independence from British rule into the 1990s. Having recently returned from touring the subcontinent, I was especially struck by how few of these artists express the overwhelming sense of crowding, chaos and poverty that often ends up being a visitor's most lasting impression of India. Nor is there evidence of the anticolonialism or breast-beating nationalism one might expect from the newly independent people.
Rather, organizing curator Susan S. Bean quotes artist Tyeb Mehta (1925-2009) as having remarked in the 1960s, "To pick up a brush, to make a stroke on the canvas-I consider these acts of courage in this country." Ms. Bean also attributes the remarkable freedom with which these artists approached their work, in part, to the lack of an established, and thus potentially restrictive, canon. The exhibition's arrangement in terms of three generations of artists is a bit confusing, since generational lines are inevitably fuzzy and chronological differences in aesthetic principles aren't especially evident. But that's not a major flaw in a display of so much impressive and accomplished art.
At the outset of "Midnight to the Boom: Painting in India After Independence," we see work by M.F. Husain (1915-2011), hounded into exile for his controversial nude paintings (not in this show) and recently also an art-auction star. He is represented here by powerful canvases that reflect his admiration for the German Expressionists, especially Emil Nolde and Max Beckmann. Emblematic of the reach for non-Indian models that characterizes parts of this exhibition, we see the first of several illuminating juxtapositions. A 1943 scroll painting of a horse by the noted Chinese painter Xu Beihong (1895-1953), which Husain saw in Beijing in 1951, is shown next to Husain's own energetic painting, "Lightning Horses" (c. 1979). Many of these artists, who were often able to travel, are clearly also influenced by the impact of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso on so much of 20th-century art, of which Mehta's elegant "Sequence" (1981) is a prime example. But the relationships range far and wide, so it's difficult to believe, for example, that "Unemployed Graduates" (1956) by Ram Kumar (b. 1924) isn't informed by Ben Shahn's various Sacco and Vanzetti paintings of the early 1930s.
A curatorial coup here involves several thoughtful groupings of works that expand on the notion of sharing visions with predecessors. "Udho, Heart Is Not Ten or Twenty" (1964) by S.H. Raza (b. 1922) reflects compositional qualities of both the 17th-century Rajput narrative miniature and the Cézanne landscape shown with it. Mr. Raza had followed the advice of photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, whom he met in 1947, to study the work of the French master. Gulammohammed Sheikh (b. 1937) is represented by a powerful canvas, "In and Out of Story" (1984-85), that's shown alongside images of Ambrogio Lorenzetti's majestic 14th-century Sienese frescoes and a 16th-century Mughal illustration. Other revealing juxtapositions here display works by Arpita Singh (b. 1937) and Marc Chagall, as well as Bikash Bhattacharjee (1940-2006) and Andrew Wyeth.
Including these carefully selected loans to augment the PEM's Indian paintings explains something about the aesthetic breadth of the artists in the Herwitz Collection. Remembering the centuries of colonialism, we might speculate on why British artists don't appear to have been influential here, and it's a generally apolitical array of images, other than two works by Atul Dodiya (b. 1959). There are also hints of contact with all sorts of other art, from the Mexican muralists of the 1920s and '30s to the Chicago imagists of the '60s and '70s.
Chester and Davey Herwitz, whom I knew in the 1980s, loved India, its color, its culture and especially its art and artists, many of whom became their friends. After their first visit in 1962, they returned almost annually, collecting for themselves and absorbing ideas for their fashion-accessory business. Considering the Peabody Essex Museum's origins in the 1799 founding of the East India Marine Society by Salem sea captains, the 2001 gift of the collection to this museum seems especially appropriate. In a 1983 letter to his son, quoted in the catalog, Chester Herwitz wrote: "What I think is common to most of the paintings has something to do with contradiction, conflict, duality, opposites, polarization, etc."
The rich variety of works here attests to the collectors' passion and the breadth of their vision, which understood the newly emerging democracy as a place bursting with color and magic, whose creative tensions could be reflected in art. Much of the work shown at the recent Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012 in Kochi, India, revealed radical shifts that have made younger Indian artists much more politically assertive in their work, focusing on violence and environmental issues. Those kinds of changes, along with the burgeoning market for Indian art, make this important exhibition-of works assembled for the sheer love of it, yet also amazingly prescient-an especially valuable means of gaining a much-needed perspective on the entire field of modern Indian art.
Mr. Freudenheim, a former art-museum director, served as the assistant secretary for museums at the Smithsonian. A version of this article appeared April 9, 2013, on page D5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: An Emerging Democracy's Far-Ranging Art.