Copyright Michele Leight All Photographs copyright Michele Leight 2011
By Michele Leight
Surrounded by South Asian Modern and Contemporary art and sculpture, Hugo Weihe, Christie's International Director for Asian Art commented on the incredible variety and range of Asian art and artifacts on offer at Christie's Asian Art Week this season: "This is the largest sale we have ever put together for Asian Art Week, and it is also one of the best." Mr. Weihe said that the pre-sale estimate for the series of sales was in the region of $65 million, "but of course we hope to do better" he added with a smile.
The South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art sale realized $9,832,600. and was sold 83 percent by lot and 74 percent by value. The top lot of the sale was Tyeb Mehta's "Bulls," an acrylic on canvas, realizing $2,826,500, a world auction record for the artist.
Hugo Weihe, International Director of Asian Art and International Specialist Head, South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art Department, New York, said: “We were honored to have offered Tyeb Mehta’s final masterpiece and gratified to see it set a well-deserved world auction record for the artist. In addition, the auction saw solid results for Progressive Artists’ Group artists such as Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, Syed Haider Raza, Francis Newton Souza and contemporary Indian artists also performed strongly. Deepanjana Klein, Head of Sale, Specialist, South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art Department, added: “This sale reflected the continued strength and breadth of this collecting field and witnessed lively bidding by international buyers on the telephone and on Christie’s LIVE™. This is a great start of the new season.”
Dr. Weihe spoke about Mehta's iconic "Bulls," (Lot 550, estimate upon request) that dominated one end of the gallery: "Tyeb died in 2009. He painted very few canvases because he was so exacting. He was known to destroy canvases he was not happy with. Here, Tyeb is at the end of his life. He began as a filmmaker, and this painting is like two clips of a film."
This painting comes from the Tyeb Mehta Family Collection. Christie's catalogue for this sale is filled with insights about the artist, and includes a quote by Tyeb Mehta: "For me the trussed bull is a compulsive image....It served as a metahpor for the violent struggles onc experiences in life...the bull is a powerful animal and when its legs are tied and it's thrown down, it is an assault on life itself (Tyeb Mehta, in Y. Dalmia, 'Tyeb Mehta: Beyond Narrative Painting', Art Heritage 9, New Delhi, p.76, 84)
The elegantly spare and beautiful Matisse-like "Bulls" by Tyeb Mehta joins the pantheon of bulls painted and sculpted by famous artists throughout history - including Picasso - that began on the walls of ancient caves at the dawn of civilization.
There are several works by Syed Hyder Raza (b. 1922) in this sale, including Lot 544, "Untitled," (estimate $800,000 to $1,000,000). Raza is one of India's leading modern masters, who has recently returned to India to live and work, aged 89, after spending many years working in France. Lot 544, "Untitled," belongs to a key period in the artist's career when he began to integrate vital elements of his Indian heritage into his paintings. In June 2010, Raza's "Saurashtra" from the same period sold at Christie's New York for $3,486,965, setting a world auction record for any modern Indian work and a world auction record for the artist. Lot 544 passed. Every sale has its inexplicable hits and misses, and this is one of them. Hopefully it will return to the market soon. It is a gorgeous work of art.
Lot 554, "Untitled," (1980) is one of the earliest transitional paintings of S. H. Raza's "Bindu" series, an iconic work, that captures the artist's deep affinity for nature. It is not surprising that it was selected to appear on a commemorative stamp in 1982 for the "Festival of India. Raza sheds light on his use of color in Christie's catalogue for this sale:
"I have interpreted the universe in terms of five primary colors: black, white, red, blue and yellow. A total chromatic expression can be achieved by mixing primary colors with other secondary colors, such as greens, browns, and ochres. From there you can move to a great austerity of colours till you come to a supreme purity of form (The artist quoted in G. Sen, Bindu: Space and Time in Raza's Vision, 1997, pp. 127-128). Lot 554 has an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000. It sold for $350,500.
Going back in time to 1949, this wonderful early work by Raza is a gouache on oil on board that has an interesting inscription that includes "S.H. Raza/'Street'/Rs. 150/-'." Lot 518, "Street," has an estimate of $30,000 to $50,000. It sold for $74,500.
A beautiful early work by Maqbool Fida Husain (b. 1915), Lot 555, "Untitled (Musicians)," has an estimate of $160,000 to $180,000. It sold for $266,500. Bhupen Khakar's delicately rendered watercolor on paper Lot 529, "Untitled" has an estimate of $20,000 to $30,000. It sold for $35,000.
A prolific artist, with a consistently high batting average at auction, three paintings by Maqbool Fida Husain were in the top ten selling lots of this sale: Lot 555, "Untitled (Musicians), sold for $266,500; Lot 520, "The Lost Princesses,"sold for $242,500; and Lot 521, "Untitled (Horses)," sold for $218,500. Surprisingly, Lot 583, "Amplessi (Embrace)," an unusual work by the artist, and formerly in the Collection of Roberto and Sonali Rossellini, passed. It had an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000.
Illustrated above (right) is another fine painting by Husain, lot 520, "The Lost Princesses," from the Collection of Charlotte Rae, with an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000. It sold for $242,500. Lot 539, the atmospheric "Untitled (Village)," by Syed Haider Raza, was painted in 1957, inspired by the French landscape, with its trees, churches and villages. Lot 539 has an estimate of $250,000 to $400,000. It sold for $362,500. Lot 627, "Landscape in Black" by Francis Newton Souza (top) is reminiscent of sombre cutting edge works created today, and probably one he got a charge out of creating. Souza painted it in 1965, the dawn of the "hippie" era, when young people were beginning to wear flowers in their hair and flowery print dresses and shirts. A thickly impastoed oil on board, Lot 627 has an estimate of $25,000 to $35,000. It passed.
A masterpiece by Francis Newton Souza, Lot 611, "Untitled (Paysage-1954)," was shown at Gallery Raymond Creuse, Paris, a gallery that included the leading artists of the Ecole de Paris. Christie's catalogue for this sale notes that "S. H. Raza and Akbar Padamsee had already arrived at the thriving, vibrant capital when this painting featured amongst the select works exhibited at Souza's solo show at Galerie Creuze in 1954. Souza noted in his diary: "After observing with wonder the infinite skies as far as possible with naked eyes from a small hill on a clear and star-filled night, you ask me to fix what I saw as well as what I know of the unknown Infinite [...] (F.N. Souza, Notes form my Diary in F.N. Souza: Words and Lines, London, 1959, p. 19)
Lot 579, "Untitled (Gaja Laxmi)," by Manjit Bawa (1941-2008), with an estimate of $270,000 to $350,000, is a luminous depiction of the goddess of wealth "giving primacy to line by evoking elements of Kalighat painting while simultaneously exploring the saturated and gem-toned hues of minature painting" (Christie's catalogue for this sale). It sold for $476,500.
Lot 524, "Untitled," a mystical work by V. S. Gaitonde, is a personal favorite, and was illustrated on the cover of the exhibition catalogue "India: Contemporary Art,", at the World Trade Center Club, Amsterdam, in 1989. Christie's catalogue for this sale notes: "The breakdown of representation seen in Gaitonde's use of symbols, calligraphic elements and hieroglyphs, as depicted here, serves as a bridge into his later fully abstracted paintings, while his concurrent study of Zen Buddhism further influence his thoughts towards process-oriented art." Lot 524, "Untitled," has an estimate of $300,000 to $500,000. It sold for $722,500, the second highest price achieved in this sale.
For those that think they chose the wrong major in college that lead to the wrong career, or those that never went to college at all, take a good look at Lot 532, "Untitled (Landscape with Cannon)," the gem illustrated above. Christie's catalogue for this sale notes: "Trained as a chartered accountant Bhupen Khakhar was largely self-taught as a painter, whos artistic career did not begin in earnest until he was well into his thirties. 'He [...] arrived at a hybrid idiom, in which [Henri] Rousseau, [David] Hockney, Sienese pedellas, the oleographs of the Bazaar, the temple maps of Nathdwara and awkward observations of 'Company' painters, are all fused together. And with this idiom a new world opened, which no painter has dealt with before, the vast expanses of half-Westernised modern, urban India [...] (T. Hyman, A Critical Difference, Aberystwyth Arts Center & The Showroom, London, 1993, p. 3) . Lot 532 has an estimate of $180,000 to $250,000. It sold for $218,500.
Lot 528, "Untitled," by Rameshwar Brootha (b. 1943) is a masterpiece and worth several hours of close scrutiny. It is a technical tour de force that is as much about virtuoso, execution, as it is about the artist's "Man" series "that combines aspects of these themes whereby his primordial figures engage in an almost Darwinian struggle for survival. The athletic and virile figure depicted here is both monumental and mythical - a sentiment further reinforced by the stair-like formations in the background" (Christie's catalogue for this sale). Lot 528 has an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000. It sold for $242, 500.
Lot 574, "Polite, Divine and Helpless" is a superb work by Jitish Kallat, who explains his early work in Christie's catalog for this sale: "[...] Even if my early works were heavily autobiographical, the overcrowded and media saturated street festooned with billboards, provided me with my themes as well as my artistic language. In retrospect, I see that my formative years as an art student paralleled the liberization of India post-1991, when the opening up of the skies to international media and the explosion of television from two channels to over 90 within the space of a year greatly impacted my work" (Jitish Kallat, in dialogue with Huang Du, 'Reality Filters in Jitish Kallat, 365 Lives,' Arario Galery, Beijing, 2007, p. 24). Lot 574 has an estimate of $30,000 to $50,000. It sold for $37,500.
Jamini Roy was born in 1887 and died in 1972. He lived and worked in India, mostly in his studio in Calcutta. He was a native Bengali, and had little desire to move far from his cherished roots, manifested in his highly stylized, individualistic, and profoundly "Indian" imagery. Jamini Roy's paintings evoke the myriad tiny villages flanked by palms that dot India, the bright green paddy fields of Bengal, and the quiet rural way of life that still - amazingly - persists on this ancient sub-continent, where bullocks pull ploughs in smaller fields, while sparkling new tractors lessen the load on wealthier farmers with acres of land and crops.
The subjects of the two paintings illustrated above by Jamini Roy are as persistent in India as the nation's agrarian landscape: the mother and child, and deities. Winsome, adorable, beloved Ganesha, arguably the most popular deity in India, is portrayed in Lot 568, " Untitled (Dancing Ganesha)," has an estimate of $15,000 to $20,000. It sold for $32,500. Traditional yet incredibly modern, and illustrated above, Lot 635 "Untitled (Mother and Child)" has an estimate of $8,000 to $10,000. This Mother and Child would pair well with Western or Eastern modernist or contemporary sculpture. Lot 635 sold for $20,000, doubling its high estimate.
A striking group of Jamini Roys - one being straightened by a Christie's staffer - offers a moving counterpoint to the "Uncle Phone," (Lot 572) by Pors and Rao, (estimate below), evoking nostalgia for the past and excitement for the new. In the "still reasonable" price range, Jamini Roy was one of the quiet stars of this sale where 21 paintings by him were offered, and most exceeded their high estimates, some significantly. Jamini Roy's sparely rendered "women" do especially well, as do the deities. Not illustrated, Lot 501, "Untitled (Mother and Child)," with an estimate of $15,000 to $20,000 sold for $32,500. Lot 503, "Untitled (Three Women)," with an estimate of $$15,000 to $20,000, sold for $35,000.
Soren Pors was born in 1974 and Aparna Rao was born in 1978, and "The Uncle Phone" (created in 2004) screams "new India!" Fashioned from cutting edge materials and electrical components, this work of art alludes to modern conveniences, gadgets and contemporary paraphernalia that is still not available to millions of Indians because they live in rural areas that do not yet have running water and landlines, yet has helped forge India's new star status as a global superpower. It is a witty "take" on this dichotomy. Lot 572, "The Uncle Phone," has an estimate of $10,000 to $15,000. It sold for $12,500.
Hurtling forward in the 21st century to a future filled with promise, India is also one of the worlds oldest civilizations. Perhaps the paintings of Jamini Roy have such strong appeal because they speak to both Indias, evoking nostalgia for a way of life that still exists in some rural areas but is disappearing fast, and totally obsolete in futuristic cities where apartments in glittering high-rise towers with cutting edge facilities command prices that rival New York or London.