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South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art

Sotheby's New York

10 AM., March 20, 2019

Sale 16683

Singh 480

Lot 480, "Ashvamedha," by Arpita Singh, oil on canvas, triptych, 60 by 108 1/2 inches, 2008

By Carter B. Horsley

This March 20, 2019 auction at Christie's New York of South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art is highlighted by several works by
Maqbool Fida Husain and a large triptych by Arpita Singh.

Lot 480, "Ashvamedha," is an impressive and very colorful oil on canvas by Arpita Singh (b. 1937) that is a triptych that measures overall 60 by 108 1/2 inches.  It was painted in 2008.

The catalogue entry provides the following commentary:

"Arpita Singh was born in Baranagar in West Bengal before the partition of India in 1947. She studied at the School of Art, Delhi Polytechnic, and after graduating, worked as a designer at the Weavers Service Centre in Calcutta and New Delhi. Over the years, Singh developed a highly distinctive visual language typified by a rich layering of color, strong brushwork and the employment of suggestive metaphors and motifs. 

"Her experience as a weaver influenced the evolution of her artistic vocabulary as well as her creative process. In particular, many of her paintings utilize the principles and methods of Kantha, a Bengali embroidery and textile-based storytelling form practiced primarily by women weavers in rural areas. In the Kantha style, her paintings consume the entire canvas, depicting scenes from daily life, and her brush strokes resemble Kantha stitches on fabric. Western artists like Marc Chagall and Henri Rousseau have also been an influence. For instance, Singh’s depiction of ungrounded figures in an abstract space are reminiscent of Chagall’s floating figures.

"Singh's figurative compositions often address challenging social and political subjects. They are a direct reflection of her life experiences as well as her thoughts and ideas on political issues like female identity, displacement and violence....The present lot, a large triptych titled Ashvamedha, was an integral part of Singh's solo show ‘Cobweb’ at Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi in 2010. Here, the artist appropriates the ancient myth of Ashvamedha or ‘horse sacrifice’, a Vedic ritual in ancient India in which a stallion was selected and allowed to roam freely for a year under the protection of royal guards. If the horse entered a foreign country, its ruler had to either fight for the horse or surrender. If the horse was not captured during the year, it was brought back to the kingdom and then sacrificed in a public ceremony. By referring to this myth, the artist alludes, perhaps, to both childhood memories of communal violence and the particular violence perpetrated on women.

"Painted in tones of blue, pink and green, this work from 2008 appears like a Cartesian map of an unknown (and unknowable) geography. On the map are overt even playful motifs that reference death, migration and violence: men in military uniforms holding guns, naked, skeletal female figures, men riding horses as if on a battlefield and other aggressors on motorcycles. Singh also dots this painting with recurring letters and words in bold red that literally refer to the themes of death and migration. This repetition of images and words is a fundamental part of her artistic method and can be traced back to her entirely abstract phase in the 1970s. During this period, she created drawings using ink, charcoal, watercolor and pastel where she laboriously repeated basic marks like dots and lines on paper. When she moved back to painting, she often used repeated strokes to create backgrounds and repeated motifs in different positions. In Ashvamedha, repetition is a device used to indicate the urgency of her key themes and the looming menace of violence. The painting has a vibrant aesthetic but the profundity behind the narrative and its darker allusions is revealed on closer inspection."

The lot is from the collection of the Glenbarra Art Museum in Japan.

It has an estimate of $250,000 to $300,000.  It sold for $287,500 including the buyer's premium as do all results mentioned in this article.

The sale total was $5,842,625.

Husain 416

Lot 416, "Untitled (Horses)," by Maqbool Fida Husain, oil on canvas, 50 by 81 inches, 1960s

The cover illustration of the catalogue is Lot 416, an untitled oil on canvas of horses by Maqbool Fida Husain (1913-2011).  It measures 50 by 81 inches and was exhibited in 1969 at the Bombay Gallery Chemould, Jahangir Art Gallery.  It has an estimate of $700,000 to $900,000.  It sold for $1,035,000.

Husain 457

Lot 457, "Equus," by Maqbool Fida Husain, oil on canvas, 42 1/2 by 78 1/4 inches, 1979

Lot 457, "Equus," by Maqbool Fida Husain, oil on canvas, 42 1/2 by 78 1/4 inches, 1979

In this large work, painted in 1979, the bodies of four bucking and rearing horses are dramatically intertwined against a backdrop transforming from fiery orange to deep crimson in the light of the setting sun. While the animals seem eager to chase the sun as it dips below the horizon, they wait for sanction from the larger-than-life male figure who stands in front of them, reminiscent of Husain’s grandfather, Dada Abdul, who appears in several of the artist’s autobiographical paintings. Bearded and prophet-like, he effortlessly controls the raw power of these dynamic beasts, able to halt, channel and release it at will.

In addition to its animated composition, the scale of this painting endows it with a theatricality that may be traced to Husain’s long association with cinema and his first job as a painter of cinema billboards in Bombay. Aided by the artist’s vivid and starkly contrasting palette, this monumental painting succeeds in creating a sense of awe and reverence in the viewer.

It has an estimate of $180,000 to $250,000.  It sold for $447,000.

Husain 456

Lot 456, "Untitled (Durga)" by Maqbool Fida Husain, oil on canvas, 34 1/4 inches square

Lot 456 is a colorful and very vibrant oil on canvas by Husain entitled "Untitled (Durga)".  It is 34 1/4 inches square. 

The catalogue entry provides the following commentary:

"Icons from Hindu religious texts and mythology were a recurring theme in Maqbool Fida Husain’s paintings. The artist started painting Indian gods and goddesses, reconfiguring them with his unique visual vocabulary as early as the 1950s, and has been both praised and criticized for these portrayals. This painting of a female warrior in red, riding a tiger and brandishing a spear, is likely inspired by traditional depictions of the Goddess Durga. In Hinduism, Durga, also known as Shakti or Devi, is the protector of all that is good and harmonious in the world. She is usually portrayed in painting and sculpture riding a lion, with her multiple arms holding different weapons. It is also believed that Durga was created by the Hindu triumvirate or trimurti consisting of the three gods, Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma to slay the buffalo demon Mahisasura. 

"The present lot underlines Husain’s virtuosic ability to synthesize classical Indian aesthetics and aspects of European Modernism, a hallmark of his inimitable and acclaimed style. His use of a bright color palette comprising hues of red, orange and yellow along with heavy impasto conveys movement and gives this powerful female figure emotive energy. Husain was strongly influenced by depictions of Indian mythology in classical painting and sculpture as well as by the styles of Mughal, Jain and Basholi miniature paintings. 

"This painting also highlights the artist's interest in depicting women as protagonists in his work. Throughout his extensive career, Husain portrayed female figures as heroines in the semi-abstract modernist style he is known for, inflected with Indian characteristics without being in the least parochial. Here, Husain's subject is both goddess and everywoman, combining the mythical and ordinary in the artist's characteristic style."

It has an estimate of $50,000 to $70,000.  It sold for $187,500.

Hah 475

Lot 475, "Monumental Fantasies - Impermanence I," by Seher Shah, digital print on Hahnemuhle paper with Rotring white ink, 54 by 120 inches, 2008

Lot 475 is a large digital print by Seher Shah (b. 1975) that is entitled "Monumental Fantasies - Impermanence."  It measures 54 by 120 inches and was created in 2008.

The catalogue provides the following commentary:

"Seher Shah was born in Karachi in 1975, and has lived in Belgium, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. The convergence of Islamic iconography with Western styles in Shah’s work reflects this transnational upbringing. At the same time, the multicultural symbols embedded in her work resist fixed definition, allowing room for a multiplicity of interpretations. Shah describes her work as a 'language in flux,' considering historical narratives to be in a constant state of transmutation. (J. Dhar, ‘Monuments of Mind: Seher Shah,’ Art Asia Pacific, July 2011, accessed January 2019)

"In the large scale works from Shah’s 2008 series Monumental Fantasies-Impermanence, 'the spectacle of authority is palpable and dominant, and offered in the guise of shadowy military formations, portrait busts of unknown figures and architectural monuments. Stark geometrical polygonal constellations abstract the monolithic force of authority beyond any particular cultural formation. Shah’s work suggests that no matter how entrenched power might appear, it is nevertheless immersed in a contrary process of evaporation. But equally, her work also serves as a reminder that the afterimage of colonialism as a phantasm of power persists long after its actual disappearance.' (I. Dadi and R. Elias, Lines of Control: partition as a productive space, London, 2012, p. 208)

"Here, the title refers to the illusive stability of history, emphasizing interactions between shifting spaces rather than the intrinsic meaning behind them. In this work, the looming monumentality of public memory converges with the intimacy of the individual. The subtlety and intricacy of the linear patterns directly confronts the overwhelming emptiness of the black voids and stands in distinct contrast to the scale of the work. The starkness of the white lines against the background, combined with the large format of the work, creates a sense of theatricality and spectacle unique to Shah’s practice. 

"Trained as an artist and an architect at the Rhode Island School of Design, Shah initially joined an architectural firm specializing in large-scale urban projects. Reflecting this background, her drawings appear to be born from the amalgamation of architectural techniques and artistic sensibility. The composition of Monumental Fantasies- Impermanence I takes the form of an urban skyline dotted with structures superimposed with silhouettes of people that look like sculptural portrait busts. National and cultural symbols such as flags, mosque-like domes and images of angels merge fluidly into the lattice patterns, hinting at the evocative sociopolitical imagery underlying her practice. 

"Shah’s work is soon to be featured in a major group show at Jameel Arts Centre, UAE (March 2019), and has previously been featured in several international exhibitions. Her work is included in several international institutional collections including those the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Brooklyn Museum in New York, and the Devi Art Foundation in Delhi."

The lot has an estimate of $25,000 to $35,000.  It sold for $30,000.

Dodiya  476

Lot 476, Campaigners During the Quit India Movement, Gowalia Tank - 1942," by Atul Dodiya, oil, acrylic with marble dust and oil stick on canvas, 72 1/4 by 96 inches, 2014

Lot 476 is a  very large oil, acrylic with marble dust and oil stick on canvas by Atul Dodiya (b. 1959).  It is entitled "Campaigners During the Quit India Movement, Gowalia Tank - 1942." It measures 72 1/4 by 96 inches and was painted in 2014.

The catalogue provides the following commentary:

"Atul Dodiya’s vast body of work defies categorization, seamlessly blending a range of mediums and styles. His large-format narrative paintings often engage with various historical and sociopolitical happenings in India. Campaigners during the Quit India Movement, Gowalia Tank - 1942 is one of a series of photorealistic paintings by Dodiya in which he recreates historical images from various events leading up to Indian independence. Gowalia Tank in Mumbai was originally a water tank where cows were bathed, deriving its name from the Marathi term for cattle owner. This site continues to exist today as a popular garden, but also represents a significant moment in the history of India’s independence movement, as the place where Mahatma Gandhi delivered his ‘Quit India’ speech on 8 August, 1942. Gandhi’s call for the nation to “Do or Die” mobilized the citizenry and ignited a nationwide civil disobedience movement.

"Part of a series of large-scale paintings created for a major exhibition at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum, this image, like the others, recalls “the magnificent aspirations of the nation’s founding fathers. These are ruptured by a strong painterly gesture in colour against the black and white, taken from abstractions from the works of artists of the time, such as Rabindranath Tagore, as well as the Museum’s archive of pre restoration damaged paintings. The gesture sometimes acquires a flourish that recalls the decorative lines of the building as the artist fuses fact and fantasy into a striking allegory of our times.” (‘7000 Museums: A Project For The Republic Of India’, Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum website, accessed January 2019) 

"In choosing an image that depicts women participating in the freedom movement, Dodiya turns his lens onto the masses as a key force in the resistance to British rule. The animated swirls of color the artist overlays on the image disrupt the stillness of the original photograph, recalling the dichotomy between nonviolent activism and the turbulence of the freedom struggle and adding an additional layer of coded historical references in Dodiya’s work."

The lot has an estimate of $25,000 to $35,000.  It sold for $56,250.

Raza 433

Lot 433, "La Mer," by Syed Haider Raza, acrylic on canvas, 48 1/4 inches square, 1974

Lot 433 is a strong abstraction by Syed Haider Raza entitled "La Mer."  An acrylic on canvas, it is 48 1/4 inches square and was painted in 1974.

The catalogue entry provides the following commentary:

"Syed Haider Raza was a founding member of the revolutionary Progressive Artists' Group, formed in Bombay in 1947, the year of India's Independence. Raza was one of the first of this group of modern painters to make the pilgrimage from India to Europe, settling in Paris in 1950, where he continued to live for most of his life. While Raza spent close to six decades of his artistic career living in France, India and specifically the Indian landscape persisted and resonated within him and his practice. Writing about his lasting connection to his homeland, the critic Geeta Kapur noted, '...in nostalgia perhaps of the land he left behind when he settled in Paris, S.H. Raza opted wholeheartedly for the rhapsodic, nature based abstraction. The nostalgia was fierce and the earth was a conflagration of colours.' (G. Kapur, Contemporary Indian Art, exhibition catalogue, London, 1982, unpaginated)

"By the 1960s, Raza’s oeuvre became a perennial dialogue between East and West, and it was his unique synthesis of these that allowed the artist to develop his innovative, emotive style of landscape painting. Another artist who moved to Paris the same time as Raza was the Chinese painter, Zao Wou-Ki. Like Raza, he would also negotiate a dialogue between the Eastern and the Western avant-garde. Zao Wou-Ki's traditional training in Chinese painting and calligraphy, and his colorful abstract landscapes uniquely and deftly bridged the East and the West, expressing dynamic movement and balance comparable with Raza's works of the same period. 

"Painted in 1974, La Mer is an important painting from a key period in Raza's career, when, after many years of working within the style of the École de Paris, his artistic path brought him full circle and he began to integrate vital elements of his Indian childhood and cultural heritage into his paintings. A substantial body of works from this period that bear the title La Terre, or 'the earth', and the present painting titled La Mer, or 'the sea' offers a critical counterpoint. Rather than looking to the nostalgia of the forests of Madhya Pradesh, Raza here looks at their analogue in the open waters, which seem simultaneously inviting and darkly choppy.

"La Mer exemplifies Raza’s expressionistic use of color and spiritual and symbolic engagement with nature, its principal elements, and the notion of creation. For the artist, nature had become a source of power that could not be portrayed in traditional landscapes. Instead, it was the emotion that each scene inspired in the artist that had to be captured through his vivid palette and gestural brush strokes. Here, the artist's use of primary colors and energetic brushwork helps create a captivating seascape that draws the viewer further into its depths with each encounter."

The lot has an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000.  It sold for $250,000.

Kumar 425

Lot 425, "The Shore," by Ram Kumar, oil on canvas, 32 5/8 inches square, 1961

Lot 425, "The Shore," is an oil on canvas by Ram Kumar (1924-2018) that is 32 5/8 inches square and was painted in 1961.

The catalogue entry provides the following commentary:

Ram Kumar’s first visit to Varanasi in 1960 left a lasting impression on his imagination and palette. In an attempt to explain the city’s power and beauty, he noted, “the Sacred Ganga in Varanasi is unique in the world. The city emerging at its bank has an overwhelming impact on people.” (Artist statement, Ram Kumar: A Journey Within, New Delhi, 1996, p. 89)

Marking his stylistic evolution from figuration to abstraction, the landscape of Varanasi influenced the artist’s oeuvre for over forty years. Painted only a year after his first visit to this holy city, The Shore expresses the deep melancholy of the city and sublimates its spectral beauty through its simple yet poignant composition. It radiates a unique sense of stillness, with subtle rays of cold, blue light emanating from pure shades of grey. The city seems suspended in the silence of dawn when its riverbanks are only animated by the movement of the dark river. Describing how his use of color replaced all human presence in these compositions from the early 1960s, Kumar explains, "I understood colour for its syntax of transparency; I combined its foundation with the divisionism applications of pure colour and moody atmospherics. The landscape has now for me become the dynamic form of a layered experience of perception as well as memory, in which the elements of the landscape appear to merge into surroundings, and the human experience is felt more by its absence as well as the little inclusions of colour that I want to bring to the canvas.” (Artist statement, U. Nair, Ram Kumar – The Isolatory Quest, exhibition catalogue, New Delhi, 2005, unpaginated)
The lot has an estimate of $60,000 to $80,000.  It sold for $106,250.

See The City Review article on the Barron Collection of Chinese Snuff Bottles at Christie's in Fall, 2015

See The City Review article on the Hildegard Schonfeld Collection of Fine Chinese Snuff Bottles at Christie's March 21, 2013

Preview and recap of South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art auction, A Pioneering Vision: Works from the Collection of Arani and Shumita Bose, and Indian and Southeast Asian Art at Christie's New York Asia Week Fall 2014 by Michele Leight (9/17/14, updated 9/20/14)

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