Collectors must educate themselves about what they are collecting. My regret is the lack of formal training in art history. However, being an academic helped. I devoured books on art and befriended leading experts of Indian art to accelerate my learning. Still, I remained eclectic by not relying on any one of the experts. Instead, the objective was to build a knowledge base that would be associated with a unique expertise. This research aspect enamoured me as much as the visual appeal of the art.
In contrast to western art (or pre-1900 Indian art), the academic research on modern Indian art is relatively shallow. As far as I know, there are no examples of academics devoting an entire lifetime to researching a single Indian modern artist. The Indian art galleries and auction houses deal with too many artists to have more than superficial knowledge into anyone beyond the top selling half a dozen artists. As a result, through focus and continuous learning, an individual can become an expert on a particular modern Indian artist.
My love affair with Indian paintings began with Jamini Roy. This led me to focus on the emergence on Indian modern art that occurred between 1900-1950. I was fascinated by how my hometown Calcutta was the cradle of this struggle to achieve cultural independence from British and Western hegemony. To keep learning and enhancing my visual vocabulary, I became a frequent visitor of museums, fairs and galleries, regardless of the type of paintings on display. The goal was to understand art in order to make connections between what you see and what you know. This helps assess art on its own merit, against the history of those who have come before. What is unique and what is derivative?
The curator of the forthcoming exhibition, Caterina Corni, once told me to go and view Picasso’s Guernica at the Prado in Madrid. After absorbing the initial thunderbolt of Picasso’s imagination, I saw the familiar M.F. Husain horse floating around the top left of the painting. OMG! Yes, Caterina gently informed me this is Picasso in 1937!
To be an informed collector, one must engage with art history as encapsulated by the collector, Alian Servais: “one of the trends in my collection is the constant conversation with art history, because when you look with connoisseurship you can find people who are completely forgotten, disregarded, or underestimated…you recognize the people who played a significant part in that history…and these people don’t carry the prices they should.”
It was relatively late, around 2003, that I learnt the concept of provenance. Since then, everything acquired has meticulous documentation. I wish I had known earlier that without this, any painting, especially from the period in focus, lacks validity. Furthermore, given the harshness of Indian conditions, the mediocre quality of materials often employed, and poor preservation, the paintings of these artists have deteriorated more than necessary. They require tender love and care against the decades of grime, insect activity and fungus accumulation. One must not hesitate to spend relatively significant proportion of the acquisition costs on restoration, preservation, and framing. The payoff in terms of transformation of the impact of the paintings is remarkable as the figures demonstrate.
Hemen Mazumdar: The Last Romantic
De Suantio Gallery, Singapore Management University,
School of Economics & Social Sciences, 90 Stamford Road, Singapore 178903
23 January 2019 to 17 February 2019 (closed 5 & 6 February)
Tuesdays to Sundays: 12:00 – 8:00 pm
The first international exhibition of Hemendranath Mazumdar (1894-1948), popularly referred to as Hemen Mazumdar, will be curated by Caterina Corni from Milan, Italy. It will showcase thirty-five works drawn from various private collections. A book on Hemen Mazumdar with essays from Partha Mitter, Sona Datta, Venka Purushotham, and Zehra Jumabhoy will also be published.
Hemendranath Mazumdar was one of the major 20th century artists of India. While Orientalism (championed by Abanindranath Tagore) and the “Indian style” of art (pioneered by Jamini Roy) claimed central focus in the first decades of the 20th century, Hemen unremittingly opposed this. Instead, he chose to negotiate in his own unique manner the supposed contradictions between Western and Eastern art.
Bengali women fascinated him and this obsession eventually culminated onto the canvas in a large variety of images that ultimately became his trademark. The sole presence of the solitary woman in his art is descriptive of the innate isolation of a woman. Each painting captures of a small fraction of time in her life when she had those moments exclusively to herself. His works venture into uncharted territory: the heart of a woman.