Masterpieces of Mall Function

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When technology makes great impressionists accessible

WHEN YOU LOOK at the timeline of world events that’s installed near the entrance of the multimedia show, Drifting Canvas, you suddenly realise that, contrary to its originality and immediacy, Claude Monet painted Impression, Sunrise (the painting that gave the impressionist movement its name) 143 years ago.

Across the globe, in India, we couldn’t have lived in more different times. We were still seeing the repercussions of the 1857 War of Independence. Raja Ravi Varma—our first modern painter would paint in the classical style for another 32 years. And Amrita Sher-Gil, one of our main proponents of impressionism, wouldn’t even be born for another 40 years.

It’s hard to believe that impressionism and its offshoots like pointillism, modernism, geometric abstract art and art nouveau are almost 150 years old. So, in a way, it’s fitting that Drifting Canvas now offers a 21st century look at these works.

I call it a 21st-century look because the exhibition uses the latest technology to show reproductions of the works of 11 of the most well-known impressionist and modernist artists from the last century—Amedeo Modigliani, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Gustav Klimt, Henri Rousseau, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Kazimir Malevich, Paul Gauguin, Paul Signac, Vasily Kandinsky and Vincent van Gogh—all of whom were at the forefront of creating new art movements in their time.

Their individual works warrant pilgrimages across Europe, which isn’t always possible. Indeed, the originals are scattered across the world, often in private collections. Drifting Canvas provides an entry point into their works without the formality of going into a museum. It also provides the opportunity to see their art under one roof, which would otherwise be impossible. Any exhibition of their works has been long denied to India and these reproductions arrive after showing in more than 12 countries, including Russia, Germany, Brazil and Poland.

So even though it’s an exhibition of reproductions and it’s located in a mall, there are parts of it which are easy to love. It’s huge—in ambition and scope. Artplay Media, the Moscow-based team of professionals behind this, has brought together over 1,000 animated paintings which are displayed in an AC hangar across 7,000 sq ft of panoramic screens, with state-of-the-art laser projectors.

There are also two 3-D TV screens outside the multimedia hall. It took curator Yasha Yavorskaya six weeks to workshop the digital prints so that each layer of Kandinsky and Malevich’s geometrical abstract art floats separately before the viewer’s eyes—much as the artists would have originally created them.

On the other side of the hall is an interactive zone where trick photography allows you to step into Gauguin and Matisse masterpieces. And before you exit, you can also take a ‘selfie’ with Van Gogh or hold hands with one of Degas’ ballerinas via the 3-D paintings of well- known Indian artist, AP Shreethar. The guards, who voluntarily come forward to demonstrate the best angle to ensure maximum realism, add to the interactive vibe of this part of the exhibition. It’s fun to finally experience animation tricks that I’d only seen in YouTube videos so far.

But the main highlight of the show are the four-minute films based on the artworks of each artist and the chart that chronicles the key moments in their lives, as well as the list of world events that shaped this period of art—from World Wars to the invention of the gramophone, movie theaters, typewriters, planes, phones and X-rays.

The charts are informative but not engaging. They show the evolution of painting from 1860 to 1960. But they make no attempt to show the influences these artists had on each other’s works. Gauguin and Van Gogh, for example, were housemates. It’s said that Gauguin actually sliced off Van Gogh’s ear with a fencing sword and it was their fight that made Van Gogh take his life. Monet, Degas and Manet were all part of that first Paris Exhibition in 1874. Similarly, Degas provided encouragement to Toulouse-Lautrec while they were both in Paris and although they didn’t become close friends, the subject matter and cropped compositions of several of Lautrec’s lithographs reveal his debt to the older artist. Klimt and Modigliani were contemporary artists who tilted towards portraits and nudes done in an elongated style. Both were accused of obscenity. And Kandinsky was an early admirer of Henri Julien Félix Rousseau. The charts do not bring out these connections and cross-connections, that make the struggle and bonding of these pioneers so poignant.

The films in the huge multimedia hall are a light and sound extravaganza. It’s like walking into Dreams (Akira Kurosawa’s homage to Van Gogh). Paintings are projected on huge panoramic screens all around a dark arena. One by one, they come to life and images from the paintings, animations and gifs move rhythmically to classical music. Canvases gain layer on layer of colour, close-ups appear and capture the viewer in a whirlpool of color and sound. There’s no text to separate the films except the artist’s name at the start of each. Each screen in the hall shows a different image. People sit, stand and laze in the arena, immersing themselves in the shifting kaleidoscope of images. The lushness of the display is incredible to watch even for a few minutes—not only for the art, but also the sound and display quality. But it quickly becomes overwhelming. And the fact that these images have been curated out of paintings makes me uncomfortable. I like to immerse myself in an entire painting. A single element from the painting may show the talent of the artist but not his vision. This is art from the Instagram era.

I walk out—disoriented, but determined to come back and see all the films. I fail the second time. I can make it through only nine films. And I only stay for the last two because I adore Klimt and Modigliani. But, Yavorskaya the curator, had been told to tailor a ‘conservative’ show for India, and the images tend to focus on faces rather than on the gorgeous elongated bodies that both artists are famous for.

There’s also the cost to factor in. I understand entirely why it costs Rs 800 per person. Just the 3-D glasses distributed in the anteroom highlight the quality of the entire exhibition. And the show in Delhi is spread over 12,000 sq ft of a mall—a place where money is king. But my middle-class heart clenches at the thought and I smuggle out my VIP pass.

Is this a show children should see? If I think about it, the ticket costs about the same as a T-shirt. And even if they have to go home and Google the art works, it helps them learn about the international masters. And it brings forward the unexpected. For example, I saw an image of a Van Gogh artwork that I’d never seen before. When I Googled it, it turned out to be a missing masterpiece called The Angel (After Rembrandt), which is either with a private collector or has been destroyed. But I can never see it in a museum. For such gems alone, this show is worth visiting.

(Drifting Canvas runs at Select Citywalk, Saket, Delhi, till June 13th 2017. It then travels to Mumbai , Kolkata and Bengaluru)