It was here, in Aix-en-Provence, an old Roman quarter in South France, that painter Paul Cézanne sketched with the skills of a classical-era draughtsman the contours of what we know and appreciate as modern art. At a special Cézanne exhibition at Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, an American professor I had briefly befriended at the ticket counter told me in hushed tones, “Why do people call Cézanne the first cubist or the first modernist? He’s primarily a painter of nature, a subject that’s as old as the hills. Just that he saw nature with a singularly exclusive vision. Let’s just call him a master—without any sobriquet.”
Truly, what immediately draws a spectator to a Cézanne painting is its simple subject matter of still-lifes, portraits of people known to him and landscapes (especially the Mont Sainte-Victoire mountain range) of his childhood, painted in serene, warm colours with spiritual abandon. Cézanne’s influence on younger artists and contemporaries was exquisitely profound; so much so that the only time adversaries Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse agreed was to unanimously hail Cézanne as the father of modern art. Matisse, in fact, owned a Cézanne painting that sustained him “morally in the critical moments of [his] venture as an artist”, and he drew from it his “faith and perseverance”.
The story of Indian modern art, too, begins with Cézanne. SH Raza, then a young painter of boundless energy, met the legendary French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who upon seeing his works enthused, “Raza, I like your work. You have a sense of colour and composition, but it lacks construction. A painting is like a house. It’s built on a foundation without which it falls.” After a pause, he counselled him, “Study Cézanne.”
That genial advice changed Raza’s life, who years later summed up the idea of modern art almost convincingly when he said, “Modern art refers to modern life.” Turn by turn, all major artists who would establish themselves as champion modernists left India in search of what they called a new way of painting, a kind of ‘modernism’ which broke from the existing style of art. What was this modernity?
Most books on modern art are academic in nature, abstruse in their concepts and esoteric in vocabulary. If you look at a Picasso or Raza’s bindus, and if you don’t understand the concept behind them, it is because modern art has been intellectualised beyond identification. Most artists react with amusement when their work is analysed. The great Howard Hawks didn’t understand the French New Wave’s interpretation of his films, and when asked about it, he said bemusedly, “I never looked at my films that way.”
Modernism in India is synonymous with the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group. For all their exemplary achievements today and their iconic status in the pantheon of modern art, the Progressives were clueless about the course they would take when they all assembled under the tutelage of FN Souza in 1947. “To be honest,” says Laurent Brégeat, over a glass of red wine, “They didn’t know what modernity was. They were just seeking it. That’s why most of them came to Paris to experiment. They revolted against the School of Bengal and the British academic approach to art. But more than that, they were in conflict with who they wanted to be.”
Brégeat is a film director and documentary filmmaker. I first meet him and his wife Raïssa at their home near Montparnasse to understand what modern art really is. Raïssa is Mumbai-based painter Akbar Padamsee’s daughter. She grew up watching Padamsee paint. When she was born, “Raza was at the hospital with my father.” And it was MF Husain who suggested Padamsee name her Raïssa—after one of his own daughters. We are sitting by the window of the room that once served as Padamsee’s atelier when he was in Paris.
Raïssa lights up a smoke, “To me, Baudelaire’s definition of modernity, ‘The transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable,’ is as accurate as ever.” She leans from across the table to gesture that she believes in art, not in categories. “Academics are synonymous with old-fashioned tradition, opposed to any kind of aesthetic novelty. Modern art is the most misunderstood term and that’s why the role of an art writer is essential in deciphering works of art and aesthetics and helping the spectator grasp art in all its complexity. But does that happen? That’s a larger question to me.”
Brégeat adds, “It’s a stupid definition because a work of art can be modern forever. If we follow the strict definition of the academics, we would believe that modern art is recent but made by an artist who isn’t alive anymore. By the same line of argument, contemporary art is contemporary art only if it is made by a living artist.” Historically, the Progressives were the first modernists (collectively, they held an opinion that Amrita Sher-Gil was the real precursor to Indian modernism). An ephemeral movement, its influence on post-Independence Indian art remains, nevertheless, incomparable. Souza’s contribution, in that sense, stands out. Husain, till his last days, considered the irreverent Goan that group’s true ‘leader’. The group itself was formed rather impetuously, haphazardly even; Satish Gujral has dubbed the movement a ‘lie’. One evening, Souza, the Leftist crusader and painter of Rouault-style Christian symbols, despondent church towns and disturbing female nudity, turned up with a manifesto of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, and convinced Husain, SH Raza, KH Ara, HA Gade and Sadanand Bakre to join. Tyeb Mehta, Ram Kumar and Padamsee supported the group from outside, while Krishen Khanna and VS Gaitonde joined later.
Now that the group was in place, they didn’t know how to approach their work. It was decided that they would meet over food at a dastarkhan on Mohammed Ali Road, but they were still unsure of what modernity meant in the formal sense. “Modernity was a word that didn’t exist—or if it did, we didn’t really know of it. All of us were painters of different temperament, united only by the belief that art is supreme,” says Khanna. What certainly did give wings to these young painters was the fact that the formation of the group coincided with Independence; it made their freedom more symbolic. At a time when celebrityhood and big money didn’t precede an artist’s reputation, the Progressives received, quite unexpectedly, hortatory favours from three Jewish émigrés—Emanuel Schlesinger, Rudolf von Leyden and Walter Langhammer, who had escaped Europe at the height of the Nazi movement. Their support held the young artists in good stead. These Jewish gentlemen introduced them to the works of modern European masters. “Husain learnt of the German expressionists through books in their possession, and this exposure marked a turning point in his craft,” says Padamsee of Husain’s early influences like Emil Nolde and Oskar Kokoschka. No other single artist benefited from their largesse more than Husain. Langhammer, among others, was fond of Husain’s works and inaugurated his first solo show—after a wait of 18 years—at the Bombay Art Society salon. Husain has acknowledged Schlesinger as his earliest collector. Husain often said that they were trying to ‘evolve their own language’. In Brégeat’s documentary titled The Barefoot Pilgrim, Husain explains the Progressives’ ideology: “All the major art colleges in India were headed by British professors who taught human figures from the Greek sculptures. I was not condemning that but I thought it wasn’t relevant to our culture because we have gone beyond that realism thousands of years ago. We (the Progressives) had sowed the seeds of revolution.”
Ashok Vajpeyi, former chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi, feels the Progressives were in search of a new reality in painting which would complement the society of their time. “Their movement was a break from the past, from the conventional imagery that had perhaps become too... too repetitive. Reality had changed radically... and they were interpreting it in their own, unique way,” he says.
The Progressives were inspired by the European concept in terms of only technique, and this is best embodied in Raza’s craft—he learnt how to paint in France, but what to paint in India. This can be said of all the artists from the group who left India. Like Raza, Padamsee achieved breakthroughs in form, tonality and colour in Paris, inspired as he was by the works of not only Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso, but also Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. Long after he came back to India, critics and gallery owners were surprised at the sheer effect Padamsee could achieve with colour. “They thought I use French colours,” laughs Padamsee. On his several trips to Paris, Husain would tenaciously sketch the human form at Musée Rodin. Paris offered a creative environment for their work to evolve. All along, though, the content and material for their work came solely from India, the India they knew, the India of their youth. Which is to say that this modernism was an Indian modernism, and not Western, offering a window to our civilisation and culture. In that, we find familiarity with their work in a way that we won’t from Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse or any of the European masters. Around the time Cézanne was experimenting with multiple perspective, space, colour, form and volume, the Impressionists were being celebrated as the first modern faction. Another way of looking at modernism is to view it in the context of Édouard Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia which were said to be seminal modern works. Before that, Francisco Goya and Diego Velázquez had been credited for inventing a new style of painting, leading them in the direction that modern art eventually took, and if you go back centuries, El Greco was breaking new ground, expressing himself in violent colours, at a time when his contemporaries were in thrall of Mannerism and other movements prevalent at the time.
Modern art just as surely changed the way we perceive art, as did paintings by El Greco, Goya and Velázquez. Picasso’s modernism, in particular, was a bridge between the past and the present. He learned and then unlearned, joining forms and breaking them, inventing an entirely new idiom. He made a suite of 58 paintings based on Velázquez’s Las Meninas. I saw them all on display at Museu Picasso, Barcelona, Spain, and what struck me was the simplicity with which he broke down the monumental original painting. Picasso’s idea was, ‘If I were the copier I would say to myself, ‘If I just put this a little more to the right or left? I would try to do it my way, forgetting Velázquez.’
“Art is that which belongs to its time,” says Elena Velasco, a Spanish painter who was copying the masters at Museo del Prado, Madrid, when I met her. She echoes what her fellow Spaniard Picasso once said, “There is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present, it must not be considered at all.” She drops her brush and wipes her hand with paint-
sploshed cloth, “How can one say with surety if a piece of art is modern or ancient? If what Velázquez painted centuries ago is still relevant, isn’t it modern? If the cave paintings attract you, it works for you as any kind of art. If art has to remain with the times now, it must come out of the museums and become integrated in our everyday life.”
In Brégeat’s words, the purpose of modern art is served only when it is internalised, inhaled by the conscious viewer. “A stormy sky can change my perception of the day. If I see one day a very small detail in a Renaissance painting which I never saw before, it changes my whole perception of the canvas. It makes it modern, different than before, new. In that sense, modernity is motion, but inner motion. Modernity is created as much by the viewer as the artist.”
Vajpeyi points out that at one level, the term ‘modernism’ is futile. “A great work of art exceeds its own time and age... These categories are made only for the sake of convenience. Beyond that, they have no value. Only art survives and has value.” Agrees Velasco: “If a piece of art moves into your soul, it means it has achieved its purpose. It is you who gives meaning to art.”