New York – Syed Haider Raza’s ‘Tapovan’, painted in 1972, realized $4,452,500 at the Christie’s auction in New York City this week, setting a new world auction record for the artist. It also established the highest price paid for a work by a modern Indian artist, surpassing the previous category record set by Vasudeo S. Gaitonde for his ‘Untitled’, sold for $4.38 million at Christie’s auction in Mumbai, in December 2015.
The Christie’s sale of South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art totaled $10,289,250, the highest sale total achieved for the category this season, with 83% sold by lot. There was active participation from registered bidders across 21 countries.
Nishad Avari, Specialist and Head of Sales, Christie’s, said in a statement: “This auction was a landmark sale setting a new category record for Raza’s seminal Tapovan and the highest sale total for the category this season. It has been extremely exciting to witness the momentum build during the touring exhibitions in Mumbai, New Delhi and London culminating with the strong auction results witnessed in the saleroom. The prices realized reinforce the market’s global reach and appetite for masterpiece level work.”
Other notable results at the auction this week in New York included Tyeb Mehta’s ‘Two Figures’, painted in 1994, which realized $1,812,500; Francis Newton Souza’s ‘The Politicians’, painted in 1959, which realized $444,500; and Ranjani Shettar’s ‘Remenence from Last Night’s Dream’, executed in 2011, which realized $100,000, setting a world auction record for the artist who is currently showing an installation at the Metropolitan Museum.
In Raza’s magnum opuses like Zamin (1971), Tapovan (1972) and La Terre (1973) – paeans to the sensuousness of nature and to the living landscape of his childhood home – the primary pigments were balanced against black as their ultimate source.
Tapovan is a seminal work that belongs to a key period in Raza’s career when his artistic path brought him full circle and he began to integrate vital elements of his Indian childhood and cultural heritage into his paintings.
“I have never really left the deep rooted, wonderful world of forest and rambling river, hill and sparkling stream. The time spent as nature’s child. You see, we lived in the country’s core, in Barbaria, Madhya Pradesh, where my father was a forest ranger, in the Mandla afterwards. The lush Kanha thickets were my regular haunts. Highly impressionable at that tender age, I soaked in every single feature of that beautiful landscape,” Raza is quoted as saying, in Y. Dalmia’s ‘The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives’.
Tapovan, meaning forest of meditation, is a triumph of Raza’s mastery of landscape, his expressionistic use of color and his spiritual and symbolic engagement with nature. The painting invokes a powerful sense of the nature and the night by fusing abstract, symbolic forms into a powerful and mystic expression of the mood and atmosphere of the Indian nightscape. Rooted in Raza’s childhood memories of life growing up in small and densely forested villages, the painting is an evocative expression of the rich and strong sensory life inherent in the deep, pervasive darkness of the Indian night. A time of myth and magic, the night became profoundly spiritual for Raza.
Mehta’s ‘Two Figures’ illustrates the artist’s perfect balancing of the interplay between figure, gesture, color, space and structure. This serves as a wonderful transition between his diagonal works and his later variations on the theme of the Mother Goddess. Depicting a fragmented body, ‘Two Figures’ gradually reveals different layers of inspiration and obsession, charting the trajectory of the artist’s iconography and imagery.
Orchestrated into a tension, the virtuosity of the graphic treatment is vibrant in ‘Two Figures’. The accomplished style and serenity of line evident in this painting testify to Mehta’s lifelong artistic journey. The artist addresses gesture and sensation in a few precisely chiseled strokes, sufficient to animate this anonymous face with a primal scream that powerfully resonates with his viewers. Describing the ‘echo’ Mehta’s paintings create, Ranjit Hoskote notes that “each of Tyeb’s paintings acts as a silent movie, in which we see mouths screaming, faces distended in terror, flailing limbs, thrashing wings; but the artist leaves it to us to imagine the horror of sound.”
Thus, the strength of Mehta’s representation of these two figures is not only visual but also emotional, creating an icon the painter offers to his audience, on the same scale as works like The Assumption of the Virgin painted by Nicolas Poussin several centuries earlier, where Virgin Mary is torn between sorrow and hope at the end of her earthly life and her assumption into heaven.
Souza’s ‘The Politicians’ depicts two darkly draped figures with subtle decoration, one on the left and another on the right. They appear interchangeable, simultaneously specific and anonymous.
This powerful painting also retains Souza’s characteristic playfulness. The pink faces of the figures recall the expression ‘strike me pink’, alluding to astonishment or indignation, a phrase which Souza also used in ‘Words & Lines’. The iconic crosshatching used in the faces adds a deeper layer to his sardonic caricature of the faceless, so-called presumptive politicians at play. In today’s complex political climate, this painting and Souza’s witty observations resonate as much as they did in 1959.
Shettar’s ‘Remenence from Last Night’s Dream’ is made from rosewood and lacquered wood.
Based in Karnataka, Shettar combines industrial, manmade and organic materials to blur distinctions between traditional craft and the Duchampian concept of the found object. She uses everyday materials like wood, beeswax and mud to create high art.
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This month marks a major milestone for Shettar, as her work ‘Seven ponds and a few raindrops’ is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Her work has already been the subject of several museum exhibitions including solo shows at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), Boston (2008); the Modern Art Museum, Fort Worth (2008-9); the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2009); and the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (2011). Her works have also been featured in exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2010); the Kiran Nadar Museum, New Delhi (2011, 2012, 2013); the Moscow Biennale (2013); the Lyon Biennial (2007); the Sharjah Biennial (2007); the Wexner Center, Ohio (2005) and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2003). In 2012, in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the artist created Varsha, a limited edition artist book featuring original text by Anita Desai, now also on display at the Metropolitan Museum.