NEW YORK – Raja Ravi Varma’s painting ‘Untitled (Tilottama)’, which sold for $795,000, was the highlight of Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art auction in New York City, this week. There were 44 lots on sale, and the ones that went under the hammer drummed up a total of $2,791,500.
Varma’s oil on canvas, painted in 1896, bought by an anonymous bidder, did better than its pre-sale expectation of $400,000-$600,000, but didn’t break the record for his works, which have found strong favor of late in the international market. In March 2017, Sotheby’s saw Varma’s ‘Untitled (Damayanti)’ sell for $1.2 million. In November, 2016, Varma’s work ‘Radha in the Moonlight’ sold for Rs. 23 crores at the Pundole’s auction.
Other significant works from Sotheby’s auction were Francis Newton Souza’s ‘Untitled (Head of a Priest)’ which sold for $100,000, up from the estimate of $40,000-$60,000; Rameshwar Broota’s ‘Helmet’, which sold for $175,000 (estimate $70,000-$90,000), and Bikash Bhattacharjee’s ‘Untitled (Rooftops)’, which went for $125,000, within the pre-sale estimate of $120,000-$180,000.
Disappointing for Sotheby’s was the passing of two of Sayed Haider Raza’s works: ‘Ville Provencale’ and La Terre (estimate $500,000-$700,000). Both went unsold.
The sale also featured a diverse selection of modern and contemporary photography of India, including Margaret Bourke-White’s ‘Mahatma Gandhi, The Spinner’, identified by Time Magazine as one of the “100 most influential images of all time.” It sold for $4,000. The auction was capped by a group of modernist sculptures by stalwarts Sankho Chaudhuri, Prodosh Das Gupta and Somnath Hore.
Varma was not only a master portrait artist for the elusive upper echelons of royalty and high society in India but was also responsible for the mass dissemination of a new visual vocabulary through oleographs. In 1894, after producing a large number of oil paintings, he founded India’s first oleography press in Lonavala, known as the Ravi Varma Oleographic and Chromolithographic Printing Workshop to make his artwork available and accessible to the public, revolutionizing the presence of art – typically relegated to the court or temple – into everyday homes.
By infiltrating the majority of households with his paintings and prints, Varma was essentially responsible for influencing and shaping the perceptions of art, femininity and divinity for generations to follow.
Tilottama is a fine example of how Varma eschewed Western subject matter and often illustrated myriad stories from Vedic mythology as well as the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Varma’s depictions of women in particular, are considered to be excellent examples of the paintings that emerged from this period. He eschewed Western subject matter and often illustrated myriad stories from Vedic mythology as well as the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
In Tilottama, the protagonist is one of the Apsaras (celestial nymphs) from Hindu mythology. In the epic Mahabharata, Tilottama was created at Brahma’s request by using the best possible assets to create an almost perfect being. Her purpose was to bring about the destruction of the two Asuras (demons) named Sunda and Upasunda who were brothers and could not be destroyed by anyone except themselves. As their atrocities grew, the God Indra sent Tilottama to them. So captivated were they by her beauty that the jealous brothers fought over her and ended up killing each other. This painting portrays her descent through the skies down to earth, most likely after her creation.
According to Sotheby’s, Tilottama was inspired by William Adolphe Bouguereau’s (1825-1905) ‘Birth of Venus’.
Souza was undeniably influenced by the various currents of European Modernism, and his works from the 1950s in particular manifest certain expressionist qualities. The artist’s high placement of the eyes and angular shaping of the lower jaw and beard are typical features of works from this period.
In ‘Untitled (Head of a Priest)’, the ornamentation of the priest’s robes conspicuously references the adornments of the Catholic church and speaks to the unshakeable presence of religion during Souza’s formative years in Goa. The bright blue color is particularly striking against a palette limited to darker hues and flesh tones, and the figure itself is all the more emphatic in its return of the viewer’s gaze.
‘Helmet’ is from Broota’s ‘Unknown Soldier’ series, a subject that first appeared in the artist’s work in the late 1990s. The image of a man emerges from obscurity into a scene dappled with spots of pigmentation, while the details of the eponymous helmet are given startling primacy in the foreground. With its high shine effect and careful delineation, the helmet is posited as a defining feature, particularly in view of its level of detail when compared to its wearer. The near monochromatic palette of the work and its borderline abstraction removes questions of race, place and time. As the helmet is transformed into a symbol for the military function of man, erasure and slippage of individual identity follows.
The late Bikash Bhattacharjee’s “Untitled (Rooftops)’ is part of an early series that he did on Kolkata cityscapes. The city’s crumbling facades which appear repeatedly in these paintings have become metaphors for loss. In Rooftops, he created an intensity and element of uneasiness, thereby achieving the haunting quality that became the hallmark of many of his canvases. In these works, his use of light and shadow create negative and positive spaces, building a three dimensional effect, bringing the canvases to life, yet the absence of people creates a distance with the viewer and imparts an eerie tone to the paintings.