Modern art is rubbish

 

 

Okay.  I don’t really think that it’s rubbish.  That was just the message suggested by this striking metallic sculpture of an upended bin and torrent of spilling garbage found in the grounds of Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art, which I visited while I was working in the Indian capital the other month.

 

Housed inside Jaipur House, which stands on the Central Hexagon surrounding India Gate and was once the grand residence of the Maharaja of Jaipur, the gallery has exhibits that date back to the 19th century.  There’s a selection of predictably earnest and stately paintings by British painters from the days of colonialism and the Empire, such as Thomas Daniell and Marshal Claxton; but the displays become more interesting once they move on to a more Indian mind-set, with indigenous painters eschewing Western models of art to do their own thing, drawing on local domestic and community life and on local tradition, folklore and legend for inspiration.  That said, some, like the brothers Abanindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore, were influenced by artistic styles from cultures further east, such as Japanese ones.

 

Here’s Abanindranath Tagore’s Emperor’s March to Kashmir.

 

(c) National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi

 

Mind you, by the time his brother Gaganendranath got around to painting Magician, he’d possibly been infected with a dose of the Picassos and gone slightly cubist.

 

(c) National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi


Raja Ravi Varma was perhaps more old-school, in that he incorporated techniques of Western art into his depictions of Indian daily life, literature and mythology.  Here’s his Mohani on a Swing.

 

(c) National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi


Also catching my eye was this bleak and melancholy work, Mataji, by the female Bengali-American artist Anjolie Ela Menon, who according to her Wikipedia entry is still going strong in her mid-seventies.

 

(c) National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi


Ganesh Pyne, unfortunately, passed away early last year at the age of 75.  I liked his lush, gorgeous but somehow stark Mother and Child.

 

(c) National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi


Once the art in the Gallery of Modern Art gets truly modern and starts to tilt towards the abstract, it loses something.  It isn’t objectionable, but it becomes a bit corporate and samey, with the Indian flavours subdued – a lot of it, you feel, could hang on a gallery wall in Hong Kong or Barcelona or New York without seeming much different from the works around it.  And to me most modern art is informed by gimmicks, and whether or not a particular example of it works for you depends on whether or not you appreciate the underlying gimmick.

 

I did quite like the gimmick in Madhvi Parekh’s cheeky take on The Last Supper.

 

(c) National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi


Finally, when I visited the gallery, it was staging an exhibition dedicated to the life and works of Amrita Sher-Gil.  Of Sikh and Hungarian Jewish parentage, the remarkable Sher-Gil crammed a lot into her brief life – she died at the age of 28 – with sojourns in European cities like Budapest, Florence and Paris and in Indian ones like Shimla, Gorakhpur and Lahore (which was then in India).  During her European experiences, she found inspiration from the likes of Cezanne and Gauguin.  During her Indian ones, she fell under the influence of the Bengal School of Art, two of whose leading practitioners were the afore-mentioned Tagore brothers.  Since her death in 1941, she’s been recognised as one of India’s most important 20th century artists and also become something of an Indian feminist icon.  In 2006 her painting Village Scene set a record, for a time, of being the most expensive painting ever sold in India.  Here’s one of her self-portraits, which captures her obvious élan and joie de vivre.

 

(c) National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi


Fascinatingly, in the mid-1930s, she had an affair with the English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, who was then young, leftward-leaning and agnostic (and, incidentally, married to author Katherine Dobbs).  I wonder what the adventurous, bohemian and reputedly promiscuous Sher-Gil would have made of Muggeridge in his later years, who by the early 1970s had drifted into reactionary-old-fart-dom; become a right-wing fulminator against the permissive society and its evils like ‘pills and pot’ and the Beatles (whom he once described as ‘four vacant youths’ with ‘no talent’); and made himself a stalwart of the censorious Christian movement the National Festival of Light alongside the likes of Mary Whitehouse, Lord Longford and Cliff Richard.