An exhibition of the major Indian modernist painter Bhupen Khakhar that opened on June 1 at the Tate Modern, London, to a totally dismissive review by art critic Jonathan Jones in The Guardian has elicited a strong response from prominent Indian artists and art critics.
The retrospective of Khakhar’s works, on until November 2016, is titled after one of his paintings, You Can’t Please All, in which a nude man leans over the railing of a balcony. The city scene below the balcony is vibrantly hued, the human figures in fluid, vulnerable postures and the faces expressionless, in Khakhar’s typical style. Khakhar (1934 – 2003) is widely considered a crucial figure among the modernists in India and a pioneer of the Baroda narrative style.
In his review, Jones expresses incredulity at how the Tate Modern could even exhibit a painter who “so strongly resembles the kind of British painter it would never let through its door”. He specifies that Khakhar’s technical roughness, his use of colours and his rendering of human figures are “staid,” “sloppy,” “boring” and “old fashioned,” altogether an example of “neo-figurative cliché”.
He concludes that the only reason to “give Khakhar a soft ride” would be the “misplaced notion that non-European art needs to be looked at with special critical generosity: that Khakhar’s political perspective on the world is more important than the merits of his art”.
Jones’ tone is both strikingly personal and provocatively political as he scoffs at Khakhar’s merit as an artist and raises questions of European versus non-European art. In response, members of the Indian artistic community have called him and The Guardian ignorant and neo-colonialist.
Speaking to The Wire, Chennai-based curator and well-known commentator on the arts and culture Sadanand Menon said that Jones sounds more like an “interloper” than a real critic, for he seems unaware of how Khakhar scoffs at Western ideas of art-making through his work. He pointed out how Khakhar used to conduct ultra-serious ‘mock interviews’ between himself and fictive critics, which he would include in his catalogues. Menon deplored the fact that The Guardian would give space to “patronising fools who don’t know international art history”.
Similarly, curator and director general of Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur, Pooja Sood commented on how Jones unthinkingly uses Western standards in his critique, seemingly naïve and uneducated about the fact that there are different art histories in the world. “His comments are akin to saying African art is primitive,” she said. She also added that when his review appeared, many Indian artists were simply dismissive of it and that The Guardian, although an important publication, is not necessarily the authoritative voice on such matters.
In another review for The Guardian – this one heralding the Tate exhibition – novelist and academic Amit Chaudhuri, like Menon and Sood, extols Khakhar for the very reasons that Jones denounces him – for being “self-mocking” and “satirical”, and for being simultaneously quasi-surrealist and rooted in his visitations of the provincial. This slippage between the tangible and the abstract – Khakhar’s exploration of the relationship between the physical body and rupa or surface appearance – is in part what makes his art so seductive for Chaudhuri.
Chaudhuri concludes, “Khakhar’s tailors and watch-repairers have expressionless faces not because of an inner ennui, but because they have been released from the ‘servility’ of realism…”
This interpretation could not be further from Jones’, who in a sense accuses Khakhar of being ‘servile’ (although he does not use that word) not only to his own lack of skill but also to the curators’ paradoxical neo-orientalism, who are in Jones’ view underlining Khakhar’s inferiority by allowing him to enter the Tate Modern.
‘You Can’t Please All’ is on display at the Tate Modern, London, from June 1 to November 6, 2016.