• Press release
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  • London
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  • For immediate release
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  • 4 May 2017

PRESS RELEASE: South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art Auction 70th Anniversary of The Progressive Artists’ Group – Celebrating 70 Years of Indian Modernism

Tyeb Mehta’s (1925-2009) Untitled (Woman on Rickshaw) Estimate: £1,500,000-2,000,000 / $1,900,000-2,500,000

LONDON - For the 22nd time Christie’s London will set the stage for the annual South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art auction.  The majority of the works to be offered are sourced from private collections and are fresh to the market– these are works which have been acquired directly from either the artists or their galleries and are coming to auction for the first time. Led by a masterpiece by Tyeb Mehta, the London auction on 25 May will offer 68 works spanning from Bengal School masters Rabindranath and Abanindranath Tagore, to a body of work consisting of 54 individual works designed to be a set of playing cards; where each ‘card’ is by a different artist from masters like Syed Haider Raza to young contemporary artists like Shilpa Gupta. This year’s sale will pay particular tribute to the Progressive Artists’ Group and their contemporaries which celebrates 70 years since its foundation on the eve of Indian independence in 1947.

In the 1930s and 40s in India, the idea of modernism was linked with the growth of individual consciousness and internationalism as it was with the new sense of national identity in the country. Its expression in the arts then had important historical and sociopolitical dimensions. It was in this environment, just before India gained independence in 1947, that the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) was formed.  The founding members included the masters Francis Newton Souza, Maqbool Fida Husain, Syed Haider Raza and, Sadanand Bakre, Krishnaji Howlaji Ara and Hari Ambadas Gade.  Though unique in their individual style, the modernist vocabularies of each of the founding members of the PAG were united in their antithetical position to the academic, romantic and orientalist schools of art that they succeeded in replacing. Their conviction and commitment to the ideal of building a new, modern cannon of art for India remained unchanged. It is not surprising then that the founding members of the PAG and their close associates such as Tyeb Mehta are counted among South Asia’s most important modern artists. This year to celebrate the 70th anniversary of their foundation, Christie’s will present a selection of exceptional examples of rare early works by all six original members and several of their illustrious associates. These works recognise these luminaries as the standard bearers for avant-garde Indian modern to this day.

The centerpiece of the auction will be  Tyeb Mehta’s (1925-2009) Untitled (Woman on Rickshaw), a painting from 1994 that epitomises the artist’s instantly recognisable minimalist format, and resonates with the quiet emotive poignancy that embodies the art of this modern master. Here, Mehta monumentalises the iconic rickshaw, making it a symbolic stage on which he casts an abstracted female figure, transformed by Mehta into an allegory for human suffering, indignity, subjugation and struggle for survival. The image of the more traditional hand-pulled rickshaws can be found in Mehta’s works dating as far back as the 1950s, but only appears in his oeuvre on a grand scale much later, following a two year period from 1983, when Mehta was invited to be artist-in-residence at Viswa Bharati University, Santiniketan.  

"The rickshaw is not a simple means of transport but a sign of bondage."– Tyeb Mehta

 The present painting is meticulously executed, extolling Mehta’s virtuosic technique. The sumptuous expanses of vivid colour are dissected by the subtle diagonals of the rickshaw handles and wheels and the failing limbs of its occupant, while the abstract use of fattened forms and the segregated monochromatic areas create a sense of harmony and stillness. For its lifetime the painting was in the same important Indian private collection and will be offered for the first time at auction with an estimate of £1,500,000-2,000,000 / $1,900,000-2,500,000).

In recognition of the breadth of Tyeb Mehta’s artistic evolution, his 1961 expressionist painting Thrown Bull is one of his earliest uses of the image of the iconic bull, a motif that would remain at the core of the artist’s oeuvre and the same subject that would win him the Gold Medal at the inaugural Indian Triennale in New Delhi in 1968. Thrown Bull is also one of the earliest examples of Mehta’s gestural expressive style which he developed during his stay in the United Kingdom. Having arrived in London in 1959, this painting is indelibly tied to the artist’s new experiences where he encountered European Expressionism, a breakthrough moment for him that saw his style undergo a radical change. During this period, Mehta’s works were dominated by muted colours and thick textured impasto, the most sculptural of his entire oeuvre. This significant early work by the modern master has remained a part of the illustrious collection of Nuffield College, Oxford since the 1960s    (estimate: £120,000-180,000 / $150,000-220,000).

I was looking for an image to express this anguish and years later, I found it in the British Museum. I was fascinated by the image of the trussed bull in the Egyptian bas relief and created my first major painting” – Tyeb Mehta

Maqbool Fida Husain (1913-2011) was a leading member of the Progressive Artists’ Group, whose depictions of horses are the enigmatic artist’s ultimate icon, representing personal symbols. With three exceptional examples of the theme to be offered across different price point, the largest is Husain’s 1960’s painting; in which four bucking horses await a fifth addition to their fold, led in by a male figure reminiscent of Husain’s grandfather, Dada Abdul, who appears in several of the artist’s autobiographical works. Husain’s figures are dramatically framed against a blue-grey background with only a hint of horizon, conveying the absolute freedom and raw, unimpeded power of the animals. Acquired by a private American collector in the 1970s this is a work fresh to the market, unseen for the past 40 years and which will be offered with an estimate of £200,000-300,000 / $250,000-370,000.  

“Art has to evolve from your very being, like my horses [...] I see them as ageless and immortal. They draw chariots in the great epics, they stand proudly in the poorest stables, they are embodiments of strength like the dragons of China.”

Syed Haider Raza (1922-2016) arrived in France in October 1950 to attend the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. On the advice of renowned photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, Raza began to focus on the pictorial compositions and structures of Cézanne. He was influenced both by the palette and composition of the Post-Impressionist paintings that he saw, and by his early experiences of living in Paris and travelling through the bucolic French countryside.

Painted in 1956, this early example (estimate: £30,000-50,000 / $38,000-62,000) represents a seminal period of intense experimentation in Raza’s oeuvre, during which he began to move away from watercolour, instead combining ink with gouache and oil to create a more tactile composition that would more closely evoke his experience of the landscape and attain a degree of order as well as a new kind of landscape started dominating his work. This work is one of five lots on offer that were acquired by the French artist José Palou, a close friend and colleague of Raza and Husain and whose works are coming to the market for the first time. 

A founding member of the Progressive Artists’ Group, the Goa born Francis Newton Souza (1924-2002) moved to London in 1949 where his reputation was firmly cemented. Listed among the most exciting young painters in London during the period, the 1950s and 1960s mark the zenith of the artist’s career during which he embarked on some of the most ambitious and fruitful artistic projects.

Painted in 1961, Souza’s Untitled (Lady in Tunic) is defined by the artist’s powerful lines. However, rather than etching out singular attributes like the high-set eyes and elongated noses that were fundamental to Souza’s portraits of the 1950s, here these lines create a frenzy of features. Multiple eyes and nostrils echo the rounded teeth below them, illustrating the new approach to representation and portraiture that Souza had just adopted.

The woman’s hair, worn open, frames her face, effectively delineating her against the golden-orange background. With its decorated collar, her deep red tunic seems almost ceremonial, recalling the powerful religious and social figures Souza painted earlier to voice his fascination and conflict with the Roman Catholic Church and his general mistrust of authority. This work is both a portrait and a symbol, controlled and abstract, static and kinetic, malevolent and sublime (estimate: £80,000-120,000 / $100,000-150,000).

Jehangir Sabavala (1922-2011) was born into a distinguished Parsi family in Bombay in 1922. He graduated in 1944 from the Sir J.J. School of Art, and moved to Europe for a period of intensive training in London and then in Paris. During these years, Sabavala found himself negotiating “two schools of thought”, one conservative and the other modern.

Painted at the culmination of this formative period, just before his return to India, this 1949 still life represents the impact Sabavala’s training in Europe had on his style and technique. One of the earliest paintings by the artist to be ever offered at auction, it simultaneously underscores Sabavala’s emerging concerns about crafting a personal idiom that incorporated his training with his identity as a modern Indian painter. The objects in this skillfully executed painting, with its clear nod to Cézanne and the post-impressionists, illuminate the artist’s concerns for colour and light that resonate with the Paris School. In a subtle affirmation of his roots, however, here the champagne bottle, pitcher and apples are placed against a richly decorated Kashmiri shawl, softly draped from a trellis in the background (estimate: £80,000-120,000 / $100,000-150,000).

I painted Still Life with Apples in Paris in 1949. I was just finishing my studies. I consider it one of my best works. I then exhibited the painting in Bombay in 1951 or 1953 [...] it soon won the Walter Langhammer Award, one of the most prestigious honours for a work then. Walter Langhammer, an Austrian painter, is one of the seminal names that started the progressive movement and worked with The Times of India. – Jehangir Sabavala

Following Bhupen Khakhar’s (1934-2004), landmark solo retrospective at the Tate Modern in London, and then the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle in Berlin in 2016-17, critical acclaim has gathered international momentum. Bhupen Khakhar a chartered accountant by trade, moved from Bombay to Baroda in 1962 to study Art Criticism at the Faculty of Fine Arts at M.S. University, home to the Baroda Group, a pioneering art collective formed in 1956 by artists such as G.R Santosh, K.G. Subramanyan, N.S. Bendre and Jyoti Bhatt. Although the group formally disbanded the year of Khakhar’s arrival, it had firmly established Baroda as an important centre for artistic exchange, out of which emerged a new generation of the Indian avant-garde.  Significantly, in this community, Khakhar also met British Pop artists Derek Boshier and Jim Donovan. Donovan played a critical role in Khakhar’s early career by exposing him to the vocabulary of Western Pop Art, which the artist soon assimilated and applied to his own practice.

In 1963 Khakhar began to collect and collage images of gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. Soon, Khakhar was combining these collages with swathes of vivid paint in larger works like Pan Shop No. 1, executed in the mid-1960s. Pan Shop No. 1 balances a bold, yet kitschy Pop aesthetic with the vivid palette of classical miniature paintings to create a pastiche depiction of bazaar iconography. At the heart of these bazaars would often be a pan shop, where locals gathered and exchanged the day’s news while chewing potent mouthfuls of betel leaf, areca nut and tobacco, and staining the surroundings with their vivid red expectorate. Perhaps it is these tell-tale stains left by pan chewers that Khakhar references in the intense red that dominates this canvas. These early works were exhibited in Khakhar’s first solo show at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai in 1965, and a similar work from this series was included in the major 2016 retrospective of the artist’s work at the Tate Modern in London.  Pan Shop No. 1 was acquired by a Swiss Private Collector in 1966 and with whom it has remained ever since.  Such is the rarity of works form this series, Pan Shop No represents only the second example to ever come to auction (estimate of £120,000-180,000 / $150,000-220,000.)

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