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Audio: Tyeb Mehta's Untitled (Man vs. Horse)
TYEB MEHTA (1925-2009)
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Property from a Private American Collection 
TYEB MEHTA (1925-2009)

Untitled (Man vs. Horse)

TYEB MEHTA (1925-2009)
Untitled (Man vs. Horse)
signed and dated 'Tyeb 57' (lower right)
oil on canvas
57 7/8 x 37¾ in. (147 x 95.9 cm.)
Saffronart & Pundole Art Gallery, 12-16 May 2001, lot 78
Acquired from the above by the present owner

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Lot Essay

The human condition, in its vicissitudes, underlies the thought process in Tyeb Mehta's body of work spanning over five decades. However in many instances, it is the anthropomorphized beast, whether it is the bull, the buffalo, or the horse, that serves as its proxy. Man vs. Horse of 1957 presents one of the earliest milestone achievements by Tyeb Mehta from his formative years.

It was upon his graduation from the Sir J.J. School of Art as a mature student and his initial travels to Paris and London to study the European Old Masters and Modernists in the 1950s, that Tyeb became acquainted firsthand with the School of Paris. His early body of work was exemplified by the "harsh, brushy-textured, impasto laden expressionism [...] cherished by his generation of Indian artists [...] in the aftermath of World War II. [...] In the earliest years of this first phase of art, Tyeb's protagonists communicated the seismic unease of fugitives, refugees, survivors, individuals ill at ease in their ethos, their bodies like squared-up masses held firm by rope thick outlines." (R. Hoskote, Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges, 2005, p. 5) It was also at this time that Tyeb encountered the writings of the French Existentialists, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, André Gide and André Malraux which affirmed his own lifelong pre-occupation with fate and the decrepitude of human existence. "These gurus of the age informed Tyeb and his contemporaries in their understanding of human vulnerability, the scope of choice available within the limitations imposed by social convention, [and] the degrees of freedom that the individual could wrest from the realm of necessity." (R. Hoskote, Tyeb Mehta, p. 6) Upon Tyeb's return to India, his 1960 solo exhibition was held at Gallery 59 to critical success. Note in the accompanying image of Ebrahim Alkazi inaugurating the exhibition, where there is a related painting man on horseback in the background.

Tyeb Mehta's Man vs. Horse bears striking affinities with Pablo Picasso's renowned Rose Period work, Jeune garcon au cheval ( Boy Leading a Horse), 1906. Traditional equestrian portrayals in art tend to convey the horse as a symbol of power and subjugation. However, Picasso does the opposite by balancing the power relationship through a sense of magnificent scale that is equally intimate. The boy is also a theme from classical antiquity resembling the kouros depictions of beautiful youths in their prime of life. Picasso's imagery positively conveys the virility of youth amidst the power, grace and nobility of the horse. By contrast, Tyeb's rendition of the dark-lined and muscled figure is not an idyllic character but one that almost reflects the toll of hard labor. The horse is on the same scale as the human figure suggesting its domestication or perhaps the submission of both to their fates. The man and the horse are at eye-to-eye level with their bodies similarly depicted in powerful Cubist structures exposing the inherent tension between them. The close overlapping planes of the figures' bodies presages the artist's later investigations in composition that eliminate the spaces between male and female, and human, beast and divinity, as Tyeb would later leave the horse to focus on the bull and the falling bird as deconstructions reduced to flat color planes. It is interesting to note how Tyeb expands on aspects of Cubism with an almost tectonic treatment of the bodily forms. Within the monochromatic palatte there are many variations in earthy tones and subtle shading, a stark contrast to the flat paint of later years. However, through this work one can trace the beginnings of Tyeb's quest for minimalism, which takes its ultimate form in his later works. The horizontal outline of the horse's back intersects with the man's torso and arm merging and mirroring the horizontal line of the feet. Compared to the preparatory drawing where one of the front legs was omitted, everything is fully worked out on the canvas.

Tyeb also expands on the influence of African tribal masks in Picasso's Cubist works. The horse seems to be wearing a mask, also the man's face appears frozen in a mask-like attitude. In this case, the mask may act as a shield, hiding emotions and presenting a distilled and permanent expression. This would represent a highly important initial approach in Tyeb's continuous quest for the ultimate and definitive form and expression, reduced to its essence.

"Tyeb is a down-to-earth man, very practical and realistic. But recurrent phrases like 'the human condition' or 'I wanted it to be monumental' about a certain figure in his painting, give away his heroic intention." (P. Karunakar, 'Tyeb Mehta: Abstraction and Image,' Lalit Kala Contemporary 17, 1974, p. 28)

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