TYEB MEHTA (1925-2009)
TYEB MEHTA (1925-2009)

Two Figures

TYEB MEHTA (1925-2009)
Two Figures
signed and dated 'Tyeb 94' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
59 1/8 x 35 3/8 in. (150.3 x 90 cm.)
Painted in 1994
Christie's New York, 16 September 2009, Lot 543
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Tyeb Mehta Paintings, exhibition catalogue, New Delhi, 1998 (illustrated, unpaginated)
R. Gandhi, Svaraj: A Journey with Tyeb Mehta's 'Shantiniketan Triptych,' New Delhi, 2002, p. 72 (illustrated)
R. Hoskote et.al., Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges, New Delhi, 2005, p. 190 (illustrated)
G. Sinha, Art and Visual Culture in India 1857-2007, Mumbai, 2009, back cover (illustrated)
New Delhi, Vadehra Art Gallery, Tyeb Mehta Paintings, 1998

Lot Essay

In the early part of his career, while he was living and working in England, Tyeb Mehta took numerous cues from Western artists. While it is often said that his works owe a stylistic debt to the tumultuous paintings of Francis Bacon, Mehta’s later oeuvre was most impacted by the art he saw during his year-long stay in New York on a Rockefeller Fund Fellowship in 1968. Following this residency, his harshly textured surfaces were transformed into a new painting mode with structured, flat expanses of color and a conscious two-dimensionality that focused more on line than contour.

In an interview with Nikki Ty-Tomkins Seth, Tyeb Mehta describes his first encounter with Minimalist art in New York as a revelation. “I had seen minimalist reproductions previously, but I hadn’t seen the works in the original. I might have dismissed many of them as gimmicks…just another tricky idea. But when I saw my first original Barnett Newman for example, I had such an incredible emotional response to it. The canvas had no image…but the way the paint had been applied, the way the scale had been worked out...the whole area proportioned. There was something about it which is inexpressible. It emotionally moves you and that is, I think that intangible quality we were talking about. It’s a direct relationship you can’t really analyse.” (Artist statement, R. Hoskote, Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges, New Delhi, 2005, p. 342)

The way Barnett Newman divided his compositions with a ‘zip’, such as Onement I painted in 1948, would directly influence Mehta. Newman’s treatment enabled him to open what he called a ‘creative presence’ by dividing and balancing the composition at the same time. In the same way, Mehta found in the diagonal and in a reduction of his chromatic palette a way to diffract the space and his subjects. In Two Figures, the painter captures a body seemingly dividing in two, perhaps torn between relief and pain. The vertical format and life-size canvas make the work doubly striking, creating an immersive experience that draws viewers in. The large planes of color shimmer from the painted surface, and the purity of the brilliant vermilion orange, radiant blue, pale green and grey hues recall the chromatic ethics of traditional Indian miniature paintings.

Painted in 1994, a time when Mehta was “guided away from his sombre meditations” (R. Hoskote, Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges, New Delhi, 2005, p. 29), Two Figures illustrates the artist's perfect balancing of the interplay between figure, gesture, color, space and structure. This serves as a wonderful transition between Mehta’s diagonal works and his later variations on the theme of the Mother Goddess. Depicting a fragmented body, Two Figures gradually reveals different layers of inspiration and obsession, charting the trajectory of the artist’s iconography and imagery.

In 1995, commissioned by the Times of India Group, Mehta painted the triptych, Celebration, a portrayal of an ecstatic and colorful procession inspired by the dances and rituals of the Santhals, one of India’s oldest ethnic communities, who he encountered on a residency in Santiniketan in 1984-85. The distinctive rhythm evident in the triptych also resonates in Two Figures, painted the year before, as he conceptualized Celebration. With one arm stretching beyond the canvas, the figure seems to divide in two, one appearing to elevate and the other with an expression of fear frozen across its face. The fragmentation of the figures, their dramatic expressions and the expressivity of the hands are features that have inhabited Mehta’s mental and artistic space since he witnessed the violence of the riots in Bombay during the 1947 partition of India. The then young man who was living in Bombay would later translate this anxiety into his series of Falling Figures and Rikshaw Pullers, as well as his images of Kali and Durga.

“Just like the artist has internalised these experiences, his protagonists too encrypt these acts of endurance [...] The manic razor of the riot, the visitation of terror in the crowded streets, the spilling of blood glimpsed through the half-open window: in India, every festivity is edged with panic, every luminescence is shadowed by memories of torture, and no identity is so stable that is can secure itself against its own interrogations.” (R. Hoskote, Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges, New Delhi, 2005, p. 37) The complex dual identity Hoskote describes is literally depicted in Two Figures, showing the struggle of the artist to define his own character, captive of a dramatic instability between redemption and terror.

Orchestrated into a tension, the virtuosity of the graphic treatment is vibrant in Two Figures. The accomplished style and serenity of line evident in this painting testify to Mehta’s lifelong artistic journey. The artist addresses gesture and sensation in a few precisely chiseled strokes, sufficient to animate this anonymous face with a primal scream that powerfully resonates with his viewers. Describing the ‘echo’ Mehta’s paintings create, Hoskote notes that “each of Tyeb’s paintings acts as a silent movie, in which we see mouths screaming, faces distended in terror, flailing limbs, thrashing wings; but the artist leaves it to us to imagine the horror of sound.” (R. Hoskote, Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges, New Delhi, 2005, p. 20)

Thus, the strength of Mehta’s representation of these two figures is not only visual but also emotional, creating an icon the painter offers to his audience, on the same scale as works like The Assumption of the Virgin painted by Nicolas Poussin several centuries earlier, where Virgin Mary is torn between sorrow and hope at the end of her earthly life and her assumption into heaven.

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