Two Women and the Swan

Two Women and the Swan
initialed and dated in Bengali (lower center); signed, titled, inscribed and dated 'Jogen Chowdhury / Title: Two Women and the Swan / 56 1⁄4 x 71 1⁄2 cm / Ink & Pastel on Paper (lacquered) / February 1995' (on the reverse)
ink and pastel on paper
22 x 28 in. (55.9 x 71.1 cm.)
Executed in 1995
Centre of International Modern Art (CIMA), Kolkata
Acquired from the above by the present owner, circa late 1990s

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Lot Essay

“Jogen Chowdhury’s art philosophy is summarized in an image. The artist, he says, must be like a tall, sturdy tree. Its roots, embedded deep, will draw vital nutrients from the soil. But the trunk must stand firm against the vagaries of the weather, even as the overhead canopy spreads far and wide to breathe in the fresh air and reach out to the sun” (R. Datta, Jogen Chowdhury: His Life and Times, Kolkata, 2006, p. 13).

The present lot, a striking cross-hatched work in ink and pastel, epitomizes Jogen Chowdhury’s distinct approach to the figure. Like many of his works, this is a domestic scene, set indoors, perhaps in a bedroom. Leaving the interior unadorned, Chowdhury maintains focus on his figures, who occupy most of the composition. The woman on the left wears a simple dress and sits on the edge of the bed, one wrist curved unnaturally, a singular eye staring impossibly forward, despite being portrayed in profile. The other woman, who wears an elaborately draped sari and cradles a swan to her chest, is represented in somewhat more realistic terms, though her fingers stretch disproportionately as they curl around her thigh and shoulder. Though these figures are exaggerated, with some anatomical idiosyncrasies, they are not grotesquely distorted. Chowdhury admits to maintaining a certain reverence for the female figure, an impulse he attributes to his Bengali roots. Indeed, this reverence is reflected in his emphasis on the wide, darkly-outlined eyes of the women in this work, which recall the idols of Bengal’s Durga Pooja festival.

The image of a woman cradling a swan may be a reference to Leda and the Swan, a Greek myth famously recorded in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In the myth, Zeus transforms into a swan and seduces Leda, leading to the birth of two pairs of twins: Castor and Pollux, and Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra. This myth has bene widely depicted in Renaissance and modern art, including famed renditions by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Francois Boucher, and even Cy Twombly. Chowdhury’s scene lacks the erotic or violent charge of many of these interpretations. Instead, his interpretation is more comparable to Paul Cezanne’s, who also sets the scene in an abstracted interior, a domestic space where Leda lounges, seemingly at ease with the swan.

The swan also has significance in Hindu mythology. Considered highly intelligent, it is the mount of the creator god Brahma. Swans are also closely associated with Brahma’s consort Saraswati, goddess of wisdom and learning. Additionally, swans are often said to be messengers of love. In the epic Mahabharata, King Nala sends a swan to sing his praises to the princess Damayanti, leading to their eventual marriage. This scene was famously depicted by Raja Ravi Varma, who painted the swan as Damayanti’s confidante.

In Chowdhury’s work, the viewer is left guessing whether the swan is seducer, friend or messenger, bringing word from a far-away love. These diverse interpretations are possible because of the wide-ranging inspirations for Chowdhury’s practice, which stem from his formative experiences in India and Europe. Born in 1939, Chowdhury enrolled in the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Calcutta, a traditional institution modelled after British art schools that emphasized academic, European-style training. After graduating in 1960, he travelled to Paris on a scholarship, where he studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and Atelier 17. Upon returning to India in 1968, he worked at the Weavers’ Service Centre in Madras, before moving to New Delhi and then finally back to Bengal, where he settled in Santiniketan.

Chowdhury drew on the wide variety of art he encountered through his career to continuously refine his style. His work draws on myriad influences, from the textiles he worked with at the Weavers’ Service Centre and Bengali folk art to Edgar Degas’ sketches, Kathe Kollwitz’s use of line, and the sinuous curves of Hindu temple sculpture. Nevertheless, Chowdhury’s figuration and work has always remained distinct, evidence of his commitment to his own deeply personal approach to art. “It seems to me that the depth of perception that comes across in figuration, the way figures can illuminate life may not be possible through other means. I want to portray our human environment, the people of our country, their nature, their way of sitting because they are different from others. You’ll notice that there’s a peculiar Indianness in their gestures and that attracts me. And it is these particular characteristics we see that I wish to distill in my art” (Artist statement, Jogen Chowdhury: His Life and Times, Kolkata, 2006, p. 37).

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