RAM KUMAR (1924-2018)
RAM KUMAR (1924-2018)


RAM KUMAR (1924-2018)
signed and dated 'Ram KUMAR 1958' (lower right)
oil on canvas
27 5⁄8 x 20 1⁄4 in. (70.2 x 51.4 cm)
Painted in 1958
Acquired through George M. Butcher, circa early 1960s
Private Collection, United Kingdom
Sotheby's New York, 22 March 2007, lot 15
Acquired from the above

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Nishad Avari
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Lot Essay

"By 1957 a few church steeples appeared in Ram Kumar’s paintings, and some cafes. There was an element of fantasy as well, and some intensely portrayed themes of childhood. The themes of starvation and of unemployment, or of their spectres […] the faces were more eloquent, the stances more intimate and tender. There was passion and there was prayer, and though sorrow was a large theme, hope was not entirely absent” (R. Bartholomew in G. Gill, ed., Ram Kumar: A Journey Within, New Delhi, 1996, p. 43).

Ram Kumar is well known for the depictions of abstract landscapes he painted for over seven decades. However, these only began in the early 1960s following a life-changing visit to the city of Benares that led the artist to abandon naturalism and figuration. Prior to this, Kumar’s works were representative studies, deeply informed by the artist's urban surroundings and the pervading sense of disillusionment and alienation he sensed in those around him in India. These paintings from the 1950s were dominated by forlorn, disenfranchised figures trapped in the anonymous homogeneity of an alienating city. While the city started as a backdrop, a setting for sad workers and street urchins, it would soon become the protagonist of Kumar’s oeuvre.

The present lot, an untitled cityscape from 1958, is one of the few examples of an unpopulated urban scene painted by Kumar. The block-like Cubist structures that feature in the background of other works from the period, such as the iconic Vagabond, also painted in 1958, take center stage here. Kumar uses them to create a desolate scene that appears hauntingly silent. The spire-like shapes are deliberately ambiguous, equally suggestive of church architecture as they are of electricity poles or telephone pylons. The small window vignettes foreshadow his first depictions of Benares. The composition is bisected by a central road stretching from the foreground into the ochre sky. In an almost Surrealist fashion, a crimson sun hovers impossibly below the skyline. The artist's vivid palette offsets the darker structures stunningly, making the painting appear to almost glow and pulsate, which in turn imbues it with a sense of dynamism that sets this work apart from any other he painted during this period. There is a sense that this is a revelatory moment for the artist, who has found the genre that would define his career.

This cityscape is a jewel in Kumar’s oeuvre, evolving from his early figurative idiom and capturing a moment of inflection in the artist’s career as he stands on the threshold of abstraction. As such, this painting offers both psychological and aesthetic insight into the creative process of this modern master.

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