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

Untitled (Girl)

RAM KUMAR (1924-2018)
Untitled (Girl)
signed in Hindi (upper left)
oil on canvas
32 x 24 in. (81.3 x 61 cm.)
Painted circa late 1950s
Kumar Gallery, New Delhi
Acquired from the above, circa 1960s
Thence by descent
G. Gill ed., Ram Kumar: A Journey Within, New Delhi, 1996, p. 56 (illustrated)
Spirit Set Free, exhibition catalogue, New Delhi, 2005, p. 182 (illustrated)
New Delhi, Kumar Art Gallery, 1959

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Lot Essay

The reason I made these sort of paintings, was that I was a bit inspired by the left politics at that time, there was an inclination towards the tragic side of life [...] it started here, becoming more mature in Paris. And even if I had not been inspired by politics, perhaps I would have made the same kind of paintings, because that is a part of my nature some sort of sadness, misery or whatever it is.
- Ram Kumar, 1993

Ram Kumar’s restrained portraits of the 1950s express his reactions to the sociopolitical conditions of the time, and are permeated with an unqualified sense of loss. “As a young artist, Ram Kumar was captivated by, or rather obsessed with, the human face because of the ease and intensity with which it registers the drama of life. The sad, desperate, lonely, hopeless or lost faces, which fill the canvases of his early period, render with pathos his view of the human condition” (S. Lal, Ram Kumar: A Journey Within, New Delhi, 1996, p. 15).

Through their muted palette and forsaken figures, these paintings express the artist’s despondent reaction to the harsh realities of urban life that he came face to face with at the time in France and India. As Ranjit Hoskote notes, Kumar “spent that decade, the first decade of India's independence, perfecting an elegiac figuration imbued with the spirit of tragic modernism. Infused with an ideological fervour, he drew equally upon exemplars like Courbet, Rouault, Kathe Kollwitz and Edward Hopper dedicating himself to the creation of an iconography of depression and victimhood [...] To this period belong those lost souls: the monumental Picassoesque figures packed into a darkened picture-womb, the bewildered clerks, terrorised workers and emaciated doll-women trapped in industrial city. Rendered through a semi-cubist discipline [...] these fugitives are trapped in a hostile environment and in their own divided selves” (R. Hoskote, ‘The Poet of the Visionary Landscape’, Ram Kumar: A Journey Within, New Delhi, 1996, p. 37).

Kumar was acutely aware of his urban surroundings and the pervading sense of disillusionment and alienation he sensed in those around him in India. In the present lot, the central figure, a young girl wearing a shabby patched-up grey dress, becomes a universal symbol of this disenchantment. The block-like architectonic structures in background foreshadow the next phase of the artist’s work, when, following a lifechanging visit to Benares, he would remove all recognizable figuration and narrative from his paintings turning to semiabstract landscapes inspired by the riverbanks of the holy city instead. In addition to being a rare example of Kumar’s early and short-lived figurative period, this portrait captures a moment of inflection in the artist’s career as he stands on the threshold of abstraction, offering both psychological and technical insight into his creative process.

Speaking about the ‘dramatis personae’ of the artist’s portraits from this period, the critic Richard Bartholomew noted, “The presence of feeling, the province of thought, the existence of a world within is evident in their intense expressions and the spectator felt that the private and personal existence, the life of the mind that each of these persons embodies, was more terrible and remorseless than the physical and environmental condition. The backdrop of the city was barely suggested – a gaunt building, receding walls, a crooked street with a few lamp posts” (R. Bartholomew, ‘Attitudes to the Social Condition: Notes on Ram Kumar, Satish Gujral, Krishen Khanna and A. Ramachandran’, Lalit Kala Contemporary 24-25, New Delhi, September 1977 - April 1978, p. 32).

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