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signed and dated 'RAZA '64' (lower right); further signed, inscribed, dated and titled 'RAZA / P_557_'64 / "Mont - Agel" / 50F / Retouched in January 1967 / S. H. RAZA' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
45 5/8 x 35 in. (115.9 x 88.9 cm.)
Painted in 1964-67
Galerie Lara Vincy, Paris
Bonhams London, 3 June 2009, lot 17
The Collection of a Lady, New Jersey
Christie's New York, 12 September 2012, lot 336
Acquired from the above by the present owner
J. Lassaigne, 'Raza', Cimaise Art et Architecture Actuals, Paris, No. 79, 1967 (unpaginated, illustrated)
A. Macklin, S.H. Raza: Catalogue Raisonné 1958-1971 (Volume I), New Delhi, 2016, p. 118 (illustrated)

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Lot Essay

It was the search for the intangible […] Elementary experiences of night and day, joy and anguish, summer and winter became my subjects for the fact that they were felt more than seen.
- Sayed Haider Raza

The son of a forest ranger, Sayed Haider Raza was born in Madhya Pradesh in Central India, in 1922. Growing up in the lush Narmada River valley, nature played a central role in the artist’s life from a very young age. It is not surprising, then, that throughout his career, Raza explored and developed on the intimate connection he shared with the natural world, and would go on to revolutionize the genre of modernist landscape in ways that continue to reverberate through the contemporary art world today.

Raza spent over sixty years of his artistic career living in France, and the landscape of his adopted country played a critical role in his idiom even as it moved towards abstraction. Raza underscored this by often titling his works from the 1950s and 60s after aspects that had a bearing on the natural features of the landscape, be it a specific place, season or even time of day. The present lot, titled Mont Agel, is named after a small, picturesque town in the French mountains on the border with Monaco. Devoid of representational features, this painting epitomizes the seismic shift in how Raza portrayed the landscape in his art. Color overtook formal construction, and Raza’s landscapes became less about tangible representation and more about the mood they evoked in the artist. Mont-Agel painted in 1964-7 is a work that encapsulates this key period in Raza’s career characterized by a deeply considered palette and expressive brushwork. The pictorial space in paintings from the period like the present lot is less structured, exploring the play of light and color in nature.

This stylistic turn in Raza’s work was precipitated by the summer he spent teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1962. During his time in the United States, Raza was deeply impacted by the work of Abstract Expressionists Sam Francis, Hans Hoffman and Mark Rothko. Speaking about this encounter, he noted, “Rothko’s work opened up lots of interesting associations for me. It was so different from the insipid realism of the European School. It was like a door that opened to another interior vision. Yes, I felt that I was awakening to the music of another forest, one of subliminal energy. Rothko’s works brought back the images of japmala, where the repetition of a word continues till you achieve a state of elated consciousness. Rothko’s works made me understand the feel for spatial perception” (Artist statement, Raza: Celebrating 85 Years, exhibition catalogue, New Delhi, 2007).

With freer and more expressive brushstrokes, Raza “continued to explore further possibilities of colour, making colour rather than any geometrical design or division the pivotal element around which his paintings moved. Also, colours were not being used as merely formal elements: they were emotionally charged. Their movements or consonances on the canvases seemed more and more to be provoked by emotions, reflecting or embodying emotive content. The earlier objectivity, or perhaps the distance started getting replaced or at least modified by an emergent subjectivity – colours started to carry the light load of emotions more than ever before” (A. Vajpeyi, S.H. Raza, A Life in Art, New Delhi, 2007, p. 78).

Many works from this period such as the iconic Village en Fête, also from 1964, are riots of bright color that champion the Indian landscape under the shimmering heat of the sun. Significantly, Mont Agel, with its deep blues and touches of black, dappled with warm greens and flashes of red, yellow and iridescent white, acts as counterpoint, celebrating the sublime and magical nightscape. Raza’s painting evokes a powerful sense of nature and the night by fusing abstract, symbolic forms into an expression of the mood and atmosphere of the French nightscape. Rooted in Raza’s childhood memories of life in densely forested villages, this painting is almost translocal in its representation of the rich sensations during the deep, dark nights in India and France.

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