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The Embarkation

The Embarkation
signed and dated 'Sabavala '65' (lower right); further titled, signed and dated '"The Embarkation" / By / Jehangir Sabavala / '65' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
42 ¼ x 32 ¼ in. (107.3 x 81.9 cm.)
Painted in 1965
Gallery Chemould, Bombay
The Collection of Mrs. Dorothy L. Clark, San Francisco
Thence by descent
S.V. Vasudev, Sabavala, Mumbai, 1966, p. 33 (illustrated)
R. Hoskote, Pilgrim, Exile, Sorcerer: The Painterly Evolution of Jehangir Sabavala, Mumbai, 1998, p. 110 (illustrated)
R. Hoskote, The Crucible of Painting: The Art of Jehangir Sabavala, Mumbai, 2005, p. 16 (illustrated)

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Lot Essay

No longer am I satisfied with the juxtaposition of planes, the search for rare colour, the almost total denigration of the unpremeditated. It is the intangible which is now my goal. Space and light, and an element of mystery begin to permeate my canvases. Emotions seek a new release in what I hope will become a permanent synthesis of heart and mind.
- Jehangir Sabavala, 1964

It was during the early 1960s, a period of intense clarification in Jehangir Sabavala’s work, that the artist defined and focused the language that would make his paintings “site[s] of epiphany” that transcended common genres and motifs. Describing this change, the artist’s friend and biographer Ranjit Hoskote notes, “Between 1961 and 1964, Sabavala attempted to break away from the suffocating formality of Synthetic Cubism; and in this, he found a remedial alternative in the work of Lyonel Feininger […] ‘Through Feininger’s pure, precise and yet very delicate and personal renderings of cloud and boat and sea, I discovered the joys of extending form into the beauty and clarity of light. I became interested in the source of light, its direction, its effect. Through these experiments, gradually, my work changed’” (R. Hoskote, The Crucible of Painting: The Art of Jehangir Sabavala, Mumbai, 2005, p. 89, 95).

In The Embarkation, painted in 1965, Sabavala portrays a captivating scene where four wraith-like figures clad in long yellow robes prepare to board two ships anchored in the waters beyond them. Sabavala noted that in this series of works he had moved beyond the physical and corporeal realms of figuration to explore its more numinous aspects. “It was surprising that I, who had levered the weight and volume of the human figure in the studios of London and Paris, should have turned away from painting man as the solid, carnal creature that he really is. I began to create apparitions that were more spirit than flesh” (Artist statement, R. Hoskote, Ibid., 2005, pp. 121, 124).

Hovering above a shadowy promontory, the ethereal wanderers in the present lot are bound for an unknown land, perhaps beyond the choppy sea and dark mountains that Sabavala masterfully orchestrates in horizontal bands of subtly graded colors rising across the picture plane. With their billowing sails and upturned prows, the waiting vessels resemble Viking longships, and recall ancient Norse myths about ensuring safe passage into the afterlife. Also noting the religious quality of this work, Hoskote writes, “A Judeo-Christian tenor informs ‘The Embarkation’ (1965) [...] its figures, dressed in flowing robes, glide towards ships that will deport them to an unknown continent. ‘The Embarkation’ is a tragic version of Watteau’s pastoral embarkations for Cytherea, pageants in which silken ladies and their dashing gallants take ship for the island of love” (R. Hoskote, Ibid., 2005, p. 124).

Hoskote locates The Embarkation within a transformative body of paintings that Sabavala created between 1964 and 1973. Along with works like The Nuns (1965), In the Worlds Afterlight (1966), Vespers I (1968) and Presences Unmoving Stand (1969), the figures in this painting represent a questing impulse on their interminable journey towards an unspecified destination. With no explicit location in space or time, they perhaps voice the artist’s own quest for the elusive goal of perfection. “These intermittent apparitions record the seizure, the ecstasy, before it vanishes; they attest to the artist’s continuing struggle with the enslaving forces of history and memory, his passionate engagement with the emancipatory forces of nature and desire. Symbols of passage and augury, they shuttle between the meridian radiance of the painted frame and the vespertine umbra of time; they cast a challenge in the face of mortality” (R. Hoskote, Ibid., 2005, p. 106).

The Embarkation was purchased by Dorothy L. Clark, an American library specialist who moved to Bombay to work at the American Center (later USIS) there in 1957. After a decade in Bombay, Clark moved to Hyderabad to join the American Studies Research Centre at Osmania University as a librarian. “After thirteen years of distinguished and dedicated service, she retired from the Centre in June 1979. Nearly every aspect of the library activity [...] today bears the stamp of her work. Hundreds of scholars from all over the country have recorded their gratitude to her for her valuable assistance in their studies and research” (M.B. Konnur, Transnational Library Relations: The Indo-American Experience, New Delhi, 1990, p. 28). During her stay in Hyderabad, Clark also served as a member and then President of the Dramatic Circle Hyderabad (DCH), an organization that promoted English theater through educational programs and staging productions in the region.

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