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TYEB MEHTA (1925-2009)
“Tyeb Mehta is striving for simple, clean solutions to the problems of painting. This simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve. In pursuing this aim, Tyeb has cleared a new path, which has led him far beyond the ‘identity crises’ of contemporary Indian art. In fact it is no longer really interesting, or important, whether Tyeb Mehta is an Indian. He speaks to us as a lonely twentieth century man of integrity and conviction.” – Georgina and Ulli Beier, 1982PROPERTY FROM THE COLLECTION OF ABHISHEK AND RADHIKA PODDAR
TYEB MEHTA (1925-2009)

Untitled (Diagonal)

TYEB MEHTA (1925-2009)
Untitled (Diagonal)
signed and dated 'Tyeb 75' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
66 3/8 x 51 1/8 in. (168.6 x 129.9 cm.)
Painted in 1975
Gallery Chemould, Mumbai

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Lot Essay

Throughout his career, Tyeb Mehta used the canvas to express images that illustrate the struggles of contemporary society. From his early trussed bulls that underline the plight of the helpless animal in Bombay's slaughter houses, to his falling figures hurtling toward a metaphorical abyss and trapped rickshaw pullers who cannot escape the vehicles that have become extensions of themselves, Mehta's paintings reflect his own disillusionment with the world around him. His unique formal treatment of the canvas only serves to heighten the impact of these images. The sight of dismembered figures with flailing limbs set against a fractured picture plane is a glaring reminder for the viewer to consider and address the violence and suffering that is both around and within.

In the late 1960s, Mehta abandoned his expressionistic style. Giving up his palette knife and muted colour schemes, he worked to achieve pristine surfaces unmarked even by a brush stroke, in luminous clear, flat colours. The most striking element of his new paintings was the diagonal line, which violently sliced his canvases into two.

In a 1976 review of Mehta's new diagonal series, fellow artist Jagdish Swaminathan explained, “What strikes one immediately in these works, is the strictly formal geometrical arrangement, or invocation of space-colour, and the line embodying the figure pulled apart like a doll and put together again – laid flat, defining, so to speak, the iconographic area. […] What appears at first glance as a formal exercise in relating line to colour on a flat plane suddenly becomes very disturbing. While one was immediately moved by the angst portrayed in his former works, one could immediately reach out and share the unfathomable terror, the unrelieved sadness of man alienated, the present works enter the realm of the mystical; terror, pathos and sorrow are objectivised entities, masks, implacable deities, setting up a grotesque tableau. You enter a world of magic and are enthralled by the elemental dance of the emotions, which freeze and cease to speak the moment you seek to identify yourself with them. What Tyeb has achieved is a double transformation. In his former phase, he has isolated and insulated man’s loneliness, protecting it, so to speak, from the profane. Now he has set it up in its own right, impervious to human touch, yet threatening man’s complaisance.” (J. Swaminathan, G. and U. Beier, 'Contemporary Art in India', Aspect: Art and Literature, Australia, no. 23, January 1982, unpaginated)

In the present work, the focus is on the two human figures in the centre. While their individual bodies are disjointed, there is a link established between the two that transcends physical contact and communicates a certain tension indicative of the larger social context to which they belong. The details in their faces reflect the pain and restlessness of their struggle for survival. The vast flat areas of the vivid background heighten the compact central image. The painting is given a sense of balance through the specific placement of triangulated planes that draw attention to the central figures and lend symmetry to the composition.

Paintings from the diagonal series are the first of Mehta’s mature style, with an emphasis on form over content. The artist explained, “Painters who are over concerned with content, burn themselves out. […] my experience is now transformed into colour and form. When you transpose your ideas into colours and forms, you are making a suggestion. A suggestion is stronger than a direct message.” (Artist statement, G. and U. Beier, 'Contemporary Art in India', Aspect: Art and Literature, Australia, no. 23, January 1982, unpaginated)

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