Portrait of an Idea
No other modernist Indian painter exemplifies the spirit of the international art movement of the 1960s better than Vasudeo S. Gaitonde. Best described by Richard Bartholomew in 1959 as "a quiet man and a painter of the quiet reaches of the imagination" (D. Nadkarni, Gaitonde, Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, 1983, unpaginated), Gaitonde was uncomprimising in his belief that art, the process and the final product, is an expression of the inner self.
Beginning his artistic career at the Sir J. J. School of Art in 1943, Gaitonde mastered the relationship between linear form, light and color in a deceptively simple, yet highly sophisticated manner. Respected by early art collectors in India, most notably Dr. Homi J. Bhabha, his artistic voice resonated with the postmodern concerns of the time.
From the 1940s through the 1960s, a kind of metamorphoses took place and three major influences coalesced in Gaitonde's work beginnning with the tradition of Indian miniature painting. "Early on, I did both figurative and non-figurative paintings; I was initially influenced by Indian miniatures. You see, my sense of colour was weak, so I started copying the miniatures. Their vivid, vital, vibrant colours attracted me. Soon, to study the colours more closely, I started eliminating the figures and just saw the proportions of colours. I experimented with this because sometimes figures can bind you, restrict your movements. I just took patterns instead. I think that step really marked the beginning of my interest and pre-occupation in this area of painting." (V. S. Gaitonde in an interview with M. Lahiri, Patriot, 27 September 1985)
The works of German Expressonist artists, especially Paul Klee, whose whimsical forms and use of line also captured Gaitonde's imagination. "Early in life I was greatly influenced by the works of Paul Klee. I had no space to paint in my parents' house - I had only a small corner to work in - and there was no room to paint anything big so I was encouaraged by Klee's small canvases and water colours." (M. Menezes, 'The Meditative Brushstroke', Art India, Vol III, Issue III, p. 67) Commentating on Klee's influence, the artist further adds, "Something in his use of line excited me. I gradually came to identify myself in his work. I liked Klee's imagination and fantasy." ( F. Nissen, 'V. S. Gaitonde -- Contemporary Indian Artists 8', Design, February 1958, unpaginated)
By the time of the Young Asian Artists exhibition and competition in Tokyo, 1957, Gaitonde had completely broken away from representational art and began focusing on the interplay of color, light and space. In Tokyo, he was awarded a significant monetary prize for an early work from this transitional phase. In 1964 on a Rockefeller Fellowship in New York, exposure to the techniques and practices of Abstract Expressionist artists inspired Gaitonde to begin using a roller and a pallet knife. With translucent planes of paint, meticulously applied, weightlessly spread across the canvas, the full maturity of Gaitonde's style is realized.
Many art historians attribute Gaitonde's study of Chinese and Zen Buddhist philosophy as the main driving force behind his minimalist landscape paintings. But this is often overstated. Echoing Rothko's sentiment, all of art is the 'portrait of an idea', Gaitonde drew upon art historical influences combined with his own philosophical inquiry. During the 1960s in New York, Gaitonde also experienced the rise of Conceptual Art, of which Sol LeWitt and Joseph Kosuth were proponents. This was a philosophy which, counter to Abstract Expressionism, championed the metaphysical concept in the artist's own mind as art. The physical art produced became the final manifestation of a realized innate idea from within the artist's consciousness. "A painting always exists within you, even before you actually start to paint. You just have to make yourself the perfect machine to express what is already there." (D. Nadkarni, Gaitonde, Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, 1983, unpaginated) Foresworn of all conventional sentimental connections; nationality and religion, Gaitonde singularly focused on the expression of his innermost self.
The painting offered here, both formally and stylistically is a beautiful culmination of these influences on Gaitonde's psyche. The canvas appears like an ocean under a misty sky. In the half light, across the horizon, shapes emerge as if surfacing or floating in the water. With careful maniplution of multiple paint layers a luminosity radiates from the canvas. Standing before the painting, as if at the edge of the ocean, there is an overwhelming sense of the infiniteness of the natural world and the infinite capacity of the human mind and emotion. Free of cultural associations and historical references, the painting penetrates the depths of the subconscious.
"In photographs, his favorite pose shows him with his arms crossed across each other, and there is as much intrepidity in his physical stance as in his eyes. This independent-mindedness was accompanied by a firm belief in his identity as a painter. And because of this firmness, Gaitonde isolated himself very early in his career from everything in his environment he considered irrelevant to his identity as a painter. Gaitonde's growth over the years is marked by an increasing inwardness and a meticulous and watchful consolidation of this identity."
(D. Nadkarni, Gaitonde, Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, 1983, unpaginated)
The iconic photograph by Richard Bartholomew was taken in 1969 at the height of his career when he painted this work.
For Gaitonde, painting was the perfect exercise for his highly intuitive and intellectual mind. "I'm still learning about painting, because I believe that the process is constant. Painting is a struggle -- you have to enquire, you have to have a thinking mind." (M. Menezes, 'The Meditative Brushstroke', Art India, Vol III, Issue III, p. 69) It is no wonder that his works resonated with some of the most preeminent scientific minds of post-Independence India. They shared with him a relentless passion for truth and knowledge.
Art like Science knows no Frontiers
In 1952, on the invitation of Homi Bhabha, Bernard Peters (1910-1993), a cosmic ray physicist, joined the faculty of the newly formed Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Bombay. Peters, deeply influential in the early years of TIFR, spent seven years in India. He was the only non-resident of India to receive the Padma Bhushan in 1985.
In a tribute to Peters, G. K. Menon writes, "Bernard's ideas, attitudes and enthusiam will live on through these new generations of Indian scientists. When you met Bernard at first you might think of him as a rough, aloof personality who could be very combative in his discussions. But as you got to know him you discovered a person who is extraordinarily affectionate, very warm and deeply concerned about people, their problems and welfare. And with Bernard you always had Hannah, his wife, so kind, affectionate, always smiling, and a mother to all his students and younger colleagues. Indian science has cause to be grateful to them for the years they spent in India and their commitment to the country, and for the programmes and people they developed and grew." (Current Science, Vol. 61, No. 11, December 1991, p. 716)
Peters, originally from the German city of Posen (now Poznan, Poland), escaped Nazi Germany in 1934. With his wife Hannah, he first came to New York. In 1938, encouraged by J. Robert Oppenheimer, Peters enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, completed his Ph.D. in 1942, and from 1942-1945 worked on the Manhattan project. Meeting Bhabha at a conference in New York for the first time in 1949 was a stroke of good luck for both men. Peters, under persecution for his liberal politics, needed a new University and laboratory to call home and Bhabha, dedicated to the advancement of science and technology in India, sought to invite some of the best minds to conduct research, train and mentor Indian scientists.
Peters left Bombay for Copenhagen in 1959 but his association with TIFR and India did not end there. On one of his many trips back to Bombay in 1969 or in the early 1970s, Peters attended an exhibition of contemporary art at TIFR where the painting on offer was likely to have been exhibited. Having always admired the "Bhabha Gaitonde", Peters was immediately struck by the painting and acquired it sometime between 1969 and 1977. Peters met Gaitonde for the first time in December 1977 at a dinner hosted by G. K. Menon in Peters' honor. Gaitonde and Peters spent the very next day together.
"Today Gaitonde picked me up and we went to see his studio, a small place with large terrace. He is a very sympathetic man, bachelor with no family, reads, plays music and paints. He has only 3 canvases at home, sells all he makes." (Bernard Peters letter to his wife Hannah from Bombay dated 17 December 1977)
This painting connects two great scientists to a momumental time in India's history. In the early years of post-Independence India artists and scientists shared a common belief that for India to advance and join the ranks of the greatest nations new discoveries and new ways of understanding the universe were necessary. Modernity rests in the equal development and acknowledgement of the limitless potential of art and science.