Nature is so beautiful, it makes you feel sad. It also makes you feel elevated simultaneously. This is not a contradiction. It's like the crest and trough of a wave. The same wave, life and death, birth and rebirth
- Ganesh Pyne
Ganesh Pyne began using tempera as his primary medium in the mid-1960s and his longstanding experiments with indigenous powder pigments and various binding agents like gum acacia allowed him to develop a unique way of gradually building up surface and texture on canvas. Known for his meticulous draughtsmanship and delicate handling of pigment, Pyne only finished about ten paintings a year. As spiritually demanding as it was physically, the artist’s practice frequently grappled with death and decay following his own early experiences of trauma and loss. His “work is often described as melancholic, with watery canvases depicting dark scenes of ghostly, skeletal figures and spindly vegetation. His figures populate the interstices between living and dead, mundane and otherworldly, present and past.” (S. Bean, Midnight to the Boom, Painting in India after Independence, New York, 2013, p. 170)
Manipulating light and shadow with dexterity, Pyne’s paintings seem to emerge from these unexplored, interstitial spaces, simultaneously evoking balance and uncertainty, beauty and violence. Recognizing these dichotomies, the artist noted, “True darkness gives one a feeling of insecurity bordering on fear but it also has its own charms, mystery, profundity, a fairyland atmosphere.” (Artist statement, ‘Ganesh Pyne in Conversation with Arany Banerjee’, Lalit Kala Contemporary, April 1993, in N. Tuli, The Flamed Mosaic: Indian Contemporary Painting, Ahmedabad, 1997, p. 55)
In this exceptional painting from 1972, Pyne depicts what appears to be a hastily abandoned scene, where the absence of human life is immediately palpable. In the foreground, a smoldering pile of twigs indicates a recently doused fire, and a tether around the neck of a horse-like animal, the steed of a traveler who has perhaps broken journey for the night, speaks of captivity and service. However, in the deep violet surroundings lit by a lone star, Pyne draws back the curtain of reality, revealing another layer of this scene, almost like an afterlife. The artist has previously referred to this alternative reality as the ‘Twilight Zone’, which is “the meeting point of day and night, of life and death, of love and agony – where everything is seen in a different light.” (Artist statement, G. Sen, ‘Encounter in the Twilight Zone’, Image and Imagination, Five Contemporary Artists in India, Ahmedabad, 1996, p. 124)
Here, in this “different light”, the clearing is drained of warmth, appearing unsettling rather than welcoming. Instead of a tame and docile animal at the end of the tether, the viewer encounters the skeletal figure of a primeval beast, lingering quietly in the gloom. The dark shadows surrounding this apparition highlight the mastery with which Pyne has layered translucent pigments in complex, overlapping cross-hatches to fashion an ethereal creature from both positive and negative space. Interspersing dark, void-like hollows between fine, individuated brushstrokes, the artist creates the impression of an x-ray, exposing ribs and bones with only the slightest suggestion of flesh or other signs of corporeality.