Updated: Nov 10, 2020
Part One: Looking Back to Look Ahead
by Ranjan Kaul
If you’ve visited an art fair or an art gallery in the past few years, you might have been bewildered by the seeming complexity of the myriad types of exhibits on display. Besides the traditional strands of visual art, such as painting, sculpture and print-making, you’d have most likely come across other kinds of art, ranging from digital art to installations and audio-visual content perhaps cloaked behind black curtains. As you moved around, looking interested and knowledgeable, several questions may have arisen in your mind. How do I comprehend these works? Do I need an art background to appreciate them? What was the underlying intent of the artists in the creation of these works? Well, this essay tries to answer these and similar questions.
During the four decades of frequenting art exhibitions, similar questions crossed my mind. However, over the years, I’ve come to realize that at no stage is the study of art complete and one will always end up feeling there’s so much more to explore. Art is as old as when humans began painting in caves and crafting exquisite pieces of pottery and jewellery. But lack of in-depth knowledge of art shouldn’t mean that you deny yourself the pleasures that visual art can give, pleasures that human beings have enjoyed since ancient times. A life without art, music, poetry can be dull and dreary. And the beauty of it is that all you need to make sense of art as being practised today is an open and enquiring mind.
So let’s begin our journey to the wonderful world of contemporary art, light and easy, without its baggage of genres and “isms” and movements. However, it will be helpful and interesting to walk through art developments in the past century. Art in this period reflected in many ways the social and political situation of that time and paralleled literary writings. The 20th century saw the ugly face of fascism; the untold miseries of the Second World War; devastations wreaked by plagues, famines and pandemics. At the same time, many countries fought for and won independence from colonial rule; there was an assertive rise of feminism; humans landed on the moon; the internet revolution transformed lives. Importantly, for art, photography and cinema also came into the mainstream.
In tandem with and in response to the changing dynamics, visual artists across the world were
breaking fresh ground. Rebelling against accepted traditions in art, typically realism, they experimented with form and treatment, such as stylization, abstract depiction, use of heavy brushstrokes or, contrastingly, use of flat colours as often seen in cave and tribal art. Some artists focused on their individual emotional expressions and responses, while others reacted to political developments. For instance, in the West, Norwegian artist Edvard Munch expressed his inner emotional turmoil and his childhood anxieties. His iconic work known as “The Scream” (or sometimes “The Cry”) depicts a person, alone on a dock on eddying waters with hands clasping the visage, crying out in anguish beneath a swirling sky (see Image 1). The legendary Spanish artist Pablo Picasso’s large political work “Guernica” (Image 2) was his response to the aerial bombing of civilians of the Basque town of Guernica by the military air force during the Spanish War. The mostly monochromatic painting aroused immense disquiet among its viewers, with its exaggerated figures of a startled horse, a traumatized bull, a crying mother with her dead child in her arms, and other such unnerving images. There were yet other artists there who gave full rein to their imagination like the brilliant Spanish artist Salvador Dali who painted surprising surreal works.
Image 1. The Scream by Edvard Munch, National Gallery of Norway, Public Domain
Image courtesy: Wikimedia https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69541493
Image 2. Guernica by Pablo Picasso in Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid
Image courtesy: Flickr https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
In India, artist Chittoprasad Bhattacharya created heart-wrenching woodcuts on the Bengal famine and flood victims (Image 3); Satish Gujral and Krishen Khanna depicted the anguish of the aftermath of the Indian Partition, just as Khushwant Singh captured the trauma in his novel, Train to Pakistan. Jamini Roy on the other hand went back to his roots and derived his inspiration from Bengal folk art; the legendary Ramkinkar Baij sculpted masterpieces of the tribals in the region around Santiniketan where he practised (Image 4); the Indo-Hungarian artist Amrita Sher-Gil initially drew inspiration from European painters but later got more drawn towards pre-colonial Indian art and culture. There were other artists who borrowed ideas and inspiration from ancient cave art from across the world: Egyptian cave paintings, the rock art of Latin America, Ajanta and Ellora caves in western India, and so on.
Image 3. Flood Victims by Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, woodcut
Image courtesy: The Waswo X. Waswo Collection of Indian Printmaking,
University of Iowa, Stanley Museum of Art
Image 4. Santhal Family by Ram Kinkar Baij 1938
Image courtesy: Biswarup Ganguly, CC BY 3.0
The major turning point in art occurred when artist and sculptor Marcel Duchamp in 1917 submitted a porcelain urinal signed R. Mutt as an artwork; this, unsurprisingly, created a huge controversy. Such forays that challenged accepted notions of what constitutes art were precursors to contemporary art. Some artists began to feel that art was losing its public appeal and social relevance and questioned the traditionally practised notions of art. This questioning gave way to movements such as pop art, which included imagery from popular and mass culture, such as advertising and comic books, and minimalism as defined by starkness and simplicity. Visual art also moved beyond painting, sculpture and print-making to experiment with new available mediums such as photography, film and digital technology; some artists also explored overlaps with other disciplines like theatrical performance and architecture.
Visual art as it has evolved over the past several decades and as it is being practised today is a natural continuum. There is really no singular, sweeping description that can describe what contemporary art is about. To put it simply, contemporary art is that which is produced by artists during our lifetime – future generations might ascribe it a name or describe it as an “ism” but there’s nothing we have to define it here and now. Contemporary art has become extremely diverse and multidisciplinary, including new strands like performance art that combines visual art with live dramatic performance; innovative installation projects; assemblages using waste materials; and use of technology to create audio-visual as well as digital art forms. Artists today are boldly and imaginatively venturing into uncharted territory to express themselves, reflect societal concerns as equally to give viewers a fuller sensory and immersive experience.
In the next part of this three-part essay we will look at ways to view and make sense of visual art. The third and concluding part will examine a couple of important current art trends with examples of works of contemporary Indian art practitioners.
[Cover image: "Red rain" by Rita Prasad, leather & acid 13'x13' area 2006]
Ranjan Kaul is a visual artist, art writer, author, and Founding Partner of artamour.