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LOT 37

Untitled (Bird, Tree and Mountain Series)

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ANOTHER PROPERTY

Oil on canvas
31 1/2 × 45 1/4 in. (80 × 114.9 cm.)

Typed ‘DMG174/JS/9 32 x 45 / J. SWAMINATHAN’ on a Dhoomimal Gallery label on reverse

PROVENANCE:
Dhoomimal Gallery, New Delhi, stock number DMG174/JS/9.

EXHIBITED:
Paintings by J. Swaminathan, Dhoomimal Gallery, New Delhi, 16 February – 3 March, 1979.

The poet and critic, Ashok Vajpeyi, once borrowed a book from the artist Jagdish Swaminathan, titled Castle of Purity, written by Swaminathan’s friend and mentor, Octavio Paz. Inside the book, he found a handwritten line from Paz to Swaminathan which stated, ‘To Swaminathan, who lives not in a castle, but in furious purity.’ (Ashok Vajpeyi, ‘Swaminathan’, Lalit Kala Contemporary 40, New Delhi, March 1995, p. 64) The poet’s note to his close friend provides a succinct summary of Swaminathan’s motivation in life, for in some sense, his whole artistic output can be understood as a quest for purity.

In August 1962, Swaminathan founded Group 1890. The manifesto of the Group, written by him, was an attack on the ‘vulgar naturalism’ of Ravi Varma, the ‘pastoral idealism’ of the Bengal School, and the ‘hybrid mannerism’ of European modernism. The manifesto urged artists to see phenomena in their ‘virginal state’, and for the creative act to be of its own volition and genesis. The act of painting, therefore, should remain unsullied by art historical concerns, nor should it be created as a response to them.

In Swaminathan’s early canvases one can, however, identify a range of symbols including the sun, lingam, swastika and snake that have traditional Indian sources. Yet, his approach was to present them in an informal manner which simulated the tribal approach. As a further step towards greater artistic purity, he relegated these forms to the periphery, and instead, experimented with pure colour tones contained within geometric forms, combining the circle, triangle and square within flat planes of colour, offset by an occasional spot of high impasto. His audience understood these works in terms of the philosophical concepts of Tantric art, but since this was not the artist’s primary intention, he moved away from these geometric forms as well, instead, adopting symbols from nature. This new phase is now known as his Bird, Tree and Mountain series.

‘His perception of this virginal state of phenomena he tried out in his paintings, creating an alternative pictorial space by dividing purely conceptual landscapes in bright colour fields on which appeared mountains, stretches of water, trees, diagonally levitating stones with an archetypal bird form. Painted with captivating simplicity his paintings explored the pictorial possibilities of this limited imagery which were emblematic of elements necessary for man’s survival on earth and interpretatively the numerous permutations and combinations of the imagery and bright colours suggested the ascent of man’s inner being, leaving the gross and the sullied.’ (Jagdish Swaminathan, ‘20th Century Museum of Contemporary Indian Art’, www.vadehraartgallery.com)

From the mid to late 1960s, this new pictorial language begins to surface in his works, marked by a combination of natural objects presented in intangible landscapes glowing with luminous colours. His landscapes can be understood as visual metaphors for the understanding of the Indian notion of Maya, which highlights the illusory nature of the manifest world. Instead of rendering the objects in a naturalistic manner, the artist presents idealised forms in unexpected ways, which distorts perspective and scale and rejects realism. The series melds together aspects of the indigenous aesthetic adopted in his earliest canvases, with the colour sensibility which he had explored through his Colour of Geometry series. Flirting with the metaphorical quality of the surrealists, while adhering to the formal characteristics of Indian miniature painting, he juxtaposes mountains, trees, rocks and animals against a flat monochromatic backdrop. The tranquil introspective nature of these paintings became the artist’s obsession, which evolved over the following decade.

The current lot was originally exhibited at Dhoomimal Gallery, New Delhi in 1979. This approximate date corresponds to an important change that is witnessed in the overall compositional structure of many works from the Bird, Tree and Mountain series. In the earliest paintings from the series, we tend to see the three main elements of the work, namely the Bird, the Tree and the Mountain, floating independently within glowing flat colour planes. Towards the end of the 1960s, these colour planes are then frequently contained within white borders on two sides, or broad coloured borders that entirely surround the central image. By the late 1970s, however, further divisions become common, and vertical white lines, as seen in the current painting, begin to dissect the picture plane. A secondary element that appears at this time is a flight of stairs or architectural blocks that rise from the base of the work.

It is unclear as to what inspired Swaminathan to add these elements to his paintings at this stage, but it is tempting to surmise that in these works he provides visual markers that hint at different layers of perception. Perhaps, the artist makes a visual divide between the manifest world of Maya and the unseen world beyond, one presented as a faint reflection of the other. The rising stairs provides a metaphor for the journey of the soul towards enlightenment, itself symbolised by the tree. Whatever his logic, which he no doubt intentionally leaves ambiguous, these later works provide a climax to fifteen years of his intense examination of the manifest and unmanifest universe.

‘Polemically speaking, Swaminathan wants to expunge man not only from his pictures but also from his imaginatively conceived universe. He takes that position in a sort of avenging rhetoric against the self-important man of history: the civilised man. Rhetoric apart, what he believes to be the most conducive to creativity is the state of consciousness of the primitive man in that he fraternises with nature through myth, ritual and symbol, thus relating himself with the forces of nature... He thus pleads for an art that is impersonal, where man’s uniqueness is not measured by his ego, and where his consciousness glimpses the infinite wonder of the universe rather than settling itself in the characteristic posture of a narcissus.’ (Geeta Kapur, J. Swaminathan, Contemporary Indian Artists, New Delhi, 1979, p. 194)
Condition: The colours of the original are slightly brighter than they appear in the catalogue illustration. Two very minor abrasions along the upper edge. Overall good condition.

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[ translate ]

ANOTHER PROPERTY

Oil on canvas
31 1/2 × 45 1/4 in. (80 × 114.9 cm.)

Typed ‘DMG174/JS/9 32 x 45 / J. SWAMINATHAN’ on a Dhoomimal Gallery label on reverse

PROVENANCE:
Dhoomimal Gallery, New Delhi, stock number DMG174/JS/9.

EXHIBITED:
Paintings by J. Swaminathan, Dhoomimal Gallery, New Delhi, 16 February – 3 March, 1979.

The poet and critic, Ashok Vajpeyi, once borrowed a book from the artist Jagdish Swaminathan, titled Castle of Purity, written by Swaminathan’s friend and mentor, Octavio Paz. Inside the book, he found a handwritten line from Paz to Swaminathan which stated, ‘To Swaminathan, who lives not in a castle, but in furious purity.’ (Ashok Vajpeyi, ‘Swaminathan’, Lalit Kala Contemporary 40, New Delhi, March 1995, p. 64) The poet’s note to his close friend provides a succinct summary of Swaminathan’s motivation in life, for in some sense, his whole artistic output can be understood as a quest for purity.

In August 1962, Swaminathan founded Group 1890. The manifesto of the Group, written by him, was an attack on the ‘vulgar naturalism’ of Ravi Varma, the ‘pastoral idealism’ of the Bengal School, and the ‘hybrid mannerism’ of European modernism. The manifesto urged artists to see phenomena in their ‘virginal state’, and for the creative act to be of its own volition and genesis. The act of painting, therefore, should remain unsullied by art historical concerns, nor should it be created as a response to them.

In Swaminathan’s early canvases one can, however, identify a range of symbols including the sun, lingam, swastika and snake that have traditional Indian sources. Yet, his approach was to present them in an informal manner which simulated the tribal approach. As a further step towards greater artistic purity, he relegated these forms to the periphery, and instead, experimented with pure colour tones contained within geometric forms, combining the circle, triangle and square within flat planes of colour, offset by an occasional spot of high impasto. His audience understood these works in terms of the philosophical concepts of Tantric art, but since this was not the artist’s primary intention, he moved away from these geometric forms as well, instead, adopting symbols from nature. This new phase is now known as his Bird, Tree and Mountain series.

‘His perception of this virginal state of phenomena he tried out in his paintings, creating an alternative pictorial space by dividing purely conceptual landscapes in bright colour fields on which appeared mountains, stretches of water, trees, diagonally levitating stones with an archetypal bird form. Painted with captivating simplicity his paintings explored the pictorial possibilities of this limited imagery which were emblematic of elements necessary for man’s survival on earth and interpretatively the numerous permutations and combinations of the imagery and bright colours suggested the ascent of man’s inner being, leaving the gross and the sullied.’ (Jagdish Swaminathan, ‘20th Century Museum of Contemporary Indian Art’, www.vadehraartgallery.com)

From the mid to late 1960s, this new pictorial language begins to surface in his works, marked by a combination of natural objects presented in intangible landscapes glowing with luminous colours. His landscapes can be understood as visual metaphors for the understanding of the Indian notion of Maya, which highlights the illusory nature of the manifest world. Instead of rendering the objects in a naturalistic manner, the artist presents idealised forms in unexpected ways, which distorts perspective and scale and rejects realism. The series melds together aspects of the indigenous aesthetic adopted in his earliest canvases, with the colour sensibility which he had explored through his Colour of Geometry series. Flirting with the metaphorical quality of the surrealists, while adhering to the formal characteristics of Indian miniature painting, he juxtaposes mountains, trees, rocks and animals against a flat monochromatic backdrop. The tranquil introspective nature of these paintings became the artist’s obsession, which evolved over the following decade.

The current lot was originally exhibited at Dhoomimal Gallery, New Delhi in 1979. This approximate date corresponds to an important change that is witnessed in the overall compositional structure of many works from the Bird, Tree and Mountain series. In the earliest paintings from the series, we tend to see the three main elements of the work, namely the Bird, the Tree and the Mountain, floating independently within glowing flat colour planes. Towards the end of the 1960s, these colour planes are then frequently contained within white borders on two sides, or broad coloured borders that entirely surround the central image. By the late 1970s, however, further divisions become common, and vertical white lines, as seen in the current painting, begin to dissect the picture plane. A secondary element that appears at this time is a flight of stairs or architectural blocks that rise from the base of the work.

It is unclear as to what inspired Swaminathan to add these elements to his paintings at this stage, but it is tempting to surmise that in these works he provides visual markers that hint at different layers of perception. Perhaps, the artist makes a visual divide between the manifest world of Maya and the unseen world beyond, one presented as a faint reflection of the other. The rising stairs provides a metaphor for the journey of the soul towards enlightenment, itself symbolised by the tree. Whatever his logic, which he no doubt intentionally leaves ambiguous, these later works provide a climax to fifteen years of his intense examination of the manifest and unmanifest universe.

‘Polemically speaking, Swaminathan wants to expunge man not only from his pictures but also from his imaginatively conceived universe. He takes that position in a sort of avenging rhetoric against the self-important man of history: the civilised man. Rhetoric apart, what he believes to be the most conducive to creativity is the state of consciousness of the primitive man in that he fraternises with nature through myth, ritual and symbol, thus relating himself with the forces of nature... He thus pleads for an art that is impersonal, where man’s uniqueness is not measured by his ego, and where his consciousness glimpses the infinite wonder of the universe rather than settling itself in the characteristic posture of a narcissus.’ (Geeta Kapur, J. Swaminathan, Contemporary Indian Artists, New Delhi, 1979, p. 194)
Condition: The colours of the original are slightly brighter than they appear in the catalogue illustration. Two very minor abrasions along the upper edge. Overall good condition.

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Time, Location
25 Apr 2024
India, Mumbai
Auction House
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