Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Art: Masters under the hammer

The fall art auction season emphasizes the continuing international interest in Indian moderns and masters. While Christie’s South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art auction in New York on 14 September takes a risk and attempts to revive interest in works by contemporary Indian artists, the highlights at the Saffronart sale on 8 September and Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art auction in London on 18 October continue to be prominent works by the former.

“The trend across the art world and paralleling within the Indian scene, is a look at underrepresented or undervalued modernists and masters who are getting a critical reappraisal in museum exhibitions and academic publications…. The institutional exposure gives credence and confidence to collectors," says Yamini Mehta, international head of South Asian art at Sotheby’s. In the past four-five years, says Saffronart founder Dinesh Vazirani, collectors have also begun to purchase significant works with the sole purpose of building private museum collections. As a result, fewer works are available for sale, and those that are tend to be steeply priced.

We look at a few highlights and intriguing pieces from the three auctions:

Akbar Padamsee

Two of Padamsee’s “grey works" are available this season. Going under the hammer for the very first time is Greek Landscape, which has been hanging in artist Krishen Khanna’s dining room ever since he bought it for 1,000, after being mesmerized by its image, printed in the invitation to the exhibition organised by the Jehangir Art Gallery and Gallery 59, Bombay, in 1960.

At an estimated price of 7-9 crore, this is one of four monumental paintings that featured in the exhibition of 12 canvases painted entirely in different tones of grey. Another of the larger works from the show, titled Juhu, was bought by M.F. Husain, but is now lost; Husain loaned it to an exhibition and no one knows what happened to it thereafter, says Vazirani.

The 1960 exhibition itself attracted attention since it was Padamsee’s first solo show after his exhibition at the Jehangir Art Gallery six years earlier had been disrupted, and he had been charged with obscenity for paintings inspired by the Khajuraho erotic sculptures.

Padamsee says the title of the landscape, showing influences from cubism, in the Saffronart lot didn’t come from him. “Krishen (Khanna) gave it that name. It is just a landscape. I’ve never even been to Greece," he told the Saffronart team. Padamsee has said he found great freedom in making these works of a single colour, which enabled him to move his brush freely and without interruptions. However, he didn’t continue with the series for very long.

The Christie’s auction offers a smaller grey canvas, Untitled (Head), from 1962, for $30,000-50,000 (around 20-33.5 lakh).

Also read: The search for future Modernists

FN Souza

The works of this co-founder of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group have always been important at auctions. While several of Saffronart and Christie’s lots are devoted to him, The Deposition: Burial Of Christ, 1963, forms the top lot at the Sotheby’s sale. This is a sympathetic look at Christ’s suffering. “He tackled a subject that has been painted throughout history here, referencing Titian and El Greco, in essence binding himself to a pantheon of great masters," says Mehta. “The painting’s universal themes of loss and love contribute to the painting’s extraordinary wall power."

Against the backdrop of a stormy sky painted in mournful grey and blue, the blood-spattered and severely flogged body of Christ is lowered by his followers, even as a weeping Mary is being comforted on the side. Souza’s works from his years in London, where he first made an impact as an artist, are highly coveted, and this lot is estimated at £400,000-600,000 ( 3.5-5.3 crore).

The 13 Souzas on sale at the Saffronart auction include Christ On Palm Sunday (estimated at 2.5-4.5 crore), the only painting to be sold at an exhibition organised by the London Gallery in Michigan. Those collecting the artist’s works will find interesting a small 1943 watercolour of a Goa harbour (estimated at 25-35 lakh), created when Souza was barely in his 20s. Painted in warm, uplifting tones, this immature work is unrecognizable as a Souza, and yet is exciting as a formative moment in his artistic journey. Of similar interest would be an early Amrita Sher-Gil pencil sketch of a scene from a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Tinderbox (estimated at 25-35 lakh), done during her school years.

VS Gaitonde

Ever since the Guggenheim retrospective of V.S. Gaitonde in 2014-15, the artist has achieved stupendous results at auctions and garnered much more interest among international collectors. All three forthcoming auctions have Gaitonde’s works from the 1970s as their top lot. Gaitonde was considered to be at his peak during this period. This was when he had returned from the US, where he had gone as a Rockefeller Fellow and met artists like Mark Rothko. These vertical canvases of “non-objective" paintings reflect his mastery over light and the meditative silences influenced by the Zen philosophy that influenced his life and work. Since he didn’t create more than 300-400 canvases in his lifetime, it’s difficult to acquire prominent works by him—his inclusion in these auctions is indicative of the perseverance of these auction houses.

The Sotheby’s lot consists of an untitled vertical canvas from 1973, estimated at £900,000 to £1.4 million, in luminous emeralds and turquoise, unlike the subdued hues that are seen in the paintings in the Christie’s and Saffronart lots. Christie’s canvas from 1970, estimated at $1.8-2.2 million, was acquired by Jamshed J. Bhabha, and forms part of the collection of the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai. Saffronart has two pieces, but the more valuable is a 1970 canvas that was exhibited in New Delhi in 1971, when it was acquired by a private collection in the US, where it had remained since.

Jehangir Sabavala

Jehangir Sabavala’s vast, poetic landscapes have the ability to stop a person in their tracks. Stag Antlered Trees, 1967, shows a barren landscape, populated by bare-limbed trees, and what at first glance seem like rocks, but on closer view turn out to be women in shrouds walking the brown expanse. The breathtaking painting, which is a part of the Saffronart sale, is estimated at 1.2-1.5 crore.

Ganesh Pyne

Sotheby’s has on sale a rare 1969 work on canvas by Ganesh Pyne coming from a Swiss estate, depicting, as Mehta says, “an ethereal goddess figure amidst a starry background", standing next to a fountain. According to Sotheby’s, Pyne started using the fountain motif after he was struck by the symbolism of the cycle of life in Federico Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita.

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