La Gioconda and all the rest

Art Issue 93 Nov, 2010

 The Air France air hostess asked, “Café? Thé?” The tone of her voice was lilting and musical.
“Thé, sil vous plait. Merci becoup !” I answered, glad to put into practice what little French I knew.

She was tall, slim, and dressed in a close fitting blue top and a short skirt that hugged the shapely contours of her curvaceous hips. My eyes followed her as she walked along; even the narrow aisle was no hindrance to the feline grace of her movements. Ah! I thought, she is a work of art indeed. I was on my way to Paris and art was uppermost on my mind, particularly the Tour de Eiffel and Mona Lisa, two sublime examples of man’s creative endeavors. But, as I continued to watch this particular work of art on two long and shapely legs, I had to admit, no human artist can ever match Him. Perhaps Pierre-Auguste Renoir was the one artist who has come closest to the Maker till now. Of course, that is only my personal view, but doubtless, there are many who will agree that Renoir’s art epitomizes the transcendent and the sensual in such a way as to define art in its most simplest of terms as a process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions.
Often criticized for his frivolous themes like flowers and beautiful landscapes, children and women, Renoir’s paintings were characterized by sparkling luminosity and rich color, candid and brazen sensuality. Renoir’s response to critics was, “Why shouldn’t art be pretty? There are enough unpleasant things in the world.” His Bal au Moulin de la Galette, Montmartre sold for $78.1 million in 1990 becoming one of the most expensive paintings ever sold. Renoir was part of the 19th century Impressionist Movement. Courbet’s The Painter’s Studio, Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, Monet’s Le Bassin aux Nymphéas ($80.4m, 2008), Degas’ Ballet Rehearsal, Pissarro’s The Garden of Pontoise and Sisley’s The Bridge at Moret-sur-Loing are some fine examples of Impressionist works.

Paris and Her Beauty
But wait awhile, before I get carried away by such soul-champagne, let me finish what I started. I landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport, saw more of God’s lovely works of art scattered around the lounges, appreciated their sensuality, went to the hotel, dropped my bags and then scooted away to the Tour de Eiffel. Alas, the lift was out of order, but that didn’t stop me huffing and puffing my way up to the third floor where I had a spectacular view of the Seine. Having photographed myself (proof for back home) and not having the luxury of more time, I next planned to visit the Musée du Louvre to see Mona Lisa. But what bad luck!  It was under repairs/renovation and would be closed for the next two weeks. Oh Mona Lisa – the gods appear to be plotting against our fatal meet! I experienced the vibrancy of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, however, and the majesty of gothic architecture of the Notre Dame de Paris. These, and L’arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile, the world’s largest triumphal arch, great works of art in themselves.

Back to the Impressionists. There are plenty of talented artists in artistically rich Nepal who have been influenced by the likes of Renoir and Cezanne. But, go deeper, and the truth comes out:   everybody wants to be ‘contemporary’. So, they attest to be more modern in their works. Go deeper, and you will find that the most commonly bandied about words are  ‘contemporary’ and ‘post modern’, but in the end most works are described (more safely) as ‘semi abstract’. Nevertheless, even if Pablo Picasso and Salvatore Dali are the contemporary icons, most artists here are instinctively drawn towards Paul Gauguin, a leading Post-Impressionist, and Georges-Pierre Seurat, who initiated Neo-Impressionism. Gauguin’s masterpiece, D’où venons nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nou, is valued at over $39 million. One of Seurat’s best known works is A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

Here and There
An interesting comparison can be made between the youthful Kasthamandap Art Studio (KAS) of Lalitpur founded in 1994 (Asha, Erina, Binod, Pramila, Bhairaj, Pradip, Sunila) and the Impressionists, founded by an equally young group in France in 1874. The Impressionists left an indelible mark on history. KAS is relatively successful and perhaps some of its members too might leave imprints, but there are some who talk about progression and such. A pet theory of mine concerning progression in art: While there may be an abundance of talent in painting and other fields like sculpture, music, literature, sports and so on, there are precious few blessed with the gift.  At the risk of sounding gauche, let me elaborate. A vast chasm lies between the ordinary and those deemed extraordinary. The chasm is filled with many who lie somewhere in between. Very few have the gift. Equally relevant is that, those with the gift produce as extraordinary works in the beginning as they will be producing decades later. Progression, to such gifted people, can only mean something like a change of style or a change of preferred subject matter. The gift is already there – it will remain so.

Does Kiran Manandhar, a leading proponent of contemporary art here, have the gift? He calls himself an ‘Expressionist’ and so one of his idols must surely be Van Gogh. A pioneer of Expressionism, six of Van Gogh’s works feature among the top 30 most-expensive paintings in the world. These are, Portrait of Dr. Gachet (sold for $82.5 million in 1990), Portrait de l’artiste sans barbe ($71.5m, 1998), Irises ($53.9m, 1987), Portrait of Joseph Roulin (over $58m, 1989), A Wheatfield with Cypresses ($57m, 1993), Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers ($39.7m, 1987) and Peasant Woman Against a Background of Wheat ($47.5m, 1997). And, of course, who doesn’t know about The Starry Night?
Kiran too has had a successful tenure. His fame here is rightly accompanied by sincere respect. Perhaps he has earned a fair amount of fame abroad as well.  But here is where the question arises, “Which particular work of his comes to mind when talking about him?” Difficult, if not impossible to name any. This question applies to most Nepalese artists including the likes of Shashi Shah, Uttam Nepali, Madan Chitrakar, Uma Shanker Shah, Sarita Dangol; the list goes on and on. So, this pet theory of mine: no artist (painter, sculptor, writer, musician, filmmaker, etc…) can claim that all his or her works are equally outstanding. Some books will be bestsellers, some will bomb. Some music will be chartbusters, some will be duds; some films will be hits, some will flop. Similarly, not all canvases by an artist will be a masterpiece. So, a painting must have its individual identity. It must have a name. The work must be famed before the artist himself can claim to be so.

The Price of Art
Back again to our impromptu art lesson. Cézanne, whose Rideau, Cruchon et Compotier sold for $60.5 million in 1999, bridged the divide between Impressionism and Cubism. The dawn of the 20th century saw the rise of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque they pioneered the Cubism movement of which Juan Gris soon enough also became a leading proponent.  And then, the art world was never the same again. Cubism was revolutionary in the truest sense of the word. The world embraced this radically novel idea and Picasso. In the said list of 30 highest-priced paintings, seven are by Picasso: Garçon a La Pipe ($104.2m, 2004), Dora Maar au Chat ($95.2m, 2006), Femme aux Bras Croisés  ($55m, 2000), Femme Assise Dans Un Jardin ($49.6m, 1999), Les Noces de Pierrette ($49.3m, 1989), Le Rêve ($48.4m, 1997), Yo, Picasso ($47.85m, 1989), Au Lapin Agile ($40.7m, 1989) and Acrobate et jeune Arlequin ($38.5m, 1988). Of course, one of Picasso’s greatest paintings is Guernica. Two great examples of Braque’s works are Violin and Candlestick and Woman with a Guitar, and of Gris, his Portrait of Picasso.
No contemporary artist denies that Cubism freed them from preconceived ideas. Shyam Lal Shrestha is one Nepali artist who admits, “Shades of Cubism – yes; that is what some people have noticed in my works.” Many here have dabbled in this art form, but it is well nigh impossible to do it well and still be original. Some might think that with Cubism began modern art; but no, in the labyrinthine world of art, terminology is not that simple. The modern art period extended from the 1860s through the 1970s beginning with the Romantics, Realists and Impressionists. Some good examples of Romantic works are: Constable’s Dedham Vale and The Hay Wain; Turner’s The fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up and Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott. As for Realism: Sargent’s Madame X and Achenbach’s Abendstimmung in der Campagna are two excellent examples. In a sense, Nepali artists Shashikala Tiwari’s works could be perceived as somewhat romantic in nature.

And Even More isms
Next came Post-Impressionism and Symbolism followed by Contemporary or Post Modern Art such as Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, Futurism and later still, Surrealism. Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I and Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II sold for $135million and $87.9 million respectively in 2006, becoming two of the highest priced works of the Symbolism style. Salvador Dali’s surrealist work, La Persistencia de la Memoria, is his most famous painting. Another famous surrealist work is The Enigma of the Hour by Giorgio de Chirico. The latter half of the 20th century saw the emergence of Abstract Expressionists like Willem de Kooning whose Woman III fetched $137.5million in 2007 and Police Gazette, $63.5 million in 2006. Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko are two other abstract expressionists whose works have created sales history. Pollock’s No. 5, 1948 was bought for $140 million in 2006 (becoming the highest priced painting) while Mark Rothko’s White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose) was auctioned for $72.8 in 2007.

Other styles emerged: Color Field Pinting, Pop Art, Op Art, Hard-Edge Painting, Minimal Art, Lyrical Abstraction, Post-Minimalism, Photorealism, Land Art, Performance Art, Conceptual Art, etc. Larger installations and performances became widespread. Andy Warhol is of course the guru of Pop Art, his Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I) was auctioned for $71.7million in 2007. In Nepal, there are plenty of young artists vying for their place in the sun and following the footsteps of the famous avant-garde artists. Among them is Sujan Chitrakar who calls himself a ‘visual interpreter’ and is trying to establish even newer terms like ‘artivity’. Ashmina Ranjit seems determined to make installation art her particular forte and Manish Lal Shrestha has succeeded to some extent in endowing a particular hallmark to his abstract works. There are plenty of Nepali artists today who are making efforts to innovate and improvise even further on the already large plethora of contemporary and post modern styles. That they are facing tough times ahead, is true. Art has flourished most during peacetime and particularly when patrons (royalty, aristocrats and corporate giants) have been in a benevolent mood. Royalty is history (at least here), the aristocracy, what is left of it, is trying to keep low, and the corporate big wigs are trying to stay afloat in a recessionary world today. Tough times indeed. If an example was needed to vindicate this point, consider this exchange I witnessed recently at an artist group’s studio:
Lady art dealer from Delhi, India: “I can’t give you the prices you have quoted. Even in India, artists of the same standards as yours offer much lower prices. Why, one artist here brought down his price from 5,000 rupees to 1000 rupees just yesterday. “
The artists (three of them) look at the lady. They say nothing.
Art dealer: “Look, I will be incurring all the costs of transportation and exhibition. I have to offer reasonable prices to clients. What have you to lose?”
Artist (one of the three): “Let’s sit down and discuss in detail.”
Lady art dealer: “I want to finalize the deal today. You’ll have to bring down your prices. Otherwise, it’s no deal. You can keep them with you. Another thing I want to make clear   I can’t guarantee that any of your paintings will be sold. If that’s the case, you will get them back.”
If this is an example of the state of the art world and artists here, there’s not much left to say. Studios are accumulating heaps of unsold art work. Speaking personally, I have always been envious of artists, but nowadays I feel sympathetic to their plight.

The Greatest of Them All
But envy and sympathies aside, let’s not stop celebrating art. And there’s no better way to do so than by going back to the beginnings, namely, to the Renaissance Period (1400-1600). My earliest impressions of all things artistic were fuelled by the awe inspiring paintings of the Old Masters. And although most of their works are priceless, Titian’s Diana and Actaeon was sold for $70.6 million this year. Similarly, Paul Rubens’ Massacre of the Innocents was auctioned for $76.7 in 2002 and Pontormo’s Portrait of a Halberdier went for $35.2million in 1989. The Renaissance Period was replete with great masters, the most famous being Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Rubens and Rembrandt.
Michelangelo was as great a sculptor as a painter, and David is his immortal legacy. As a painter, his Genesis, a magnificent fresco, and The Creation of Adam as well as The Last Judgment are truly breathtaking works. Raphael’s The School of Athens, Titian’s Venus and Adonis, Ruben’s Venus before the Mirror, and Rembrandt’s The Night Watch are celebrated canvases. Then there is of course, the greatest of them all: Leonardo da Vinci. His The Last Supper and the Vitruvian Man are priceless legends. As is, La Gioconda.

For those thinking that I might have missed out on something – perhaps the most famous work in the world, and the most valuable (valued at $700 million to $1 billion), you are mistaken. I have already done so – La Gioconda – in other words, Mona Lisa.