Modernism, Again


by Vivek Menezes

There’s something deeply rotten about the way the international cultural phenomenon known as Modernism is studied, everywhere in the world. And everyone in the know realizes that we are fast approaching a tipping point that will entirely upturn the global narrative.

This has been an international problem for a long time, because the subject has usually been addressed with different parts of the globe kept conceptually distinct from each other for no good reason. And it is also a huge problem for the subcontinent, where a similar problem has persisted – scholars focus on the Bengal Renaissance to the maddening exclusion of everything else. But in all of this, both in India and the West, there is a curious and sustained reluctance to reckon with the very obvious evidence as it exists, a widespread phenomenon I have no hesitation as characterizing as both stubborn and lazy.

This is because the evidence to challenge most prevailing assumptions is extraordinarily copious, and literally wherever you want to look, so that it obviously requires a certain wilfullness to ignore it. This issue has caused me considerable anger and sorrow over the years, as I have become steadily involved without ever intending to do so. This Monday piece for 3QD is an unusually personal account of an art historical conundrum which I stumbled on with no idea of what was coming. It still wound up turning my life upside down.

[E]very Museum of Modern Art in the United States and Europe should be required, in the spirit of truth in advertising, to change its name to Museum of Western Modernism until it has earned the right to do otherwise.” Holland Cotter, New York Times 2008

Around twenty years ago, I spent about 18 months working from Bombay on assignment from Equipe Cousteau in Paris. In my very early 20’s, it was a reckoning with my home city on my own terms after more than a decade studying in the US, UK and France.

It happened that there were many others like me back home at the same time after years studying abroad – the economy was opening widely, multinational firms had started to recognize India’s growth potential, and we could all see a growing entrepreneurial zeal that was going to pay rich dividends in a fairly short while.

That is exactly what happened. The companies set up in that period include many of India’s best and most successful domestic and international brands, creating massive wealth for their owners. And the party boys whose drinks I once always paid for (Parisian salary!) have become billionaires, one crisp dollar bill fact to keep in mind as we proceed in this unlikely narrative.

But I was never destined to be that kind of rich, and have known it from day one. The focus of my passions has always been different.

Riding out by mere bicycle in the late evening cool from my office at Wellington Mews in Colaba, I developed a habit of going to the art galleries of the city for an hour or two before their closing time, and became a constant pestering presence who demanded to see every single item in the deepest recess of their collections. And I bought with some assiduousness too.

In those days – still the early 90’s – only very few people were interested in the very best Indian painters of the 20th century, let alone younger artists. Small masterpieces with impeccable provenance sold for a couple hundred dollars – I gathered as many as I could. Exemplary large works rarely ever crossed a thousand dollars, and I secured several of them too: Souza, Gaitonde, Ram Kumar.

I sat looking at this magnificent trove for months and months, opening myself up the work as well as I could, and eventually – I swear grudgingly – allowed myself to accept what my eyes and brain consistently insisted was an absolute truth: these Indian paintings – bought by a chump from nowhere like me for trivial cash were every bit the equal of the storied 20th century art I’d spent years dutifully viewing in Europe, the Americas and Russia over the past years.

Do remember the times: the market clearly did not agree with me, and almost no art critic anywhere in the world (my friend Ranjit Hoskote was an unusual exception), but still I became convinced to my core that this was very important art which was being incomprehensibly overlooked.

But also here, dear sympathetic and patient 3QD reader, is where the story becomes quite complicated. After 1995 (which is when I married, and moved back to New York) , the paintings I looked at on lonely monsoon evenings in Bombay, always valued so very little by anyone, including their own gallerists,suddenly became prime acquisition material for India’s huge and ambitious class of conspicuous consumers – those same friends I mentioned earlier – who have become the global ultra-rich in a trice.

Within five years of buying these paintings, I was being offered ten times what I paid by the gallerists themselves, then they lost all sense altogether and the offers became 100 and even 200 times the original price.

This warping factor of far too much money immediately led to the development of an extraordinarily fraudulent sector in the Indian economy – fakes outnumbering real paintings, a host of instant-art-experts, an unseemly (and disastrous) focus on art as investment vehicle, and a huge bubble that gave NY more Indian galleries than had ever existed in Bombay (followed by an ugly bust that is now hurting every practicing artist in India).

But even as I was somewhat gratified that Souza + Gaitonde and their friends were finally getting the recognition that they have always richly deserved, there was an increasing sense of horror to learn that they were preceded by an entire school of modernist painters from Goa and Bombay, many of whom were almost totally unknown by even Indian scholars, who remain focused on Bengal and the Shantiniketan school in a most stunningly obdurate manner.

It was sheer shock when I re-encountered the works of Angelo da Fonseca, the almost entirely unknown Goan artist of the early 20th century whose works are among the exemplars of the Shantiniketan style, and represents a marvellous bridge between the east and west coast schools of art in early 20th century India.

As happened a couple of decades ago with the Souza and Gaitonde, I entirely ignored the existing “scholarship” and let the paintings speak for themselves – it wasn’t long before I realized that I was dealing with one of the very greatest and most important artists of his time. What is more, Fonseca became the key figure in a renewed case. Now, I (and a growing groundswell of others) believe the conditions for Modernism occurred first in Goa in the entire subcontinent, and the Goa-Bombay-(and possibly) Karachi modernist axis is easily the most important and influential that took place in the subcontinent (Bengal’s “Renaissance” is quite trivial by comparison).

The day I read Holland Cotter’s review of Nandalal Bose’s show in Philadelphia (quoted above) I realized that history is finally turning in the right direction – watch this space for just a few more years.