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The Underrecognized History of Indian Artists in Paris

The Underrecognized History of Indian Artists in Paris

Posted on : 09/01/2015 12:19pm
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Paris has always been an artistic Mecca: its museums, salons, and art schools are known for beckoning creative figures from all over the world. The Parisian influence on Western modernism in particular is well-trodden art historical territory: in the 19th and 20th centuries, Spaniards like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí, Americans like Man Ray and Mary Cassatt, and Italians like Amedeo Modigliani all famously lived and worked in the City of Light.


Less well-known, but equally significant, is the impact that French artistic movements have had on modern Indian artists. India’s French Connection: Indian Artists in France, on view at New York’s DAG Gallery, offers a long-overdue survey of the many Indian artists who studied and worked in Paris in the 20th century — all of whom have largely been excluded from the French art historical canon.


Though artists like Amrita Sher-Gil and Shiavax Chavda had already made Paris their artistic home between the First and Second World Wars, it was only in the post-WWII period that many Indian artists travelled to Paris to study in the hallowed classrooms of the École des Beaux-Arts, Académie Julian, Atelier 17, and Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Seeking to break out of the rigid structures of colonial arts education, artists like Jehangir Sabavala, S.H. Raza, Akbar Padamsee, Sakti Burman and Krishna Reddy made their way to France, followed by many others. After Indian independence, the project of nation-building overpowered all other national interests, and arts education continued to follow the archaic colonial curriculum. Paris’ promise of modernism and its vibrant cultural milieu promised the Indian artists a greater artistic freedom.


These artists were welcomed and encouraged in Paris, often through fellowships. Raza, known for his geometric abstractions, was even awarded the Prix de la Critique in 1956. However, Indians have largely been ignored in historical surveys of artists who lived and worked in France. In fact, when the Louvre opened in Abu Dhabi in 2017, Raza was the only South Asian artist on exhibition.


DAG’s show seeks to correct this erasure. It begins with the work of Amrita Sher-Gil, a pioneering Hungarian-Indian painter who moved to Paris at age 16 and attended both the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and the École des Beaux-Arts between 1929-33. It follows with the lesser known V. Nageshkar, who migrated from India to Munich and witnessed the horrors of Nazi nationalism before being exiled from Germany. Even during the rise of abstraction, Nageshkar’s art was more figurative, marked by themes of suffering and grief, often embodied by the figure of Christ. Often painted in red and green, his hollow-eyed figures read as expressions of the violence he witnessed during his time in Munich. Most striking is an untitled 1949 watercolor of a pained Christ, drawn in green, bleeding under his crown of thorns.

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