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ART HISTORY

When visuals speak: How the best critiques bring art to life

Print edition : Aug 10, 2022 T+T-

When visuals speak: How the best critiques bring art to life

Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

The publication of a new book of essays on art history inspires, in turn, this insightful piece that shows how the best art criticism makes a work of art come alive within the context in which it is made and received.

R. Nandakumar’s Insight and Outlook: Selected Essays on the Contemporary Art of Kerala is a much-awaited and very welcome addition to critical writing on the modern art of Kerala. I am also happy to see it in print because Nandakumar is not only one of the finest art historians of my generation but also a friend of many years. His engagement with art began before mine, but we started our careers as art historians around the same time. Unlike me, he entered the field of art history after a stint as a literary editor. That gave him a ringside familiarity with the Malayalam literary scene and an opportunity to engage with several of its leading lights from close. So, again unlike me, he entered the field with a rich bag of experience and a well-cultivated mind. That gave him a head start that has stood by him through all these years. But he was wise enough to realise that his old skills were not enough for imaginatively unpacking the visual, so he cultivated new ones with much dedication. And that is very evident in this book.

R. Nandakumar’s book is published by the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi and is priced at Rs.400.
R. Nandakumar’s book is published by the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi and is priced at Rs.400.

Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and K.G. Subramanyan, also Nasreen Mohamedi, helped him make this transition and gain a new outlook. All three of them were primarily artists; but Subramanyan and Sheikh, besides being well-informed and thoughtful artists, are also very articulate and astute thinkers. They helped him turn his mind in a new direction and, more importantly, take art and art writing as a serious vocation that needs constant alertness and probing without lapsing into triumphalism. Nandakumar has acknowledged this in his prologue. In my case, I received similar lessons from the historical examples set by Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee, and Ramkinkar Baij, who had cultivated an artistic culture of engagement and openness in Santiniketan, and from my interactions with artist-teachers like Subramanyan and Somnath Hore. 

While they gave us an ethics of engagement, we realised early on that art history was a relatively new discipline without many exemplars in India whom we could look up to and that we had to gather our tools and methodologies from authors and predecessors elsewhere. Thus, a careful reading of seminal art historians became a part of our self-education, and it opened us up to other cultures and their histories. I mention all this to draw the reader’s attention to the visual sensitivity and rich tradition of art history and methodological suppleness underpinning the essays in this book. On a personal note, I am also happy to find the names of Meyer Schapiro and Leo Steinberg, whom I consider two of the most innovative and liberal art historians of our period, mentioned in Nandakumar’s prologue. The two scholars jointly represent a formidable combination of commitment, attentiveness, scholarship, perceptiveness, methodological catholicity, expressive felicity, and intellectual provocativeness.

The readers of this book will find each of these qualities in varying measures in the essays it contains, be it a long historical overview of modern art in Kerala, a brief look at the drawings of a little-known artist who died tragically young, or an excursion into the work of a non-professional who stumbled upon art and then pursued it with passion without aspiring to art world fame. In the first, Nandakumar begins with a long preamble outlining the historical and cultural context in which Ravi Varma emerged and worked, and then goes on to demonstrate how it shaped his work and its reception in Kerala. Moving from the era of Ravi Varma to that of K.C.S. Paniker and the Madras School, he gives a very succinct but attentive reading of the formal aspects of Paniker’s work in each phase before delving into the aesthetic and conceptual underpinnings of his work and that of his followers, without failing to point out where they differ and where the conceptual fault lines lie in each of them. A similar critical treatment is seen in his analysis of Kanayi Kunhiraman’s public sculptures.

In an essay on Van Gogh (here, people watch a Van Gogh ‘Immersive Journey’ projection in Dublin, Ireland, on June 23), the art historian Meyer Schapiro commented on the oblong shape of the canvas and the inversion of perspective caused by the distribution of visual elements in it, and went on to propose a thought-provoking reading of his art and its psychological implications.
In an essay on Van Gogh (here, people watch a Van Gogh ‘Immersive Journey’ projection in Dublin, Ireland, on June 23), the art historian Meyer Schapiro commented on the oblong shape of the canvas and the inversion of perspective caused by the distribution of visual elements in it, and went on to propose a thought-provoking reading of his art and its psychological implications. | Photo Credit: REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

It does not matter whether one starts with a formal analysis of the work and moves toward the art historical, social, and political context that frames it or vice versa, whether we go from form to content or content to form, from the work of art to its conceptual underpinnings, or the other way round. What matters, as these essays demonstrate, is that we connect the two. A work of art comes alive and acquires meaning within the social, historical, and psychological context in which it is made and received. It is the art writer’s task to explore and lay this bare. Art is neither produced nor engaged with within a vacuum. If it were, it would have been marginal to our lives and that of the artist. Art is a tool that helps artists and their viewers to grapple with and understand life and the world they live in. That is why, I presume, there is a hierarchy in the arts based on each form’s functions apart from one based on its aesthetic or skill quotients. The work’s aesthetic itself can be seen as what conjoins the craft of making and the avowed function of the artwork.

FORM AND CONTENT

Wherever we start, it is imperative—except when dealing with pure conceptual or post-media artworks—to be attentive to form in art viewing and art writing. In visual and performing arts, content is inseparable from the container or the material body of the work of art. In literature, by contrast, the physical body, which includes the paper, the printing process, the font, the format, etc., is incidental and, at best, an embellishment. On the other hand, in all significant works of visual and performing art, content is materially embodied, and without paying close attention to form and its material aspects we cannot grasp the meaning of the work. In paintings, for instance, this includes the carrier, the pigments, the brush marks, the distribution and articulation of the elements, the format, the scale, the point of vision, and even the frame. In a remarkable essay on Van Gogh, Schapiro begins by commenting on the unusually oblong shape of the canvas and the inversion of perspective caused by the distribution of visual elements in it, and then by analysing the shifting use of perspective in his pictures proposes a thought-provoking reading of his art and its psychological implications. In another essay, he uses the presumably artless composition of Gustave Courbet’s A Burial at Ornans to launch into Courbet’s critical understanding of the prevalent social relations in his village.

An illustration from ‘Akbar Nama’ 1580 A.D. wherein Akbar is shown walking to the Dargah of Ajmer from Agra.
An illustration from ‘Akbar Nama’ 1580 A.D. wherein Akbar is shown walking to the Dargah of Ajmer from Agra.

Similarly, a very attentive reading of Michelangelo’s Sistine paintings has led Steinberg to propose some convincing but hitherto unthought-of readings that have much theological significance. Remarkably so, since these works have been closely studied by earlier scholars and many scholarly monographs have been written on them. Going further, he has demonstrated how formal disparities found in near-contemporary copies of the murals show up what was theologically unsettling in them to its first viewers. The collective blindness that has kept these suggestions hidden from the eyes of art historians sprang, at least partly, from their habit of ignoring what is overtly visible but lacks textual support. The privileging of textual sources unwittingly perpetuated by iconological studies turns artists into men lacking in intelligence, incapable of responding to their times independently and condemned to illustrate ideas textually expressed by their contemporaries. The practice of looking at the paintings of the Akbar Nama­​⁠—done by artists who knew Akbar and his time first-hand—only as illustrations to Abu’l Fazal’s text will suffice to underscore the limitations of art writing that fails to look at images attentively.

That is a mistake that social historians of art often make, but Nandakumar diligently avoids it even though he would like to be known as an art historian with a sociological perspective, and several essays in this volume can be categorised as social history and cultural criticism. In each of these sub-variants of art writing, he clearly wants his texts to be more than descriptive or formalist and does not fail to connect his formal observations with some broad theoretical concern, but he does this with subtlety and without subsuming the visual to the textual. Often, it is the visual that prompts him, as the two essays on photographs included here demonstrate, to assume a certain theoretical slant. And while such theoretical linkages may take different directions in individual essays, cumulatively they map an expansive field of concerns and a coherent outlook, as we would expect to find in any serious writer on art.

Nandalal Bose’s depiction of Gandhi’s Salt March. Bose cultivated an artistic culture of engagement and openness in Santiniketan.
Nandalal Bose’s depiction of Gandhi’s Salt March. Bose cultivated an artistic culture of engagement and openness in Santiniketan. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

The title Nandakumar has chosen for this collection, Insight and Outlook, not only acknowledges this but also underscores the inherent connection between outlook and insight. In all good writing, they work in tandem. Insight is what an art historian or critic gains from an informed engagement with the particularities of a work or a closely-knit group of works, and helps him to locate them within the larger field of history, ideas, and experience. This engagement might not move along predetermined lines and could involve many serendipitous discoveries but it is always guided by an outlook. An outlook can have many shades to it—philosophical, ideological, or aesthetic—and its dominant tenor can be intellectual, polemical, or prescriptive. Whatever that is, it colours the insights a writer transmits to his readers and without a valid insight his outlook would be simply idiosyncratic.

This symbiosis between insight and outlook is crucial. As a viewer and commentator, the writer is part of the writing. Of course, every sensible writer tries to transcend what are merely personal opinions or idiosyncratic biases. But informed understanding is not necessarily objective in an absolute sense. The writer’s experience, knowledge, and world view, all go into his writing, and his objectivity is conditional. One may not wear one’s outlook on one’s sleeve, but it is prudent not to pretend that it does not exist because careful readers will discover the writer’s subjectivity, and what readers look for is not a truth-proclaiming oracle or an infallible guru but an individual with whom he can enter into a meaningful and fruitful dialogue.

Nandakumar is aware of this and it is reflected in his language use. Although he is well-grounded in the art historical, sociological, and theoretical studies that constitute the knowledge world surrounding contemporary art writing, he, most assiduously, avoids jargon. His use of words is precise but it belongs to the world of a careful thinker rather than a pedantic academic. For any art writer, it is rewarding to be aware of his primary audience and mindful of where they are situated: for instance, to know whether one is talking to a globally dispersed, culturally amorphous body of art world specialists or addressing others located within the same cultural, social, political, aesthetic, and perhaps linguistic space as his own. In this book, Nandakumar comes across as a writer more interested in engaging primarily with the latter, without being parochial and disconnected from cultural and intellectual explorations elsewhere. His bilingualism and his greater focus on the art of this region are signs of this. And I believe that his writings will be helpful not only for people here but also for others who wish to have a critical understanding of the art of this region and India at large.

Art writing is not all of one kind, and thankfully so.
Art writing is not all of one kind, and thankfully so. | Photo Credit: REUTERS/Toby Melville

Art writing is not all of one kind, and thankfully so. On one end, there is the art historical and academic kind that involves archival research and a process of slow looking, prolonged reflection, and even considered expression. And at the other end is the newspaper critic or art commentator. Working in tandem with the art world, the latter could be an insider or its independent interlocutor and a diarist to his society. Today, since the space for art writing in newspapers has disappeared, such writers have migrated to social media platforms. Speed and topicality are their essences, and there is a high possibility of their work becoming opinionated and ephemeral. They are often well informed and sharp but prefer the excitement of conversations in real time to thoughtful retrospection.

Nandakumar is more at home with the former, but he is not averse to taking a few steps in the opposite direction, as several essays in this book show. Many of them are what he might call writings “in a lighter vein”. But even in them, he does not fail to see the underlying structural links between the particular and the general. His desire to hone and perfect is phenomenal, almost obsessive. As we read his carefully shaped sentences and structured arguments, we can often feel him tarrying over certain phrases, constructing and relishing them at the same time. I have seen him reworking typescripts of seminar papers until he is called upon to present his paper. He has always been reluctant to commit to print, which has led to some of his original research going unpublished and unacknowledged. I especially remember his research on the structural shifts in the practice of Carnatic music during the colonial and nationalist periods, which he developed very early in his career but delayed writing. And later, similar views were developed by other researchers and published with aplomb.

Even when Nandakumar commits his thoughts into words, he is reluctant to part with them. He is not only averse to deadlines but sees every text as part of an ongoing internal debate that is not easily given to reconciliation and finality. Perhaps that explains why several of his more substantial essays are not included in this collection. But that said, I am happy that the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi has persuaded him to collect at least some of them written in English and offer them for wider circulation. And they have done a commendable job of it.

This piece is the text of the key-note address given on the occasion of the official release of the book at Ernakulam in April 2022.

R. Siva Kumar is an art historian and curator based in Santiniketan.