New Delhi, Dec 2013 The India-France art connection has changed over the decades. The first generation of modern impressionist and expressionist painters like Amrita Sher-Gil, Laxman Shrestha, Jogen Chowdhury, Arun Bose, Prafulla Joshi, S.H. Raza and Anjolie Ela Menon — all of whom studied fine arts in Paris — had scripted the first indigenous language combining European practises with Indian idioms. They coloured traditional aesthetic sensibilities in European or rather French styles — using fusion of the east and west as their medium of expression.
In the last two decades, the trend has redefined itself — to bring a steady flow of French artists to India to capture the country’s colourful “life-scapes” on their multi-media canvases and experiment with traditional Indian practises.
Four French contemporary artists Fabien Charuau, Christine Margotin, Pascal Monteil and Thomas Henriot have made India and the subcontinent the subject of their work.
The artists, three of whom exhibited their art at the Romain Rolland Gallery in the Alliance Francaise in the capital and one at the National Museum almost in succession since September 2013 — interpreted contemporary India through the lens of their personal artistic visions to bring out the “conflicts, contrasts, native lifestyles and aesthetic traditions of the country” in mediums ranging from photo essays, collages, sculptures, digital art, miniatures and drawings.
The appeal of India on the French canvas lies in the fact that the country is a goldmine of stories — where almost everyone has a tale to tell — inter-personal societal relationships, crossroads, anthropology and endless variety of visual metaphors that translate easily into visuals, says Pascal Monteil, a professor at the Ecole Des Beax Arts in Paris. Pascal, who had trained as an artists in the post-modern traditions having confronted “post-modern issues” in the west, says he wanted to expand his horizons to compare the aesthetic realities, issues and practises between the east and west – and incorporate it in his oeuvre of work.
“In the 1990s, I decided to move to the Orient and travelled in the Far East for several years. To change my background and expand my exprience, I criss-crossed the streets of Turkey, Iran, India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Japan,” the artist recalls in his attempt to put together his “eastern encounters”.
Pascal lived in Kolkata (West Bengal), Chittagong (Bangladesh), Kyoto and Tehran to “create new bodies of work” that was “strange fusion of eastern and western iconography, landscapes and styles – assembled in architecture type collages. “It is reflection of my numerous and eclectic experiences. My exile to Asia and the Orient has been a catalyst in my work — helping me approach the history of art in different ways,” says Pascal. The artist has worked with fashion designer Christian Lacroix on several product visuals.
His exhibition “Anywhere Out of World” in the national capital of India was a revelation in how styles, traditions and imagery across Asia can find a cutting edge European expression where the “Mughals vie for space with the Himalaya, Bollywood and Indian spirituality India-based sculptor Christine Margotin, who settled in the capital a year ago, says “she is overwhelmed by the level at which all the senses are solicited in India”. “Unlike most visitor- or even as an artist — I was not shocked by the dirt and poverty – but something bigger than this fascinated me,” Christine told the writer in an interview.
There was “this beauty” everywhere – “in the middle of dirt and the poverty – in the middle o the simplest destitution, there was beauty”. It encouraged to sculpt — to recreate the beauty of everyday life in wood and bronze.
This wonder continues to draw Christine to the roadsides – where “she is still fascinated by squatting men waiting in perfect equilibrium with their feet half in the void behind partitions – the amazing patience of the sweeper cleaning the dirt on the streets”. The movements find “languid flow” in Christine’s sculptures of real people that who show nymph-like mobility.
“Like the painters Modigliani, Van Gogh or Soutine (an artist I have always loved), I am touched by everyday people and everyday scenes. My preferred medium is bronze because I like its roughness and strength,” Christine says.
Ink artist Thomas Henriot is “inspired by the vibes of Indian cities”. His exhibition, “Across the Cities” captures the contrasts of cultures through ink drawings of urban milestones across the world — a Church in Cuba, a market place in Morocco, a Gothic building in Havana, a cathedral in New York and a market place in Varanasi. They sometime fit in like a crossword on the rice paper sheets which he spreads out in blocks to create a scroll— a ancient medium of exposition both in India, the far east and Europe associated with religious practises.
Benares or Varanasi inspires Henriot — like numerous other foreign painters in search of spiritual inspiration in India. He carries the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi in his head- And plans to build around them in his ink scrolls on his nest visit to the capital.
Henriot’s romance with urban landscapes contrasts with photographer and artist Fabian Charuau’s “interpretation of India living in its no man’s posts in states like Rajasthan where poverty, cultural diversity and essential zest for life cohabit in the midst of the daily struggle for existence.
His photo-narrative, “Ways of the Road” – shot at a residency in Partapur village in Rajasthan captures life along a bus route — how India changes its colour and life at every kilometre. It is an attempt to bring the eclectic wealth of life in India – of development, dereliction and freedom at the same time, the artist says of his work.
Noted Indian curator and critic Alka Pande says “India has always been an enigma to foreign artists”. And will continue to remain so – creating new cultural connections with exchange of aesthetic understandings.