Mark Hudson warms to this exhibition dedicated to the colourful and subtly complex paintings of the late Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar
The past 10 years have shaken up our view of art from outside the Western mainstream. While we’ve tended to think of art from what used to be called the Third World as exotic, primitive and – that ghastly word – “ethnic”, these perceptions has been radically overturned by the many exhibitions of work from Latin America, Africa, China and India, staged over the past decade. From Rio to Beirut to Mumbai, it seems, Western abstraction and conceptual art have been the dominant influences for a good half century.
Bhupen Khakhar, however, gives us modern Indian art as the romantically inclined Westerner would like to imagine it: magic realist images of small-town life in vibrantly intense colours, painted with a quirky disregard for Western conventions of space and composition. The magenta-pink surface of a factory yard hits an emerald green street in Factory Strike; brilliant vermilion-red railings vibrate against a deep azure sea in Man Eating Jalebi. These aren’t the subtlest colour combinations, but, boy, do they sing out.
There’s a dream-like quality to Death in the Family, in which a reclining figure – the departed soul perhaps – seems to float over the nocturnal streetscape. In You Can’t Please All, the painting that gives the show its title, a naked man (the artist, we are led to understand) looks out into a street from a balcony, with scenes in the neighbouring buildings visible in a way that is hardly realistic, but vividly conveys the merging of the public and private worlds in Indian life.
Yet you won’t spend long in front of these beguiling images before you start wondering how much in them is naïve, how much is pseudo-naïve and how much is making a sophisticated play with our expectations of Indian art. Born in Mumbai in 1934, Khakhar worked as a factory accountant in the provincial city of Baroda, painting only in his spare time, bringing to mind a kind of Indian LS Lowry, and also the great French primitivist Henri Rousseau – a parallel that appears far from accidental. The treatment of foliage and flowers in Man Leaving (Going Abroad) appears lifted from Rousseau in a highly knowing way.
While the exhibition tells us that Khakhar, an admirer of Ghandi, began painting everyday Indian life for essentially political reasons, we have to go to the catalogue to find out that he was associated with a band of artists, the Baroda Group, that looked to indigenous subjects in rebellion against the more mainstream modernism of India’s dominant art movement, the so-called Progressives.
Khakhar’s manipulation of diverse influences suggests parallels with another Western painter, David Hockney, as indeed does his frank treatment of his own homosexuality. Yet while we are told that he drew on external elements from Sienese religious frescoes to Western Pop Art and Bollywood, alongside various forms of traditional Indian art, we are shown only early work – a Pop-influenced painting from 1965. So it’s difficult to pick apart these influences or understand how he evolved his characteristic style.
We learn from a documentary film from 1983, shown in the gallery, that far from being simply picturesque, Khakhar’s view of Indian life is fundamentally satirical. But there’s no attempt to expand on this for the non-Indian viewer. We’re left wondering if his use of mythological imagery – the monkey god Hanuman makes an appearance alongside a man with five penises – is intended to be satirical, fantastical, sincerely spiritual or simply funny. While we don’t want to be overwhelmed with contextual information, too much about Khakhar’s complex cultural background is left vague. If we’re going to spend time in a substantial exhibition on an artist from a very different culture, we need some understanding of where their work is coming from and what it means, or it all just becomes a colourful blur.
Yet for all these qualms, this is a rich and absorbing exhibition. It draws you in not only through the sheer liveliness of the work, but because Khakhar’s artistic impulses weren’t at heart intellectual or political, but personal and emotional. A group of large blurry paintings created while he had cataracts give way to luminous watercolours and a whole room of paintings on sexual themes, from the realistic – scenes of orgy-like, all-male parties – to the visionary: in one painting, an aged king and his son, transformed into an angel, appear to be making love.
The final room is the most extraordinary, in which Khakhar confronts his five-year demise through cancer, leading up to his death in 2003, in raw and powerful paintings, that are imbued with a stoic and disconcerting humour. In At the End of the Day Iron Ingots Came Out he shows a man, presumably representing himself, excreting painfully on the lavatory, with a cross-sectional view into his intestines. The graphic directness of Khakhar’s treatment, and his apparent lack of self-pity, are remarkable.
Exhibitions of non-Western modern art can give the impression of worthy side-shows to the main events in Paris, New York or London, or of artists who are suspended frustratingly between cultures. This, however, is art that could have been created only in India, that will take you out of yourself and into a very different mental realm.
Until November 6. Tickets: 020 7887 8888; tate.org.uk