When visuals converse: How the very best critiques carry artwork to life

The publication of a brand new guide of essays on artwork historical past evokes, in flip, this insightful piece that exhibits how the very best artwork criticism makes a murals come alive throughout the context through which it’s made and obtained.

R. Nandakumar’s Perception and Outlook: Chosen Essays on the Modern Artwork of Kerala is a much-awaited and really welcome addition to essential writing on the trendy artwork of Kerala. I’m additionally joyful to see it in print as a result of Nandakumar shouldn’t be solely one of many best artwork historians of my era but in addition a buddy of a few years. His engagement with artwork started earlier than mine, however we began our careers as artwork historians across the identical time. Not like me, he entered the sphere of artwork historical past after a stint as a literary editor. That gave him a ringside familiarity with the Malayalam literary scene and a chance to interact with a number of of its main lights from shut. So, once more in contrast to me, he entered the sphere with a wealthy bag of expertise and a well-cultivated thoughts. That gave him a head begin that has stood by him by way of all these years. However he was smart sufficient to understand that his outdated expertise weren’t sufficient for imaginatively unpacking the visible, so he cultivated new ones with a lot dedication. And that’s very evident on this guide.

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

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

Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and Okay.G. Subramanyan, additionally Nasreen Mohamedi, helped him make this transition and achieve a brand new outlook. All three of them have been primarily artists; however Subramanyan and Sheikh, moreover being well-informed and considerate artists, are additionally very articulate and astute thinkers. They helped him flip his thoughts in a brand new route and, extra importantly, take artwork and artwork writing as a critical vocation that wants fixed alertness and probing with out lapsing into triumphalism. Nandakumar has acknowledged this in his prologue. In my case, I obtained related classes from the historic examples set by Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee, and Ramkinkar Baij, who had cultivated an inventive tradition of engagement and openness in Santiniketan, and from my interactions with artist-teachers like Subramanyan and Somnath Hore. 

Whereas they gave us an ethics of engagement, we realised early on that artwork historical past was a comparatively new self-discipline with out many exemplars in India whom we may look as much as and that we needed to collect our instruments and methodologies from authors and predecessors elsewhere. Thus, a cautious studying of seminal artwork historians grew to become part of our self-education, and it opened us as much as different cultures and their histories. I point out all this to attract the reader’s consideration to the visible sensitivity and wealthy custom of artwork historical past and methodological suppleness underpinning the essays on this guide. On a private observe, I’m additionally joyful to seek out the names of Meyer Schapiro and Leo Steinberg, whom I contemplate two of essentially the most revolutionary and liberal artwork historians of our interval, talked about in Nandakumar’s prologue. The 2 students collectively signify a formidable mixture of dedication, attentiveness, scholarship, perceptiveness, methodological catholicity, expressive felicity, and mental provocativeness.

The readers of this guide will discover every of those qualities in various measures within the essays it comprises, be it an extended historic overview of recent artwork in Kerala, a short have a look at the drawings of a little-known artist who died tragically younger, or an tour into the work of a non-professional who stumbled upon artwork after which pursued it with ardour with out aspiring to artwork world fame. Within the first, Nandakumar begins with an extended preamble outlining the historic and cultural context through which Ravi Varma emerged and labored, after which goes on to show the way it formed his work and its reception in Kerala. Shifting from the period of Ravi Varma to that of Okay.C.S. Paniker and the Madras College, he provides a really succinct however attentive studying of the formal facets of Paniker’s work in every part earlier than delving into the aesthetic and conceptual underpinnings of his work and that of his followers, with out failing to level out the place they differ and the place the conceptual fault traces lie in every of them. An identical essential remedy is seen in his evaluation 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 (right here, individuals watch a Van Gogh ‘Immersive Journey’ projection in Dublin, Eire, on June 23), the artwork historian Meyer Schapiro commented on the rectangular form of the canvas and the inversion of perspective brought on by the distribution of visible components in it, and went on to suggest a thought-provoking studying of his artwork and its psychological implications.
| Picture Credit score: REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

It doesn’t matter whether or not one begins with a proper evaluation of the work and strikes towards the artwork historic, social, and political context that frames it or vice versa, whether or not we go from kind to content material or content material to kind, from the murals to its conceptual underpinnings, or the opposite approach spherical. What issues, as these essays show, is that we join the 2. A murals comes alive and acquires which means throughout the social, historic, and psychological context through which it’s made and obtained. It’s the artwork author’s job to discover and lay this naked. Artwork is neither produced nor engaged with inside a vacuum. If it have been, it will have been marginal to our lives and that of the artist. Artwork is a instrument that helps artists and their viewers to grapple with and perceive life and the world they reside in. That’s the reason, I presume, there’s a hierarchy within the arts based mostly on every kind’s capabilities aside from one based mostly on its aesthetic or ability quotients. The work’s aesthetic itself will be seen as what conjoins the craft of creating and the avowed operate of the paintings.


Wherever we begin, it’s crucial—besides when coping with pure conceptual or post-media artworks—to be attentive to kind in artwork viewing and artwork writing. In visible and performing arts, content material is inseparable from the container or the fabric physique of the murals. In literature, against this, the bodily physique, which incorporates the paper, the printing course of, the font, the format, and so on., is incidental and, at greatest, an embellishment. Then again, in all important works of visible and performing artwork, content material is materially embodied, and with out paying shut consideration to kind and its materials facets we can’t grasp the which means of the work. In work, for example, this consists of the service, the pigments, the comb marks, the distribution and articulation of the weather, the format, the dimensions, the purpose of imaginative and prescient, and even the body. In a outstanding essay on Van Gogh, Schapiro begins by commenting on the unusually rectangular form of the canvas and the inversion of perspective brought on by the distribution of visible components in it, after which by analysing the shifting use of perspective in his footage proposes a thought-provoking studying of his artwork and its psychological implications. In one other essay, he makes use of the presumably artless composition of Gustave Courbet’s A Burial at Ornans to launch into Courbet’s essential 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. whereby Akbar is proven strolling to the Dargah of Ajmer from Agra.

Equally, a really attentive studying of Michelangelo’s Sistine work has led Steinberg to suggest some convincing however hitherto unthought-of readings which have a lot theological significance. Remarkably so, since these works have been intently studied by earlier students and plenty of scholarly monographs have been written on them. Going additional, he has demonstrated how formal disparities present in near-contemporary copies of the murals present up what was theologically unsettling in them to its first viewers. The collective blindness that has stored these options hidden from the eyes of artwork historians sprang, at the very least partly, from their behavior of ignoring what’s overtly seen however lacks textual assist. The privileging of textual sources unwittingly perpetuated by iconological research turns artists into males missing in intelligence, incapable of responding to their occasions independently and condemned as an example concepts textually expressed by their contemporaries. The apply of wanting on the work of the Akbar Nama­​⁠—carried out by artists who knew Akbar and his time first-hand—solely as illustrations to Abu’l Fazal’s textual content will suffice to underscore the restrictions of artwork writing that fails to have a look at photographs attentively.

That could be a mistake that social historians of artwork usually make, however Nandakumar diligently avoids it regardless that he want to be often known as an artwork historian with a sociological perspective, and a number of other essays on this quantity will be categorised as social historical past and cultural criticism. In every of those sub-variants of artwork writing, he clearly desires his texts to be greater than descriptive or formalist and doesn’t fail to attach his formal observations with some broad theoretical concern, however he does this with subtlety and with out subsuming the visible to the textual. Usually, it’s the visible that prompts him, as the 2 essays on images included right here show, to imagine a sure theoretical slant. And whereas such theoretical linkages might take completely different instructions in particular person essays, cumulatively they map an expansive area of considerations and a coherent outlook, as we’d anticipate finding in any critical author on artwork.

The title Nandakumar has chosen for this assortment, Perception and Outlook, not solely acknowledges this but in addition underscores the inherent connection between outlook and perception. In all good writing, they work in tandem. Perception is what an artwork historian or critic features from an knowledgeable engagement with the particularities of a piece or a closely-knit group of works, and helps him to find them throughout the bigger area of historical past, concepts, and expertise. This engagement won’t transfer alongside predetermined traces and will contain many serendipitous discoveries however it’s all the time guided by an outlook. An outlook can have many shades to it—philosophical, ideological, or aesthetic—and its dominant tenor will be mental, polemical, or prescriptive. No matter that’s, it colors the insights a author transmits to his readers and with no legitimate perception his outlook can be merely idiosyncratic.

This symbiosis between perception and outlook is essential. As a viewer and commentator, the author is a part of the writing. In fact, each smart author tries to transcend what are merely private opinions or idiosyncratic biases. However knowledgeable understanding shouldn’t be essentially goal in an absolute sense. The author’s expertise, data, and world view, all go into his writing, and his objectivity is conditional. One might not put on one’s outlook on one’s sleeve, however it’s prudent to not faux that it doesn’t exist as a result of cautious readers will uncover the author’s subjectivity, and what readers search for shouldn’t be a truth-proclaiming oracle or an infallible guru however a person with whom he can enter right into a significant and fruitful dialogue.

Nandakumar is conscious of this and it’s mirrored in his language use. Though he’s well-grounded within the artwork historic, sociological, and theoretical research that represent the data world surrounding up to date artwork writing, he, most assiduously, avoids jargon. His use of phrases is exact but it surely belongs to the world of a cautious thinker somewhat than a pedantic educational. For any artwork author, it’s rewarding to concentrate on his main viewers and aware of the place they’re located: for example, to know whether or not one is speaking to a globally dispersed, culturally amorphous physique of artwork world specialists or addressing others positioned throughout the identical cultural, social, political, aesthetic, and maybe linguistic area as his personal. On this guide, Nandakumar comes throughout as a author extra eager about partaking primarily with the latter, with out being parochial and disconnected from cultural and mental explorations elsewhere. His bilingualism and his higher concentrate on the artwork of this area are indicators of this. And I consider that his writings might be useful not just for individuals right here but in addition for others who want to have a essential understanding of the artwork of this area and India at giant.

Art writing is not all of one kind, and thankfully so.

Artwork writing shouldn’t be all of 1 variety, and fortunately so. On one finish, there’s the artwork historic and educational variety that includes archival analysis and a strategy of gradual wanting, extended reflection, and even thought-about expression. And on the different finish is the newspaper critic or artwork commentator. Working in tandem with the artwork world, the latter could possibly be an insider or its unbiased interlocutor and a diarist to his society. As we speak, for the reason that area for artwork writing in newspapers has disappeared, such writers have migrated to social media platforms. Pace and topicality are their essences, and there’s a excessive risk of their work turning into opinionated and ephemeral. They’re usually nicely knowledgeable and sharp however favor the joy of conversations in actual time to considerate retrospection.

Nandakumar is extra at residence with the previous, however he’s not averse to taking a couple of steps in the wrong way, as a number of essays on this guide present. Lots of them are what he may name writings “in a lighter vein”. However even in them, he doesn’t overlook the underlying structural hyperlinks between the actual and the overall. His need to hone and ideal is phenomenal, nearly obsessive. As we learn his fastidiously formed sentences and structured arguments, we are able to usually really feel him tarrying over sure phrases, developing and relishing them on the identical time. I’ve seen him remodeling typescripts of seminar papers till he’s referred to as upon to current his paper. He has all the time been reluctant to decide to print, which has led to a few of his unique analysis going unpublished and unacknowledged. I particularly keep in mind his analysis on the structural shifts within the apply of Carnatic music through the colonial and nationalist intervals, which he developed very early in his profession however delayed writing. And later, related views have been developed by different researchers and printed with aplomb.

Even when Nandakumar commits his ideas into phrases, he’s reluctant to half with them. He’s not solely averse to deadlines however sees each textual content as a part of an ongoing inside debate that isn’t simply given to reconciliation and finality. Maybe that explains why a number of of his extra substantial essays will not be included on this assortment. However that stated, I’m joyful that the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi has persuaded him to gather at the very least a few of them written in English and provide them for wider circulation. And so they have carried out a commendable job of it.

This piece is the textual content of the key-note handle given on the event of the official launch of the guide at Ernakulam in April 2022.

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

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