Featured Artist: Benode Behari Mukherjee
Born with severe eye problem, being myopic on one eye and blind in the other Benode Behari Mukherjee was one of the pioneers of Indian modern art and a key figure of Contextual Modernism. He was one of the earliest artists in modern India to take up mural as a mode of artistic expression, and his murals display a subtle understanding of environmental and architectural nuances.
BenodeBehari Mukherjee was born on 7 February 1904 in Behala in the state of West Bengal. He was unable to pursue a systematic form of schooling because of his affected vision, instead, had to complete his schooling from a Brahmacharya Ashram. But his own interest and talent for art and literature was soon recognized.
In 1919, he took admission in Kala Bhavana, the art faculty of Visva-Bharati University. He was a student of another celebrated Indian artist Nandalal Bose, and a friend and close associate of RamkinkarBaij, the celebrated sculptor. In 1925, he joined Kala Bhavan as a member of the teaching faculty. He inspired many brilliant students over the years, notable among them are painter Jahar Dasgupta, Ramananda Bandopadhyay, K.G. Subramanyan, Beohar Rammanohar Sinha , sculptor & printmaker Somnath Hore, designer Riten Majumdar and filmmaker Satyajit Ray. In 1949, he left Kala Bhavan and joined as a curator at the Nepal Government Museum in Kathmandu. From 1951-52, he taught at the BanasthaliVidyapith in Rajasthan. In 1952, he along with his wife Leela, started an art training school in Mussoorie. In 1958, he returned to Kala Bhavan, and later became its principal. In 1979, a collection of his Bengali writings, Chitrakar was published.
Despite being visually impaired, Mukherjee was never withheld by his inability to see and went on to create some of the most exquisite works that we cherish till date. In Oxford Art Online R. Siva Kumar claims, “His major work is the monumental 1947 mural at the Hindi Bhavan, Shantiniketan, based on the lives of medieval Indian saints and painted without cartoons. With its conceptual breadth and synthesis of elements from Giotto and TawarayaSotatsu, as well as from the art of such ancient Indian sites as Ajanta and Mamallapuram, it is among the greatest achievements in contemporary Indian painting.”
His style was a complex fusion of idioms absorbed from Western modern art and the spirituality of oriental traditions (both Indian and Far-Eastern). Some of his works show a marked influence of Far-Eastern traditions, namely calligraphy and traditional wash techniques of China and Japan. He took lessons in calligraphy from travelling artists from Japan. During 1937-38 he spent a few months in Japan with artists such as Arai Kampō. Similarly he also learnt from the Indian miniature paintings in the frescoes of Mughal and Rajput periods. Idioms of Western modern art also bore heavily upon his style, as he is often seen to blend Cubist techniques (such as multi-perspective and faceting of planes) to solve problems of space. Above all, his style was celebrated and acclaimed because of the harmonious blend he achieved out of all these different traditions. His grand murals inside the Visva-Bharati campus are testimony to that. In 1948 he went to become director of National Museum of Kathmandu, in Nepal. In the later years he went to Doon valley, where he started an art school but had to discontinue due the financial shortage.
In 1972 Mukherjee’s former student at Santiniketan, filmmaker Satyajit Ray, made a documentary film on him titled “The Inner Eye”. The film is an intimate investigation of Mukherjee’s creative persona and how he copes with his blindness being a visual artist. In 1974, he received the Padma Vibhushan award. He was conferred with the Deshikottama by the VisvaBharati University in 1977. He received the RabindraPuraskar in 1980.
The legendary painter of Indian modern art, Benod Behari Mukherjee left for the heavenly abode in 1980, at the age of 76
“The person who is not roused by a pulsating image, a small touch or sound, can make no sense of the word ‘beauty’. A person who neither knows, nor thinks beyond his worldly needs has no use for beauty.”(Benode Bihari Mukherjee)
Fauvism was the first 20th century movement in modern art. The paintings of the Fauves were characterized by seemingly wild brush work and strident colors, while their subject matter had a high degree of simplification and abstraction. Fauvism can be classified as an extreme development of Van Gogh’s Post-Impressionism fused with the pointillism of Seurat and other Neo-Impressionist painters, in particular Paul Signac. Other key influences were Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin, whose employment of areas of saturated color—notably in paintings from Tahiti—strongly influenced Derain’s work at Collioure in 1905. In 1888 Gauguin had said to Paul Sérusier: “How do you see these trees? They are yellow. So, put in yellow; this shadow, rather blue, paint it with pure ultramarine; these red leaves? Put in vermilion.” Fauvism has been compared to Expressionism, both in its use of pure color and unconstrained brushwork. Some of the Fauves were among the first avant-garde artists to collect and study African and Oceanic art, alongside other forms of non-Western and folk art, leading several Fauves toward the development Cubism.
Gustave Moreau was the movement’s inspirational teacher; a controversial professor at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and a Symbolist painter, he taught Matisse, Marquet, Manguin, Rouault and Camoin during the 1890s, and was viewed by critics as the group’s philosophical leader until Matisse was recognized as such in 1904. Moreau’s broad-mindedness, originality and affirmation of the expressive potency of pure color was inspirational for his students. Matisse said of him, “He did not set us on the right roads, but off the roads. He disturbed our complacency.” This source of empathy was taken away with Moreau’s death in 1898, but the artists discovered other catalysts for their development.
In 1896, Matisse, then an unknown art student, visited the artist John Peter Russell on the island of Belle Île off the coast of Brittany. Russell was an Impressionist painter; Matisse had never previously seen an Impressionist work directly, and was so shocked at the style that he left after ten days, saying, “I couldn’t stand it anymore.” The next year he returned as Russell’s student and abandoned his earth-colored palette for bright Impressionist colors, later stating, “Russell was my teacher, and Russell explained color theory to me.” Russell had been a close friend of Vincent van Gogh and gave Matisse a Van Gogh drawing.
In 1901, Maurice de Vlaminck encountered the work of Van Gogh for the first time at an exhibition, declaring soon after that he loved Van Gogh more than his own father; he started to work by squeezing paint directly onto the canvas from the tube. In parallel with the artists’ discovery of contemporary avant-garde art came an appreciation of pre-Renaissance French art, which was shown in a 1904 exhibition, French Primitives. Another aesthetic influence was African sculpture, of which Vlaminck, Derain and Matisse were early collectors.