On the path of the masters
In paying homage to the masters of the art world, YUSUF ARAKKAL's intention `has not been to merely copy them'. Instead, these canvases are attempts from his own viewpoint and approach. Memories of these masters and the meanings of their triumphs, tribulations and even trivialities have become reference points in his progress, he says. A private viewing of his My Book of References II, in association with Gallery Sumukha and Art in Crafts, Bangalore, and Anushka Dhawan, is on show till October 18 at the Nehru Centre, London.
ALMOST a decade ago, one October afternoon, I sat sipping a large mug of Carlsberg in the courtyard of a café at Fasanenstraub on a quiet local off Kurfurstemdam in Berlin. I ate the last piece of chicken omlette and later said goodbye to the Greek family who owned the joint. They became my friends the last couple of weeks I was eating there. People of a great cultural tradition, the Greeks were happy to have an artist patronising their café.
I was working at the Kathe-Kollwitz museum situated on the same street. A large two-storey mansion that is ensconced amidst wooded greenery, this museum showcases the works of one of the leading artists of the 20th Century. Lithographs, watercolours, drawings, etchings and numerous sculptures are housed in this serene villa. Kathe-Kollwitz was a leading figure in the new sachlicheit in Weimar Germany. Though older to Grosz and Otto Dix, she ranked as their colleague.
Ever since I came across reproductions of her work during my student days, my thoughts were inspired by her work and life. She was also a kind of mother figure to me, as one who had lost his mother at the age of seven, and father six months before. Kathe-Kollwitz's work has a long standing influence in shaping my philosophy of art and the direction I adapted. I created over a dozen drawings in graphite during my stint at the museum, based on her works. These drawings became the basis for 12 canvases I painted later. Some of them went back to various collections in Germany. It was during the progress of this series that the idea of doing a large body of works based on the world's great artists began to take shape in my mind. More than an idea, it was an urge to know these masters; in a deeper sense, to delve into their minds, to try to think like them and feel the pain and patience they have exercised upon them. Their works are scattered across the world and opportunities to travel widely have helped me to get to know their works in their original form.
"Patrick Caulfield chairs sans borders", oll on canvas.
On a Parisian winter morning, when I sat next to Picasso's goat tethered to a post in the inner courtyard of Musee Picasso, I thought about deconstructing and refitting it; like a child who wants to disassemble his favourite toy but afraid of it.
In the late 1980s, the Courtauld Institute Galleries was located close to Tottenham Court Road. I went there whenever I had a chance and the money to pay the entrance fee. While there were many great works, I specifically went looking for the bandaged head of Vincent Van Gogh, a portrait he created after the legendary act of slashing his ear to buy the love of a woman. Would I ever do that? Well, probably, when I come across a woman whom I really want to please, but where is she? Talking of women, I sat looking at some of Modigliani's women for hours in the Solomon Guggenheim museum and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The enchanting vivaciousness his women exude could send any man into ecstasy. I felt a terrible urge to steal his women, elope with them and paint them till eternity.
Long ago on my first visit to London, I stood beneath the large arch created by Henry Moore. I felt a peaceful protective sheath around me that I did not like losing.
"Glacometti's man pointing out of a picture",oll on canvas.
Henry Moore's sculpture gives me that feeling of protection and I want to emulate that in my works. During the big Giacometti retrospective at the Royal Academy, I stood mesmerised by the sad, but steely, eyes of the great artist peering from out of a black and white photograph.
Those eyes saw human forms in a totally unprecedented way that may not have amused many a conventional thinker of that time. The clay and wax that were shaped in his frenzied hands elongated into a vision that was to become the hallmark of one of the best artistic expressions of the 20th Century. The sculptor in me yearned to achieve anything closer to that fabulous expression. I know it is difficult, yet I merely followed him. When the endless scream of Munch echoed the walls of the Musee d' Orsay, that voice too reverberated within the walls of my creative inner space.
Pierre Bonnard probably had an obsession with bathing women, and produced several works that rank as some of the best figurative in the world, of course in the impressionistic tradition. One who emulated that tradition of painting magnificent women was my late friend Euan Uglow, to whom I would like to dedicate this show. Whenever I visited his studio and saw those women, I felt an uneasy urge to paint them and achieve that plasticity and precise rendering my friend had achieved. But I preferred to paint them in my hurried way.
Lucian Freud is one artist whose works I am particularly drawn to, especially his nudes which have attracted me ever since I saw his "Naked Girl with eggs" at Delhi in the 1980s. In my attempt to follow him, I have tried to calm down the exuberance one feels in his works.
Francis Bacon is one of my favourite artists. But I became aware of the power of his works only later. When I began to study his figures and composition for adaptation, it became apparent that in spite of their outward look, they are more realistic than reality itself. I found that Patrick Caulfield has an affinity with strong lines that form a barrier around them. I decided to remove that barrier in my attempt to follow him. I was fascinated by the dog of Craigie Aitchison, and it found a place on my canvas. I was not very sure of Joan Miro's works until I began to see the originals. Those creations have helped me to expand my imagination beyond figurative concerns. I also realised that Paul Klee and Miro have a lot in common.
I had an opportunity to show my works along with Anselm Keefer at the 19th Sao Paulo international Biennale in 1987. I am familiar with his works, which I saw at the Satchi and Satchi Gallery in London. In 1980, at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, I met Constantin Brancusi's couple engaged in a passionate kiss. I felt a terrible urge to separate them. Was it jealousy or an uncontrollable urge to change the form of a work? I have yet to find out.
It must be said that if there is any strong art-movement that became a bridge between the modern and things before, undoubtedly it is impressionism. There is an affirmative continuity with the past and a definite direction to the future in this art movement. Those impressionistic painters have always fascinated me. Once I stood watching the hollowed rock of Etreata while waves of the English Channel caressed my feet. Many impressionistic painters painted here. That legendary painting of Monet which earned the name "Impression" and became the standard bearer of the impressionists was painted at Le Havre, closer to Etreata.
Though several years of thought, research and preparation went into this phase since the Kathe-Kollwitz series, it is only in the last two years that I have actually got down to translating these ideas on to canvas. Many practical hurdles surfaced once I began to put paint onto canvas. The major factor was adapting the image faithfully with the variations I sought. While changes were made in the colour schemes and I decided to employ my own technique, I was very careful in retaining the original concept. Getting these drawings transferred with the intended changes was a challenge. It is amazing that seemingly, a very simple drawing by one of these masters is as intricate as any elaborate study. A Giocommetti sculpture looked innocently elongated and a Francis Bacon figure seemed totally altered. When attempting to draw them, it becomes apparent that they are intricate in their construction and composition. My knowledge of working with a computer thanks to my son Shibu became very handy in solving this problem. Many of these works are crammed with details and it is humanly impossible to recreate them. Many of my creative mornings went into finding an easy way out to solve this, but there was none. It was good old hard work all the way.
Every civilisation has enriched the world by contributing great ideas in its various manifestations cultural, scientific and with inventions. But it is apparent that every invention and ideology that looked fabulous and path finding loses its application and usefulness at some point. In this way we have accumulated a lot of dirt too. The great literati, artists, musicians and other creative people adopt what is essential for progression and reject the burdens of our cultural past. The lesser mortals go scavenging into history and come out, most often, with dirt.
While great creations based on political ideology, free thinking and creative freedom have become immortal works of art, it is evident that blindly following such creations will be an act of futility.
While paying homage to those great masters, my intention has not been to merely copy them. In most cases, these canvases are attempts from my own viewpoint and approach. Subjects from many artists become quotes in my work. In some, the quotes are predominating and intentionally superimposed upon my work. Many of these quotes have been painted in my own technique by just adapting the essence of the original concept.
Memories of these masters, meanings of their triumphs, trivialities and tribulations all became reference points in my progress. Their legendary lives and works became a book of my references.
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