The Pothi team looks at what disruption means in art and how it has affected the history of the world. This is Part 1 of a five-part series
Let’s start at the beginning. Imagine an early human, who has just observed a big hunt. Maybe even taken part in it. Then the human decides to record the big hunt on a cave wall. This probably was the first instance of a disruptive idea. The fact that one person felt the need to essay their lives and make it a part of the collective memory was not only documentation but a desire to tell a story, often from a subjective point of view. The thing about visual story-telling is that, it is both an exercise in recounting with fidelity events that had an impact on the collective and that recounting was also an expression of the imaginative power of a human. A story could become a fact, a myth and an aspiration of a people.
If you really go down to the thick of things, you begin to see what art really is. It is a process of solving a “problem” by using a certain medium by creating forms or colours that exists in a space where the real and the imaginary merge. Art, in its essence, is not merely a method of recording reality but a way of instruction that is not always direct. It is often a critique of how we observe, think and dispense actions. To use a cliché, it is a mirror. This is where art becomes disruptive. And disruption, while it may be an act of destroying dearly held beliefs or ideas, it is also the fountain from where newer ideas are born.
When Jamini Roy decided to give up the western ideals of painting and go back to the Kalighat pata style to essay his reality via an original mode of expression, it became an example of disruption, an act of freedom.
When Picasso decided to distort the ladies in his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, he disrupted how we look at the idea of feminine beauty. This large oil painting made in 1907 portrays five nude female prostitutes in a brothel on Carrer d’Avinyó, a street in Barcelona. The figures, to say the least, are disconcerting, confrontational and not conventionally feminine. This apparent “ugliness” was a point of disruption in how the western world had hitherto looked at the nude or figurative art.
Similarly, the profound silence in a V S Gaitonde painting is disruptive because it functions in a space that is non-representation. It is trying to tell you something beyond the realm of words and even ideas. It affects, what can be termed as your spiritual core, for the lack of a better term.
However, the simplest way to look at disruption in art is to consider those pieces of art that broke away from the usual and made viewers question things. Often, a disruptive piece of art is also vilified, just as a rebel is feared by the establishment.
Across the week, we will ask contemporary artists what they consider to be disruptive and what, in their subjective estimation, are the best disruptive pieces of art.
Today, we have for you what our team found to be the most enduring disruptive artists, art and art movements. They are not in any particular order. We might also take into account various genres like architecture, because a lot Indian art for example, is sculpted on temple walls.
Like many artists of his time, Sheikh Zainuddin was clubbed under the label ‘Company Art’ – art that was commissioned almost exclusively by the East India Company. If he would have been a western artist, it is most likely that he would have been recognized as a major master. He would probably have been studied at prestigious universities with greater detail, instead of being seen as a sidenote of history.
The beauty of Zainuddin’s work lay in his inventiveness with style. While was commissioned to paint flora and fauna as documentation, his works are exquisite. He used the Company’s illustrative playbook and turned it on its head by infusing a distinct flavour of the Mughal miniature.
The reason we are revisiting Zainuddin is because his work was first exhibited in 2016 at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, quite late for an 18th century painter. Not only that, people though his name was ‘Jack Joyenadey’, on account of the calligraphic way he signed.
His work was also exhibited in 2019 at London’s Wallace Collection, along with that of 17 other artists commissioned by the British East India Company. The director of the Wallace Collection, Xavier Bray, told Smithsonian that in Zainuddin’s paintings, “Everything is incredibly precise and beautifully observant.”
This is an obvious choice. But you cannot talk about the art of India without mentioning the luminescent beauty of the Ajanta frescoes. The very fact that they withstood the ravages of time (2nd century BCE – 1st century BCE) beautifully, goes to tell you the quality of the paints and techniques used. These caves are an ode to human endeavour and to the way of the Buddha. Much has already been said about these caves, but purely from a quality and skill perspective, this is truly disruptive art.
Abanindranath Tagore’s iconic Bharat Mata had to be here because it encapsulated the idea of India in a newer way. The painting was so influential in evoking nationalistic feeling. So much so that, Sister Nivedita wanted to carry it from Kashmir to Kanyakumari to spread nationalist fervour among the people. The paintings depict a saffron clad woman, dressed like a sadhvi, holding a book, sheaves of paddy, a piece of white cloth and a garland in her four hands. The painting became very important especially in the light of Lord Curzon’s plan to bifurcate Bengal.
The Harlem Renaissance
While the Black art community was always buzzing with various creative activity, it did not get enough press during the segregation era. The Harlem Renaissance, which lasted from 1917 to 1930, was unique in that it was a multidisciplinary movement, spanning literature, music, performance, and visual arts. The artists figuring here wanted to create a style of art that could faithfully represent the Black community. This was made possible as people from the South as well as from the Caribbean and Africa came together in cities like New York and Paris. While jazz is the most important art form of this time, it had a lot of visual artists too.
Who was the first European abstract painter?
While Eastern and Islamic art have always bordered on the abstract, Europe did not really know what was abstraction till Wassily Kandinsky came along and decided to paint his “inner necessity”, which was devoid of any representation. He was trailblazer in the sense that he made abstraction legitimate. He is said to have painted the first abstract picture in 1911.
However, this is not without controversy. Much before him Hilma af Klint, in 1905 actually made a series of art works that were completely abstract. However, she worried that the world wasn’t ready to see them. Also, her will ordained that they not be shown for at least another twenty years.
We cannot talk about disruption in art without talking about Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’, which he called readymades. It divided people because it was a plain porcelain urinal that was signed ‘R Mutt’. It was submitted for an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, the inaugural exhibition by the Society to be staged at The Grand Central Palace in New York.
The only reason this “sculpture” was not rejected by the committee because the rules stated if an artist paid the fee, she or he was eligible for the exhibition. However, Fountain was not displayed. It was in Alfred Stieglitz’s studio where it was photographed and, soon, it became iconic.
The work is today regarded by art historians and theorists of the avant-garde as a major landmark in 20th-century art. This is what Duchamp had to say about the controversy surrounding the piece in 1971:
“No, not rejected. A work can’t be rejected by the Independents. It was simply suppressed. I was on the jury, but I wasn’t consulted, because the officials didn’t know that it was I who had sent it in; I had written the name “Mutt” on it to avoid connection with the personal. The ‘Fountain’ was simply placed behind a partition and, for the duration of the exhibition, I didn’t know where it was. I couldn’t say that I had sent the thing, but I think the organisers knew it through gossip. No one dared mention it. I had a falling out with them, and retired from the organisation. After the exhibition, we found the ‘Fountain’ again, behind a partition, and I retrieved it!”
Love Is In The Bin
If it’s controversial and disruptive, it might be Banksy. In 2018 at Sotheby’s the famous ‘Love Is In The Bin’ incident happened. The painting self-destructed immediately after it was sold for a record £1,042,000. Sotheby’s went on to say that it was “the first artwork in history to have been created live during an auction.” Whether it was intended or not the painting went through a shredder, but the machine stopped and not all of the painting was shredded. Banksy later that he had actually intended to shred the entire painting. Make what you will of it, but it is disruptive.
Andres Serrano and controversy are closely connected for his choice of materials, which include cadavers. His artist statement can be understood from something he himself had said: “I distrust anyone with a message. The best artistic intentions are usually cloaked in mysteries and contradictions. It wouldn’t be interesting for me if the art were not ‘loaded’ in some way.”
‘Piss Christ’ consists of a statue of a crucified Jesus submerged in a jar of urine and photographed. Needless to say, this extreme imagery made Serrano infamous and offended a lot of people, especially Christians.
M F Husain had a made a basic drawing of a naked Saraswati in 1976. From an objective perspective, this work was anything but sexual. But an article in a relatively unknown Hindi monthly from Madhya Pradesh, Vichar Mimansa, got the work a lot of unnecessary attention almost 20 years later. The article was entitled ‘Yeh chitrakar hai ya kasai?’ (Is he a painter or a butcher?). The article accused painter M.F. Husain of hurting Hindu sensibilities by painting Goddess Saraswati in the nude.
The Mumbai Police registered cases against Husain for outraging religious feelings and promoting enmity between religious groups. Writ petitions were filed against the painter in four courts in Madhya Pradesh.
The irony was that Indian art and sculpture always had numerous examples of unclothed deities. Things came to a head when Bajrang Dal activists barged into the Husain-Doshi Gufa and burnt 16 of the 26 Husain images.
The controversy was more about a Muslim artist painting a Hindu goddess. It had nothing to do with the fact that Husain was actually well-verse in the Hindu epics.
The Degenerate Art Exhibition
This exhibition was Hitler’s revenge against Modern art. The Degenerate Art Exhibition was an art exhibition organised by Adolf Ziegler and the Nazi Party in Munich from July 19 to November 30, 1937. It showcased 650 works which had been confiscated from German museums and was shown as examples of what not to do. It was bad brother of the Great German Art Exhibition, which was going on at the same time. Degenerate art was defined as works that “insult German feeling, or destroy or confuse natural form or simply reveal an absence of adequate manual and artistic skill.”
In 1934 Hitler who denounced modern art and artists as “incompetents, cheats and madmen”.
Many works were displayed without frames and partially covered by derogatory slogans. The exhibition had works and prints by 112 artists, including Georg Grosz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Georg Kolbe, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Franz Marc, Emil Nolde, Otto Dix, Willi Baumeister, Kurt Schwitters, Pablo Picasso, Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Piet Mondrian, Marc Chagall and Wassily Kandinsky.
Slogans accompanied the paintings. Some of them read: Insolent mockery of the Divine under Centrist rule; Revelation of the Jewish racial soul; An insult to German womanhood; The ideal — cretin and whore; The Jewish longing for the wilderness reveals itself — in Germany the Negro becomes the racial ideal of a degenerate art; Madness becomes method and so on
“Works of art which cannot be understood in themselves but need some pretentious instruction book to justify their existence will never again find their way to the German people,” is how Hitler defined his stand.
This was a sad but disruptive event in the art world. While it divided people, it also brought some of the greatest “degenerate” masterpieces before the people, many of whom quietly admired these works.
The rebel in Impressionism
While today we see Impression as something that is natural and desirable, the early days of the movement (Monet coined the term ‘Impressionism’) were mired in controversy. It was regarded pariah visual movement.
Breaking from Realism, Impressionist moved away from realistic representations to use visible brushstrokes, vivid colours with little mixing, and open compositions to capture the emotion of light and movement.
Paintings by masters like Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Frédéric Bazille and many others were deemed too controversial to exhibit. The artists exhibited them on their own. This taking away of power from the salons was truly a disruptive and brave act.
Often also known as pop surrealism, Lowbrow came out of the California underground in the 1970s. The traditional fine art world rejected this movment which had everything from painted artworks to toys, digital art, and sculpture. It also had roots in underground commix, punk music, and surf culture, with artists not seeking acceptance from mainstream galleries. By mixing surrealism imagery with pop colours or figures, artists achieve dreamlike results that often play on erotic or satirical themes.
Bare bones art
Among the Russian Modernist movement, Suprematism has to rate as the most extreme. The tallest artist of the movement is Kazimir Malevich, who also founded the movement. It had a strong emphasis on utilising pure geometrical abstraction in painting. Malevich wanted the “supremacy of pure feeling or perception in the pictorial arts.” He wanted to dismantle art into its bare bones. His ‘White on White’ is probably the purest example of this disruptive idea.
While this is a basic look at disruption in art, there are many who have shaken and divided the art world – from Damien Hirst to Jeff Koons. In our next installment on disruption, we will explore the phenomenon with well-known Indian artists.