Trends in oil painting (post 1947)

Trends in oil painting (post 1947)

It’s rather surprising to know that oil painting was practiced and introduced at a large scale in India only when it was colonized. The oil on canvas style was a genre not delved into by Indian artists who were rather familiar with miniature styles amongst other popular paintings. One case of Indian miniature artists trying their hands at the new medium came to be called the Early Bengal Oils. The setting up of the East India Company invited a swarm of European artists that painted in oil, water colors and some even specialized in portraiture. Some notable artists include Joshua Reynolds who mastered portraits in oil, Johan Zoffany, Tilly kettle, and William Hodges amongst many others.

George Clive and his family with an Indian maid (1765)
William Hodges, View of the north end of the fort of Chunar Gur, oil on canvas

A celebrity, if one could call him that, can be named specifically in speaking of very popularly adopting the medium of oil to amalgamate almost all natural subjects that are drawn from Indian tradition/religion. He mastered royal portraiture and was closely related to the royal family of the Travencore and was also invited by Sir R. Madhvarao, the British Regent of the State of Vadodara, to paint the ceremonial portrait of Sayajirao Ill, the Gaekwad of Baroda.

Raja Ravi Varma 1891, Keechaka and Sairandhri
Raja Ravi Varma 1898, Shakuntala Removing a Thorn from Her Foot

A number of artists referred to under the nomenclature of Bengal school were trained in the academic style, often practicing rigorous sketching, for example Abanindranath Tagore. Their quest remained within the parameters of finding true Indian art which was true to their identities. The first group was formed in post-independence India, proving to be the first to accept referencing from the West and to accept the use of oils and abstraction. It was formed by F.N. Souza, S.H Raza, M.F Husain, K.H Ara, H.A Gade, and S.K Bakre in 1947 and held a series of meetings described by S.H. Raza,

“What we had in common besides our youth and lack of means was that we hoped for a better understanding of art. We had a sense of searching and we fought the material world. There was at our meetings and discussions a great fraternal feeling, certain warmth, and a lively exchange of ideas. We criticized each other's work as surely as we eulogized it. This was a period when there was no modern art in our country and a period of artistic confusion” (ref: The Progressive Artists Group, Pg 30)

F.N. Souza, 1961, The Foreman, Oil on canvas
Husain, M.F, 1964, The Sixth Seal, oil on canvas, in a private collection.

F.N. Souza’s works were deliberately eclectic and Expressionist in character. Raza experimented with Expressionism, Abstract art, and Tantrism. Hussain’s subjects were drawn out of Indian history and the religion of Hinduism but his formal experiments lean towards the attempts of Cubism. The results in the artist’ works were located in between western influences and Indianness.

Jackson Pollock
Williem de Kooning

In the same year, 1947, Jackson Pollock energetically applied paint, even throwing, on a canvas, exemplifying the gesture to account for more than the end result, the painting itself. He leaped from the more common vertical kind of painting for the horizontal, inventing the genre of action painting coined by Harold Rosenberg in the 1950s.

Williem de Kooning was another leading exponent of action painting. De Kooning gives an account of the impulse that existed in 1952: "Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure. I always seem to be wrapped in the melodrama of vulgarity. I do not think of inside or outside—or art in general—as a situation of comfort."

A visitor looks at Helen Frankenthaler's Off White Square (1973) at a gallery in Southampton, N.Y.. Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

Another style that emerged, and was soon famous, was that which is referred to as color-field painting. They worked in a manner that contrasted action painting, because it features rather meditative planes of color to express qualities that might be referred to in spirituality or other kinds of beliefs. Artists included Mark Rothko, Barnett Newmen, Helen Frankenthaler and so on. 

A comparative reading of art movements in India as compared to its West could prove to be slightly problematic as it bears the danger of othering India from the West. Often spoken than taught, this reading probes us to think about the social and political impacts that can be traced in looking at art. The intentions of artists, their advocacy, and responses are highlighted in such a way to justify the differences in artistic endeavors from different geographies at the same time. Oil painting has since been extensively used, even today in art schools as well as other hobbies and pursuits. 

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