In conjunction with Sotheby’s Asia Art Week 2018, this year’s auction highlighted avant-garde artists from India and the subcontinent.
An exhibition between 14 and 18 March 2018 provided viewers with a glimpse at some of the region’s exceedingly rare masterpieces up for sale at the auction.
Each March, Sotheby’s hosts their Asia Week celebration in New York, generally supplemented by an array of exhibitions, auctions and research publications. The Indian and South Asian Art departments at the New York headquarters took initiative this year in showcasing both famous and lesser-known pieces, all of which are embossed with the histories and identities of their makers. Like a common thread weaving through each auctioned lot, the most sought-after modern and contemporary works are attached in their nods to cultural heritage and a dreamlike nostalgia for the regions art historical tropes.
Following an exhibition viewing that ran from 14 to 18 March 2018, the sales floor was opened on 19 March, featuring masterworks from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries in Sotheby’s New York Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art sale. Seeing a sell-through rate of 91.2 percent, the auction was led by renowned painter S.H. Raza’s Ville Provenҫale, which featured prominently in the 1956 Venice Biennale and is consequently one of his largest earlier works ever to be offered at auction.
Alongside Raza, the work of some of the most important and avant-garde artists from India and the subcontinent were on display, including semi-abstracted and figurative work of Gulam Rasool Santosh and F.N. Souza, respectively. Santosh’s untitled work from his ‘black period’, a geometric dream of sorts, curiously illustrates the artist’s journey to Amarnath and the “transcendent” visual poetry that was born thereafter. With a deep interest in Indian philosophy – Kashmiri Shaivism, to be more specific – Santosh’s contribution to the auction was, indeed, a tantric one, his anthropomorphic figure emitting a silent, meditative hum. The seminal piece sold for USD31,250, far exceeding the estimated price.
F.N. Souza appeared at the sale with a small selection of his figurative portrait portfolio, most memorably his Untitled (Head of a Priest), which sold for USD100,000. The Sotheby’s South Asian research team notes:
While Souza was not unique in his enduring fascination with human faces, his idiosyncratic and almost obsessive return to the motif certainly seems to resonate with the long-celebrated tradition for artists to create self-portraits. In the present work, the ornamentation of the priest’s robes conspicuously references the adornments of the Catholic Church and speaks to the unshakeable presence of religion during Souza’s formative years in Goa.
Set against a stark blue background, Souza’s work is both allegorically and materially monumental, his figures’ features built up in impasto and deconstructed with a palette knife, revealing countless layers underneath. To view a Souza painting, as the auction observers quickly discovered, is to excavate meaning and substance from dried layers of history.
Complementing this auction was “The Great Within: Photographs of India and the British Raj in the 19th century”, a selling exhibition that featured some of the region’s earliest photographs, namely prints by photographers such as Colin Murray, Felice Beato, Raja Deen Dayal and the Bourne and Shepherd Studio. The works present at the auction have been printed from the exceedingly rare original prints gathered over a six-decade period. Because most of these works have never before been seen or exhibited, Clark Warswick, Sotheby’s photo historian and collector, has taken up the responsibility of preservation, creating a series of limited edition carbon ink prints of each image.
To coincide with this exciting process, the auction included some of the subcontinent’s most peculiar and sought-after paintings, the most exciting and unexpected of which comes from Raja Ravi Varma.
Following the success of Untitled (Damayanti) that sold last March for a remarkable price of USD1.7 million, Sotheby’s set another benchmark for Raja Ravi Varma earlier this week. The artist’s seminal work Untitled (Tillottama) sold for USD795,000 after a heated match between telephone bidders. The piece exhibits a celestial nymph from Hindu mythology who embodies the nearly perfect being. The figure is, for many of Ravi Varma fans, a familiar recurrence, his depictions of women eschewing Western narratives in favour of the myriad stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Tilottama, one of the Apsaras (celestial nymphs) from Hindu mythology, is a well-known character in not only Ravi Varma’s work, but perpetuated in other artists’ work in South Asia. In the epic text, Mahabharata, Tilottama was created at Brahma’s request by using the best possible assets to create an ‘almost perfect’ being. Her purpose was to bring about the destruction of the two Asuras (demons) who were brothers and could not be destroyed except for by their own hands. As their evils developed, the God Indra sent Tilottama to them, thereby captivating the demons with her beauty. The jealous brothers fought over her and ended up killing each other. The sold painting depicts the nymph’s descent down to earth, most likely after her picturesque creation.
Since 1979, when the Indian government declared Ravi Varma to be a National Art Treasure and prevented the export of his paintings from India, it has become very uncommon for his works to appear at auction internationally. This seems to have been a commonality in Sotheby’s sale of modern and contemporary South Asian art: extremely rare and exceptionally prized, the full lot was a luminous and sensitive rendering of histories, mythologies and personal narratives that stand as excellent examples of the region’s mastery.
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