“Why is Tate Modern exhibiting an old-fashioned, second-rate artist whose art recalls the kind of British painters it would never let through its doors?”
So begins the review of Bhupen Khakhar’s retrospective at the Tate Modern, London, by The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones.
The review, which proceeds to equate Khakhar with a “hamfisted hack”, labels him “genuinely not much good”.
“Why are we supposed to be interested in this old-fashioned, second-rate artist whose paintings are stuck in a time warp of 1980s neo-figurative cliche? The answers appear to be political rather than aesthetic. Khakhar portrayed his own gay identity at a time when this was still brave. All right. Yet his depictions of arses and cocks don’t seem at all shocking or provocative, probably because his renditions of human flesh are so drab and vague,” Jones writes.
Unsurprisingly, the review hasn’t gone down too well with the Indian art community, which considers Khakhar among its leading lights.
Artist Bose Krishnamachari, the founder of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, pointed out that The Guardian itself had carried a far more nuanced piece on Khakhar’s art, by the writer Amit Chaudhuri just a few days before the critique by Jones appeared.
Chaudhuri has traced Khakhar’s life and placed his art within the context in which it was created — unlike Jones.
“Khakhar wasn’t interested in perfectionism. It wasn’t that he wasn’t aware of style or craftsmanship, but he wanted to create a poetic language with his paintings,” says Krishnamachari, addressing the criticisms in Jones’ review.
Several artists and curators took to social media after the piece by Jones was published in The Guardian. Among them were gallerists Shireen Gandhy (who called the critique, “agonisingly and embarrassingly ignorant”) and Saloni Doshi (who said it was a “waste of time”).
Critic and curator Girish Shahane also posted a message on his Facebook page, to this effect: “I'm always puzzled when people post articles by Jonathan Jones on their timelines, because I think he's a blowhard doofus. This piece has settled any doubts I had on that score”.
A common sentiment seemed to be that Jones — known as a scathing critic — had written his review of the Khakhar retrospective with an intention to provoke. Bose Krishnamachari said in this, Jones was not alone: “I know many critics, even in India, who just like to be provocative and get a reaction. That’s how they get recognition, get noticed.”
Art critic and writer Alka Raghuvanshi also pointed out that everybody in the business of critiquing has a distinctive style. “It’s the job of a critic to present his/her opinion, so I don’t have any issues with what Jones has said,” Raghuvanshi told Firstpost.
Raghuvanshi also found one of the points raised by Jones in his review interesting:
“The only reason to give Khakhar a soft ride would surely be some misplaced notion that non-European art needs to be looked at with special critical generosity — that Khakhar’s political perspective on the world is more important than the merits of his art. (From Bhupen Khakhar review: Mumbai's answer to Beryl Cook)
Raghuvanshi feels that the question of different yardsticks being applied to artists is one that requires serious thought. However, she adds that an artist’s work cannot be seen as separate from the context in which it was created.
“Sensibilities differ from region to region,” says Raghuvanshi. “When I am viewing art from Sri Lanka or Thailand, I will not judge it from an Indian or an American context. As for Bhupen Khakhar, you have to consider the milieu. In the times when he was painting — when he came out as gay (in the 1980s) — homosexuality was not openly practiced or confessed, leave alone celebrated. So his work was very bold, a form of rebellion.”
Whether critics from the West tend to look at art from the subcontinent in a blinkered way is a question that has been raised in the past. The review of Khakhar’s work by Jones has brought the spotlight back on the debate.
“I’ve seen it happen with the works of artists from Asia and Africa,” says Bose Krishnamachari. “Some critics (in the West) have an approach that can be described as almost racist.”
However, Krishnamachari adds that some of Khakhar’s close friends were from the art world in the West, including the noted artist Howard Hodgkins.
Incidentally, Hodgkins also finds mention in Jones’ review.
To drive home his point that talented artists will not find space at the Tate Modern, he names Howard Hodgkins as one of the greats who have relegated to the Tate Britain.
Alka Raghuvanshi says that the choice of showcasing artists is up to the Tate, and it is something the museum puts an incredible amount of thought into. “It’s not like in India, where you organise an exhibition in a matter of days. The Tate’s shows are planned years ad months in advance and they do a bloody good job of it.”
In contrast to The Guardian piece, the Telegraph, UK, has a glowing recommendation of Khakhar's art.
“To decide on the merit of an artist’s work, it’s a complex question,” says Raghuvanshi. “Nothing is absolute, not even the truth. So how can criticism be absolute? More importantly, why take offence at what one critic has to say?”