As part of its Asian Art Week online, Christie’s presents its South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art auction, open for bidding until July 22. A total of 64 works retrace 100 years of creative endeavours and artistic production in the South Asian subcontinent. Works by Tyeb Mehta, Francis Newton Souza, Maqbool Fida Husain, Akbar Padamsee, Sayed Haider Raza and Ram Kumar represent the best of the Progressive Artists’ Group in the auction alongside works by N.S. Bendre, M.V. Dhurandhar, Jagdish Swaminathan, Jehangir Sabavala, Sadequain, George Keyt and Zainul Abedin. Additionally, the sale includes a sculpture and print by the late contemporary artist Zarina Hashmi, and a group of works on paper by Nasreen Mohamedi from a private collection in Turkey. The last two lots of the sale have been donated by artist Imran Qureshi to benefit student performance arts at the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore.
Among the highlights of the auction are Tyeb Mehta’s first Falling Figure, painted in 1965, and Francis Newton Souza’s Frightened Head from 1957. “This July, as part of the first virtual Asian Art Week in New York, we are excited to present a standalone online auction of South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art. The sale includes several masterpieces that have never been offered at auction before,” said Nishad Avari, specialist and Head of Sale, in a press release.
For Tyeb Mehta, the human figure remained the focus of his artistic practice for six decades (1925-2009). An early stylistic turn in Mehta’s work followed his stay in England from 1959 to 1964, which resulted in a new Expressionist vocabulary on his canvases. This brief transitional period in Mehta’s work bridged the time between his sombre early portraits and his introduction of the revolutionary ‘diagonal’ and complete flattening of the painted surface following a trip to New York on a Rockefeller Fund Fellowship in 1968.
The Falling Figure, a subject Mehta began to explore during this period, was born out of a traumatic childhood memory, he carried of witnessing the violent death of a man during the Partition riots of the Subcontinent in 1947. This monumental painting from 1965 Untitled (Falling Figure) estimate $700,000-900,000, is possibly Mehta’s earliest exploration of the seminal trope of the Falling Figure in his work, an iconic representation of fear and anxiety in the face of a violent and unavoidable event in society.
Gallery One in London, under the direction of the famed art dealer and poet, Victor Musgrave, was essential in the early development of Francis Newton Souza’s career. One of the gallery’s investors, Robin Jared Stanley Howard, was also a great supporter of Souza. Originally part of Howard’s storied collection, Frightened Head, painted in 1957 also comes for the first time to auction with an estimate of $150,000-250,000.
Unusually for Souza, who frequently depicted woman as creatures of beauty, purity or desire, this Frightened Head portrays a terrified subject in quarter length format. Rich impasto broken with thick black lines reveals a fearsome face with an extended symbolic snout, reminiscent of African tribal masks. Gritted teeth resemble steel grills framing the black wide mouth, seemingly howling in anguish. Using a chalky background to intensify his subject and her features, Souza renders this terrified woman with his signature dynamism and vitality.
The auction includes two works donated by artist Imran Qureshi to benefit student performance arts at the National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore, Pakistan, where Qureshi received his education at the iconic Miniature Painting Department. Today he teaches as professor at this same department. Fabric of Heaven, painted in 2020 is estimated at $25,000-35,000, and Opening Word of this New Sculpture painted a year earlier in 2019, is expected to realise between $20,000-30,0000.
The work titled Opening Word of This New Scripture seemingly appears like the pages of a manuscript with the scarlet leitmotif of foliate vocabulary interspersed with the drips and splatters of gestural abstraction. The second work Fabric of Heaven, makes use of the same imagery but the work changes as Qureshi introduces gilding to create a paradoxical representation of violence against the use of the gold leaf as a representation of eternity or heaven.