May 7, 2011

‘Lake Basins’ Torrents Back

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Considered the chief platform for the arts from ‘Lake District’ Kenya, the Western and Nyanza region that is, the annual Lake Basins Art Exhibition is on its way back.  For the fourth time in a row, tradition, legend and myth will fuse together in one pause as artists from Kisumu and its neighbouring settlements use paint to explore cultural folklore.

Patrick Adoyo's Bicycles

                                                                                        Bicycles by Patrick Adoyo

Kisumu, a port city originally named Port Florence, was founded in 1901 as the head terminal of the Uganda Railway. The name Kisumu comes from the Luo word “sumo,” which means a place of barter. Mass producers of sugar and rice, and rich in many natural resources, Kisumu’s contribution to the national economy is wide-ranging.

In fact, it’s currently one of the fastest growing cities in Kenya. You might not know too much about Kisumu’s history and that’s probably because in Kenya, people have a tendency to be Nairobi-centric. Most exchanges revolve around the capital’s axis and urbanites often neglect the affairs of neighbouring townships. 

The Lake Basins Art Group is an institution that uses art to develop the wealth of an impoverished district. LBAG showcases many disadvantaged artists from the politically and economically marginalized regions of Western Kenya. With the scenic waters of Lake Victoria to enthuse the artists, the works are full of that village charm us urbanized Nairobians often miss.

If you were there last year, you might remember Jimmy Rakuru’s Fisherman, the celebrated hatted man holding his catch of the day. It captured the essence of rustic life at the lake scene. It had that minimalistic rural feel, very down-to-earth yet almost transcendent.

Inevitably, as years go by, art from the locality changes and many of us are waiting in anticipation for this year’s eye-catchers. Will more pieces have this surreal contradictory feel? What kind of subject matter will the new and guest artists exhibit? What will the member artists produce? We look forward to seeing affiliated artists David Otieno, Edward Orato, Edwin Ochieng, Samuel Olweru, Meshak Odera, Jackson Juma, Willis Otieno and Peko again this year.  

Speaking with Patrick Adoyo, the curator and chairman of LBAG, he’s very excited about this year’s exhibition. “LBAG is a non-profit making community based organization,” he explains and, “many of the exhibiting artists have never gone to school for art or been influenced by tourism and commercial life".

He continues, "Some of them didn’t even know they could make a living this way. Our goal is support artists from those municipalities as many of them have a really tough time. This is my home town and I’ve witnessed their plight firsthand.

He has a smirk on his face as he says he’s on leave for a little while over the next week. It seems strange timing and there’s definitely something hush-hush about his expression. When probed a little further, Adoyo, who’s also an exhibition designer, reveals some painted canvases behind his desk at the National Museum of Kenya

With his background, it doesn’t seem surprising. He’s the head of the Exhibits Section at the Museum and naturally, there might be some artwork about.  In truth, it turns out that the paintings are his. Let me rephrase, he’s the artist!
Detail from Market Day by Partick Adoyo Milenye

                                                                      Detail from Market Day by Partick Adoyo Milenye

Yes, pushed to uncover the reason behind his furtive smile, it turns out he’s taking a short timeout to produce a painting or two for this month’s show. Some time ago, Adoyo’s oil and acrylic paintings had made it to exhibitions in London and Italy.

Known in the past primarily for his human figure models made of plasticine and cast in fibreglass and resin, Adoyo is in fact a well-known artist. These days there’s a long stretch between paintings of course but he’s once again inspired. As he pulls out Market Day, a lively painting of a Kenyan souk, he talks about his ardour for art. “I have participated in all of The Lake Basins Exhibitions,” he says proudly.  

Adoyo’s enthusiasm for art means he still puts his personal touch in to each of the Lake Basin Exhibitions. He’s passionate about what he does and genuinely enjoys being a contributing artist of the more silent kind. Look for his paintings amongst the lake painters.


May 3, 2011

The art of drawing

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In the words of Giorgio Vasari, drawing is the father of three other arts; architecture, sculpture and painting. We can trace drawing back to its appearance as cave paintings, and in modern times, graffiti and basic doodling indicate the urge to draw is alive and kicking.

As people continue to lay more focus on the final product, drawing, the root of all art, seems to have taken a back seat. What we as art critics and enthusiasts have forgotten is the importance of drawing — creating a notion that only a painting can be hung on a wall, and a drawing must be designated to the drawer. We fail to remember that, in the West, the drawings of giants such as Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci are given as much weight as their paintings.

Taking a cue from revered artists around the globe, Khaas Art in association with Aasim Akhtar has taken the initiative to compile portfolio of the drawings of well-known artists. For the first time in Pakistan, notable artists have been asked to compile their drawings in one place. Salima Hashmi, RM Naeem, Tariq Gill, Waseem Ahmed, Anwar Saeed, Nahid Raza, Mehr Afroze, Aasim Akhtar, Naiza Khan, Farrukh Shahab, Moeen Farruqi and Adeel-uz-Zafar will, for the first time, retrace the roots of art and collect an anthology of drawings.

Talking exclusively with The Express Tribune Magazine, Aasim Akhtar, who is also to be featured in the portfolio, speaks about the significance of drawing and the unique nature of this particular venture.

“Never in the history of Pakistan has there been a compilation made of original drawings,” he says. “In a very arbitrary way, the portfolio briefly divides artists by generation. But they are all active practitioners of art and original draughtsman.” Even though the artists have different historical realities they have shared sensibilities; visual and conceptual.

This particular portfolio cherishes the artists’ differences, conflicts and reversals. It is this diversity of vision and approach that makes this collection unique. The artists have not been bound to either theme or medium.

With full flexibility with regard to what the artist might want to produce, the collective sees a collage by Salima Hashmi, drawn washes by Nahid Raza, a self portrait in graphite by Farrukh Shahab and a beautiful piece by Aasim Akhtar in lead pencil. “For the last 25 years I have been struggling with the space between drawing and painting,” says Salima Hashmi. “I like the structure to be exposed and be a part of the finished piece.”

Adeel-uz-Zafar’s unique technique of layering his surface with vinyl coating and helping the image emerge through the surface through scratch marks is inimitable and adds to the uniqueness and exclusivity of the portfolio. “The way I work has a linear quality to it and so it makes sense that I am involved in this project,” says Zafar.

An initiative taken by the late Usman Ghauri to compile a portfolio of screen prints in Karachi under the name ‘Different Drummer’ was the inspirational step that drove Pakistan’s artists to collect other such pieces. With Laila Rehman following lead at NCA in Lahore, Usman Ghauri came out with another portfolio, Out of the Box, before passing away. With a total of four portfolios dedicated to printmaking existing in Pakistan, the fifth portfolio is a huge contribution.

Paul Klee once said, “Drawing is a dot taken on a long walk.” As Khaas Art and Aasim Akhtar join this walk, the original portfolio rests in the Santorine-esque Khaas Art Gallery in Islamabad and will soon be auctioned off and the proceeds from the auction will be donated to the upcoming LRBT Benefit Night in Islamabad.


Painting Flowers: Fantin-Latour and the Impressionists,

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Fruit and Flowers - Fantin-Latour, 1866
Fruit and Flowers - Fantin-Latour, 1866 

'In the beginning,” the elderly Edgar Degas recalled, “Fantin, Whistler and I, we were all on the same road from Holland.”
What he meant was that in the early 1860s, just as the moribund polarities in French painting between the neo-classical and Romantic schools were giving way to the full-blooded realism of Gustav Courbet, he was among a band of young artists who aspired to bring up-to-date the Dutch 17th-century landscape, portrait, still life and genre traditions.
One of the artists Degas mentions was Henri Fantin-Latour, painter of that great aubade to the Romantic movement, Homage à Delacroix, the 1864 group portrait in which (among others) Baudelaire, Manet, Whistler and Fantin-Latour himself boldly stake their claim to the leadership of the cultural avant-garde.
Whistler and Manet in their different ways went on to become two of the most progressive artists working in European painting during the second half of the century. Fantin-Latour did not. Neither reactionary nor innovator, his absolute dislike of plein-air painting and preference for a nearly monochromatic palette set him apart from the generation of young artists who allied themselves with the Impressionists.
Yet there is something schizophrenic about Fantin-Latour’s talent. On the one hand he was a portraitist of extraordinary ambition and psychological acuity whose works in the genre always impress but never enthral. His chilly, grey-black palette, the emotional distance he keeps from his sitters, and the stiff poses contrived in the interest of compositional balance rather than for natural effect cast a funereal pall over all his group portraits.
On the other hand, the lush imaginative vision he brought to phantasmagorical subjects inspired by Wagner and Berlioz whip up emotion to a point where it parts company with reality. Illustrations to Tannhäuser, Parsifal and Lohengrin initiate the Symbolist movement in painting in France, but for me they are his least successful work. 

And somewhere between these two extremes are the pictures in which he most closely allied himself to the Dutch school and for which he is now remembered: his paintings of flowers. Like Manet, Fantin-Latour painted still lifes for money. He drew a distinction between the group portraits and mythological subjects he exhibited at the Salon in Paris, and the flower studies he showed at the Royal Academy and sold through his London agents Mr and Mrs Edwin Edwards. 

A gem of a show at the Bowes Museum in County Durham has now brought together as many of Fantin-Latour’s flower paintings from British collections as the curators could get their hands on. By hanging pictures that are usually seen on their own in Birmingham, York, London and Edinburgh together with works by Fantin-Latour in their own collection, the curators make it possible to follow his artistic development through the flower paintings alone. We move from gritty early realist studies inspired by Courbet to ultra-refined compositions by a Whistlerian aesthete. 

As young men, Whistler and Fantin-Latour were close friends with shared artistic sensibilities. In a letter to Whistler from the 1860s, Fantin-Latour described painting as “the mysterious harmony of form and colour”. Whether painting portraits or flowers, Fantin-Latour concentrated on these abstract qualities, and in doing so paralleled (to a degree) Whistler’s interest in art for art’s sake. 

Fantin-Latour’s flower paintings are at once utterly natural representations of what he saw in front of him and a formal exercise in tonal harmonies and ultra-subtle colour changes. In a typical study of roses in a glass vase, the delicate tonal range varies from pinky-white to pale yellow, while the whole composition is anchored in a patch of throbbing magenta. In a study of dahlias, hot crimsons and purples blend imperceptibly into cool yellow and white blooms as though the artist’s medium were embroidery and not paint. 

Broadly speaking, you can tell where and when Fantin-Latour painted a picture simply by identifying the flowers in it. When he was in Paris he relied on cut flowers that had been grown commercially in market gardens in the south and brought weekly to the capital’s many flower markets. 

From 1880, he and his wife, the talented flower painter Victoria Dubourg, spent the spring and summer in Normandy, where they grew flowers that were not commercially viable. After breakfast each morning, still wearing his slippers, Fantin-Latour would walk through his garden, picking nasturtiums, pansies and Japanese anemones to create the meltingly beautiful arrangements we see in the late works like the National Gallery’s glorious Rosy Wealth of June, where seven different roses, mixed with delphiniums, dahlias, phlox, belladonna, lilies and begonias almost burst out of the canvas. 

I’ve sometimes heard Fantin-Latour’s flower paintings dismissed as inconsequential. Well, maybe they are, but if you don’t like looking at a picture like that, then you don’t like art. If you are within shooting distance, do go, and allow some extra time to inspect the newly restored and utterly transformed Bowes Museum. 


Once criticised, painter Tagore now aesthetic icon

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He has inspired generations of painters, yet Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who began to paint at the late age of 67, was dismissed by peers and critics as a "bad and untrained" artist during his lifetime.

"The first exhibition of Tagore's paintings in May 1930 in Paris that received an overwhelming response was later exhibited in Kolkata (in 1931 and 1932). But the audience there was strangely silent and I remember reading articles criticising his style and technique," senior artist Niren Sengupta told IANS.

In 1931, Tagore displayed at the Kolkata Town Hall and in February 1932 at the Government School of Art with 265 art works.

"The critics did not like Tagore's childlike adaptation of global artistic practices - especially those from the Far East and Europe - to create a unique Indian language," said Sengupta.

"The fact that no artist could copy Tagore's style and ideas fuelled the resentment further," said the Delhi College of Art principal.

Sengupta, who inaugurated an exhibition by 35 artists from West Bengal, "A Tribute to Tagore", at the Epicentre in Gurgaon a week before his 150th birth anniversary May 9, said, "Tagore's critics have been proved wrong with time."

"His works are now a national property and sought after," Sengupta said. The senior artist is inspired by the versatility of Tagore in his own abstract canvas that portray the poet as a man with many colourful faces.

Tagore's art is a complex combination of doodles, word art, quaint man-animal creatures and gaunt-faced ovoid women painted in ink, water colour, oil and mixed media.

According to a biographical volume, "Something Old, Something New: Rabindranath Tagore's 150th anniversary volume (edited by Pratapaditya Pal)", he "always regretted that his countrymen did not appreciate his paintings".

His peer's uncertainty with his style stemmed from the fact that he had no formal training in art, says the biographical volume.

Artist Nandalal Bose, alarmed by the amateurishness of Tagore's works, patiently compiled an album of reproductions of European masters for Tagore so that he could learn to draw properly. But Tagore returned the album saying, "it could help his students".

On his 150th birth anniversary barely a week away, the focus of the India and Bangladesh governments' celebrations, which begin here Friday, is on the poet's art and philosophy - the lesser known aspects of Tagore.

A special digital compilation of art, "Chitravali", will be released to coincide with his birth anniversary and a mammoth exhibition interpreting Tagore works and his original art by Indian and Bangladeshi artists will be on display in Bangladesh and India.

At the exposition, "A Tribute To Tagore", artists use his style, technique, ideology and motifs from his compositions to translate them into their creative idioms on the canvas.

A portrait of Tagore seated in meditative repose by senior artist Sudip Roy using the wash painting method stands out from the rest for his mastery over the medium. A charcoal composition, "Essence of Kolkata", by Subrata Das explores the rural soul of the metropolis with the hand-carted rickshaw as a metaphor.

"When I see rain in north Kolkata - around the Chitpore area, I think of Tagore. He is from north Kolkata. The city looks beautiful during monsoon," artist Dilip Chowdhury told IANS.

Chowdhury, who creates rainwashed urban landscapes with acrylic on canvas using the technique of water colour, "reacts to Tagore's poems as an artist".

Artists Anup Giri and Subroto Gangopadhayay prefer to interpret Tagore's philosophy and artistic ideology on paper. They play with Tagore's commitment to rural reconstruction and promotion of the ethnic arts of Bengal and India on their canvas of dancing tribal men and women.

According to curator Ameeshi Tapuriah, the owner of the Art Nouveau Gallery, who has spent her childhood in Kolkata, "Any artist who is connected to Bengal cannot stay away from Tagore - they are inspired by him in some way."

Tagore continued to paint till his death in 1941, and his brush strokes have evidently outlived the harshest of criticis.


E.J. Hughes's depiction of boats off the coast of Sidney is arguably his finest work, expert says

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Nick Pr David Heffel (left) and Robert Heffel stand in front of E.J. Hughes's work. The pre-auction estimate is $700,000 to $900,000, but it could be more if a couple of collectors square off over the painting.

Nick Pr David Heffel (left) and Robert Heffel stand in front of E.J. Hughes's work. The pre-auction estimate is $700,000 to $900,000, but it could be more if a couple of collectors square off over the painting.

E.J. Hughes got out of the army in 1946, bought a cottage at Shawnigan Lake near Victoria, and decided to try his hand at being a full-time artist.

He worked 12-hour days, but his meticulous style made for a small output: There are only a dozen Hughes paintings from the late 1940s. Money was so scarce, he didn't have a car until the late 1950s.

The late 1940s Hughes paintings tend to be a bit darker and more turbulent than his playful later works -a little Van Gogh is mixed into the Rousseau. They rarely come to market, but when they do can fetch big numbers: The 1946 painting Fishboats, Rivers Inlet sold for a record $920,000 in 2004.

That record may be shattered May 17, when the 1948 Hughes painting Coastal Boats Near Sidney, BC goes up for sale at the Heffel Auction of Canadian Post-War and Contemporary Art at the Vancouver Convention Centre.

The striking depiction of two old steamships plying the coastal waters is arguably E.J. Hughes's finest painting. "If you wanted one painting of Hughes, that's the one," says Jacques Barbeau, a prominent Hughes collector.
"If you want the esthetic footprint of E.J. Hughes, I don't think you could have a better example. That is British Columbia. The strength, the power, the scenery, it's all in there."

The pre-auction estimate is $700,000 to $900,000, but if a couple of collectors square off over the painting, it could easily shoot past the $1-million mark. If it does, it would make E.J. Hughes only the 12th Canadian artist to have a work sell for a million dollars.

It may not be the only work that hits the sales stratosphere May 17. Heffel is also selling another exceptional Hughes painting, 1952's Mouth of the Courtenay River, which has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000.

Mouth of the Courtenay River is painted in a much more familiar Hughes style, a colourful scene of a fisherman steering a gillnetter down the river, with a farm, mountains and clouds in the background.

"It's the yin and the yang of E.J. Hughes," says Barbeau. "One piece that is going to knock you out [Coastal Boats], the other one is more subtle, it's more serene."

Both paintings are being sold by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia, which bought them from Hughes in 1955 at the urging of an art-loving intern, Jack Parnell.

Parnell would go on to become a prominent collector in his own right, and the president of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

"He was very supportive of the arts, right from the time he was interning," says artist Gordon Smith, who is the godfather of Parnell's children.

"He was a very good friend of mine, and he was a good friend of Lawren Harris. He bought a lot of very good paintings. The Ed Hughes ones he bought are tremendous. [One is] going for $1 million and I think he bought it for $300, or less."

Parnell was more than just a friend and collector of local artists; he was often their doctor.
"He was my doctor, and Harris's doctor," recounts Smith.

"Someone got a story where he was playing golf and Lawren had a heart attack and Jack fixed him. Well, Lawren never had a golf club in his hand, ever. So that's not true. But he did save Lawren's life, because he recommended he have [a heart operation for] a new aorta."
Harris was so pleased with his operation he offered paintings to both Parnell and Dr. John Elliot, who had done the operation. The Parnell Harris is now in the Vancouver Art Gallery collection, but the painting Harris gave to Elliot, the 1957 abstract The Spirit of Remote Hills, is also for sale at the Heffel auction, with an estimate of $80,000 to $100,000.

This time, the highest estimates belong to the two Hughes paintings, an untitled 1955 abstract by Jean-Paul Riopelle ($900,000 to $1.2 million), and Dimanche (1966) and Les Moniales (1964) by Jean-Paul Lemieux ($400,000 to $600,000 each).

"We're seeing a little bit of the demographics changing with the estates that are coming to us, where the estates now are a generation or a decade later," explains David Heffel.

"The collectors [who amassed their collections in the 1930s and 1940s] are dissipating and are being replaced by the collectors who were highly active in the '50s and '60s."

The top items in the Fine Canadian Art sale are two Harris paintings estimated at $250,000 to $350,000, In The Ward (1920) and North Shore, Lake Superior, Pic Island II (1922). Emily Carr's The Gnarled Tree (1913-18) is estimated at $200,000 to $300,000, while David Milne's Woman and Bright Trees, West Saugerties, NY (1914) is estimated at $250,000 to $300,000.

There is a viewing of the auction lots in Montreal through today and there will be another in Toronto from May 5 to 7. Vancouverites will be able to view the art May 13-17 at the Heffel Gallery, 2247 Granville St. (Sotheby is also having a local viewing Tuesday at the Contemporary Art Gallery for its Toronto auction May 26.) The Riopelle abstract may wind up fetching the highest price at the Heffel auction -the late Quebec painter has had 10 paintings that have sold for over $1 million, third behind Lawren Harris (who has 18) and Tom Thomson (who has 10).

If Hughes cracks the million-dollar mark, though, it will have special significance for the Heffel brothers.
"You know, Emily Carr and E.J. Hughes are really the foundation of our business," says David Heffel, who took over the auction with his brother Robert after their father died.

"My dad was very fortunate to own the [Hughes painting] Indian Church, which is a masterpiece as well. He had it hanging here for many years, and a collector from Vancouver came in and says he wanted to buy it.

"My dad says, 'It's not for sale,' and the collector says, 'Well, what are you, an art dealer or a collector?' He got really angry with my dad and stormed out. Eventually he won, and my dad sold him the painting."
Edward John Hughes was born in North Vancouver in 1913 and grew up in Nanaimo. He attended the Vancouver School of Art, and post-graduation formed a mural group with fellow artists Orville Fisher and Paul Goranson. But he wasn't really able to pursue painting until he became one of Canada's war artists during the Second World War.

Hughes was surprisingly prolific as a war artist: the Canadian War Museum has more than 500 Hughes works in its collection (118 paintings, 414 drawings). He was able to take some paint and canvas with him when he left the army -Heffel thinks Coastal Boats may have been done on an army canvas.

His big break came in 1951, when he met Montreal art dealer Max Stern. Stern represented Hughes for 35 years, and gave him the financial support to keep painting.

"I think for him the greatest reward was that he was able to continue painting," says Heffel.

"A lot of painters from his generation [couldn't]. Paul Goranson had to move to New York and painted backdrops for the Metropolitan Opera, Orville Fisher I think was an art teacher up the valley. They had to compromise, they weren't able to paint full-time in the studio.

"Whereas Hughes was very fortunate to be discovered by Max Stern. If Stern didn't come along, Hughes would have moved into something else, perhaps rejoining the military."

Hughes rarely left Vancouver Island, and didn't attend the retrospective the Vancouver Art Gallery had of his work in 1994. (Coastal Boats Near Sidney, BC is on the cover of the Hughes bio by VAG curator Ian Thom that accompanied the exhibition.) If you did meet Hughes, however, he was very affable. Which is partly why he didn't like to socialize.

"He'd open up and sit and talk with you for four hours, but he'd get back home and couldn't draw for two days," says Barbeau, who has written a couple of books about Hughes.

"He was worked up. That's why he wasn't too good on the social scene. [But he was a] very nice guy, totally dedicated to painting."

How dedicated? "He had his lawn in Duncan paved over so he didn't have to cut the lawn and cut into his painting hours," laughs Heffel.

Hughes died in Duncan in 2007 at the age of 93. After many years of financial struggle, he was finally able to enjoy financial stability in later life, even some luxuries.

"He loved his Jaguar," says Barbeau.

"He had two of them, I think. When he started to make money, that's what he bought. But that was all that he ever spent money on."