Persistence of memory sanctified
I was like a peasant in his field attached to the pictorial glebe, as though suspended from a jute rope, as an ox to the harness, although devilishly restive, only raising my nose from my work to contemplate light, shadow, half-tone features of the curious faces of some pilgrims, and to register forms, colours, fleeting harmonies, to the point of believing that a faithful recollection of this will remain with me well beyond the tomb. – Georges Rouault
I start at any point on the canvas that suits me, and from there on the painting grows like a tree or a creeper. – Madhvi Parekh
Nothing can be more distant from each other than these two quotes above – although the works of both these artists, who are summoned here for their portrayals of Jesus Christ, evolved by the persistence of memory. Georges Rouault, born in a cellar, preserved in his memory the fleeting substance of 'fires and deadly terrors' which he experienced as “the righteous fire fastens and inlays”, to use his own words. Delhi-based painter Madhvi Parekh's subconscious self, brims with the memory of her early village life in Gujarat and the distinction between fantasy and real life dissolves in her paintings. Parekh, who began painting rather late in life, had no formal training in visual art practice. Known for adhering to folk art idioms, she has evolved her art into a uniquely fanciful metaphor although still opting for traditional flat surface and the pictorial import of decorative ingredients. This is evident in her solo exhibition titled 'The Last Supper' at St Thomas' chapel, being organised by the Seagull Foundation for the Arts in association with Bishop's College.
The strains of Bach's Concerto in D minor for clavier and strings are spilling out of its doorway as I enter the chapel. Stashed away inside Bishop's College in Kolkata, on a lazy afternoon, it is a perfect ambience for liturgy or simply of a space for quiet prayer. However, there are no pews, merely a carpet laid on the floor with rows of books of psalm filling the central empty space of the chapel. Only against the many pillars of the hall are the paintings placed, mostly on the floor, with an air of humility as if not to disturb the workaday proceedings of this college chapel.
The works are a series of reverse paintings in acrylic and a few charcoal drawings related to the life of Jesus Christ, sanctified with all-pervading presence of the sanctified bearded faces of Christ and other folks, including anthropomorphic animals, birds and other lives. However, the wanton placements of smaller figures and objects are composed like a decorative design with as much intent of satisfying the game of spatial divisions within the frames as of inducing narrative meaning.
In 'The Wise Man' (2008), the central bearded figure is surrounded by five human figures, two of which are partly birds, with their raised arms superseded by the birds' ostrich-like long necks. With a halo around his head, this wise man radiates with his benign presence in the universe in which the planes of the sky and the earth, or day and night – all these opposing binaries get blended. A radiant sun on the top corner shares space with nocturnal stars and sitting birds of the earth. In Parekh's art, much like in the wall paintings of village women in India, the pictorial logic seems to rest in the spatial design of the picture. Except that the former is more fanciful and devoid of the implicit ritual contexts of the latter.
Prepared like a triptych, the most elaborately painted 'Journey of Christ' (2007-08) is a symbolic configuration of the Christ image with the leitmotifs of stars, churches, a slew of human faces and figures as if placed with decorative intent. There are also small grids that subdivide the space, which are replete with motifs of human heads, animal heads, flowerpots, and a series of crosses. With all these assorted small images, as I will see in her other works, Parekh leaves no markers to identify the contexts of Jesus' life. However, the best way to perceive these works is to recall what she said once, 'I start at any point on the canvas that suits me, and from there on the painting grows like a tree or a creeper.' Her narrative vision, embracing a host of human figures, other creatures and imagined objects, lends itself more to the composition of her painting than to its meaning.
In the hands of Parekh, Jesus Christ is domesticated as a household idol, a folk hero of pastoral lore. In 'Last Supper' (2010), the disciples sit tight with their master in a living room as if captured in the middle of a photo session when some of them are still busy with their arguments. And yet the composition is perfectly symmetrical interspersed with folds of curtains and framed images of churches to design the upper space of the picture. As in all her works in the exhibition, black is the predominant colour here, being stressed by the outlines of faces and figures. Brown, green and Indian red are supplement in the space with muted significance. There is a marked difference in her two Christ portraits: whereas in 'Portrait of Christ I' (2008) there is a repetition of the same motifs and style of drawing which by now look like her signature mannerism, the 'Portrait of Christ II', done in 2006, shows finer lines and more restrained use of space.
Whereas the most distinctive characteristics of traditional Christian iconography in the West has been its preoccupation with Jesus Christ and his roles as the earthly founder and heavenly saviour, the changing repertoire of images of Jesus and his followers reveals the nature of the religion in its many cultural and historical manifestations. In the twentieth century West, however, a highly individualized Christian iconography has been shaped by the creative consciousness of individual artists. To mention one, we only have to look at the 'Head of Christ' (oil on canvas, 1905) by Rouault, a member of the Fauves, in which he showed expressive passion mirrored upon human face. With savage, slashing strokes of the brush, he infused his own rage and compassion. A true heir of Van Gogh's and Gauguin's concern for the corrupt state of the world, Rouault, however, hoped for spiritual renewal through a revitalized Catholic faith. This spiritual quality is manifested in his later works when his renditions got restrained with economical lines and more accent of spiritual quality. This is evident with his later 'Head of Christ' (oil, 1935-39) in which Christ's calm and elongated face, with long nose and placid eyes looking at his viewer, was depicted with rich impasto, while betraying the cannons of Byzantine art.
The painting of Christ outside Western art, however, has incorporated the cultural particulars of non-western societies. In India, F N Souza had been the most prominent interpreter of the Christ image to whom art was synonymous with Nature. If Dante talked of Nature as the art of God, to Souza God was the creation of Nature in the mind of man. In Madhvi Parekh's oeuvre, many gods have figured in her works, notably with images of Durga. However, while the fascination with the Hindu goddess came with her initial artistic years in Calcutta, her interest in Christ emerged from her many travels overseas and visits in various churches in Jerusalem, Moscow, New York, Amsterdam and so on whose memories have made lasting impressions in her. However, true to her own style, and unlike Souza's expressive intent and dexterous style, Parekh's Christ is a part of her visual narrative tale of Christianity – neat, decorative, consciously two-dimensional, and yet fanciful with an alluring charm of childlike simplicity.
In Parekh's scheme of things, as in the two tableaux, 'Christ Travelling with Animals I & II' (both 2007), icons of humans and animals cohabit with as much measure as aerial stars, an umbrella, or a pot. If there is a palm tree in (I), there is a candelabrum with human heads in lieu of candlesticks in (II). In her works, the pastoral animals emerge particularly sanctified and bring resonance to what Milan Kundera wrote: 'No one can give anyone else the gift of the idyll; only an animal can do so, because only animals were not expelled from Paradise.' However, it is perhaps futile to extract any meaning or anecdotal reference in 'Animals Walking Down a Staircase' (2008) more than the fun of its naive decorative element ending up in a sort of riddle.
The repetitive style which also pervade in her charcoal images, has brought slight ennui in me as I watch these works in one go, although the subtle use of colours complements well with the thick black lines of the configurations. In the hands of a lesser painter, such combinations like violet, blue, yellow, red, and brown could easily have assumed a rustic garishness of the sort we often encounter in folk art but here the controlled use of these tones becomes an essential part of the composition.
ROMAIN MAITRA is an art critic and independent curator of contemporary art resident in Kolkata. He is also a cultural anthropologist by intellectual persuasion and worked as a consultant at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris