Bhupen Khakhar: You Can’t Please All
Tate Modern until 6 November 2016
Tate Modern is holding the first international retrospective of the interesting Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar (1934-2003). Their publicity says something that is obviously true, that this painter “played a central role in modern Indian art,” but also makes the larger claims that Khakhar “was also a key international figure in 20th century painting.” Is this correct? The Observer’s critic thinks not, in a review that castigates the installation (“badly edited”); and her fellow critic on the sister paper, the Guardian, is positively rude. Jonathan Jones isn’t responsible for the heading, “Mumbai’s Answer to Beryl Cook,” but the sentiment of the sub-heading certainly reflects his review: “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?”
Khakhar’s vibrant palette, use of saturated colours – with the paint sometimes so thinly applied that it has the flatness, immediacy, luminosity and urgency of watercolour – is his own, and instantly recognisable, which is one aspect that led the Guardian’s man to make the risible, but nasty comparison with Beryl Cook. However, Khakhar is a “primitive” more in the Douanier Rousseau, or even Italian Primitive frame. He studied and loved 14th century Sienese painting, as Timothy Hyman explains in his essay in the handsome exhibition catalogue, and as Julian Bell noticed in 2007. The Guardian is particularly obtuse about the subversive nature of most of Khakhar’s output.
Besides being a radical artist, Bhupen (I knew him slightly) was a social pioneer, being openly gay in India (coming out after the death of his mother), and having a devoted relationship for over twenty years. His house in Baroda was a sort of continuous salon-cum-party, where he presided with wit and a sense of mischief and fun. He called the 1981 painting from which the Tate exhibition takes its title his “coming out” statement. It contains a nude self-portrait with his buttocks, prominent and facing the viewer, as he leans over a balcony that conceals his nakedness from the busy people below – someone is mending a car, there’s a house being built, another figure is harvesting mangos by knocking them off a tree with a stick, On the left of the large canvas are three scenes of an Aesop fable about a father and son and their donkey. It’s typical of his paintings, in having a bravely empty, large colour field inn the centre of the picture plane.
Bhupen’s introduction to Britain came via Howard Hodgkin, whom he met in 1972, and stayed with in 1976, and again in 1979, when he stayed with Howard in Wiltshire, teaching for six months at the Bath Academy. (It was around this time that my wife and I bought the two watercolours, above, by Bhupen.)
The Tate show does not pull its punches. It has an entire room with Bhupen’s aggressive paintings done when he had prostate cancer, and there are angry pictures such as the gold-tinged Idiot (2003), which is full of rage, yet has irony and perhaps a touch of humour, as one person laughs at the other’s expression of pain – and the sufferer is mysteriously peeing into his shoe.
The best work in the show, I think, is in the room with his early paintings showing ordinary tradesmen at work, especially The De-Lux Tailors (1972), Janata Watch-Repairing (1972) and Barber’s Shop (1973). There are several paintings with the explicit theme of gay love, some, touchingly, depicting elderly gents, and a few with puzzling multiple penises. Bhupen had plenty of honours and recognition in his lifetime – including a Prince Claus award in 2000, and a commission from the National Portrait Gallery to paint Salman Rushdie. The writer repaid the compliment, in The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), where the character of Accountant, the painter and homosexual lover of Great-Uncle Aires, says the catalogue, “stands as a barely veiled portrait of Khakhar.”