Tyeb Mehta is considered a rock star of Indian art and the high-powered, highly competitive global art auction world.
The late artist, one of the stalwarts of India’s Progressive Art Group (PAG), has consistently drawn top dollars in the auction market. In 2018, his work, Kali—a dramatic painting with the goddess in blue colour with a red mouth — set a world record of $4 million in a physical, on-ground auction.
And now another of Mehta’s painting, Falling Figure created a new benchmark in post-lockdown online auctions by realising $975,000, achieving the highest price for a South Asian Modern + Contemporary work since lockdown in Christie’s New York’s sale, which was part of the Asian Art Week online.
Paintings by other iconic Indian artists that realised very good auction sales included Maqbool Fida Husain’s Untitled (Woman at Work), which sold for $300,000, and Francis Newton Souza’s Frightened Head, which realised $250,000.
A painting by Maqbool Fida Husain.
Mehta’s Untitled painting from the Falling Figure series, among his seminal explorations, has come into the auction market for the first time, though others from the series have done well before. The 59x49in oil on canvas was painted in 1965.
Interestingly, the human figure remained the central focus for six decades of Mehta’s art practice. The Falling Figure—a subject the artist began to explore during his stay in England from 1959 to 1964—was born out of a traumatic childhood memory of witnessing the violent death of a man during the bloody Partition riots in 1947. This monumental painting is possibly Mehta’s earliest exploration of the Falling Figure in his work, an iconic representation of fear and anxiety in the face of a violent and unavoidable cataclysm in society.
The Falling Figure series, many experts believe, convey a duality of emotions: While the fragmented figure, falling into an unknown abyss, represents a sense of unease and disorientation, it also conveys a feeling of unfettered freedom in its gravity-defying drop. “...In the simple act of falling, Tyeb takes us on into a metaphysical riddle. The falling is vertiginous, and metaphorically expresses man’s freedom in the very act of infinite questing," wrote poet Dilip Chitre about the series in Ideas Images Exchanges, a monograph on Tyeb Mehta published by the Delhi-based Vadehra Art Gallery.
A painting by Tyeb Mehta.
Mehta, who was a recluse and barely painted 400-500 paintings in his six-decade-long career, has been discovered and rediscovered by collectors the world over, because of the rarity of his art. Collectors hold on to his art with zeal and rare paintings from his not-too-large repertoire make their way into the auction market. “It has been a decade of Tyeb Mehta,” Indian auction house, Saffronart’s CEO Dinesh Vazirani has said, whose auction house has done well with the artist’s works.
The Artery Indian Art Auction Report, way back in 2017, had predicted the rise and rise of Tyeb Mehta in the global auction market. In 2016, 11 works by the modernist artist had come into the market. Since then, it has seen a slew of his works, most selling far above their market valuation.
Interestingly, even while India flaunts some really big names in contemporary art, it is the modernists, the artists of Bombay’s mid-20th century Progressive Art Group (PAG) that continue to rock the global auction market. This conglomerate of artists are brands in themselves and never face a downturn, not even in the worst economic crisis, or seemingly, even when a pandemic rips through the world.
At Christie’s New York Asia Art Week online auctions, the Progressives accounted for all but one of the 13 highest prices achieved. Every auction house, from Sotheby’s to India-grown Saffronart and AstaGuru have reported brisk sales of the Progressives down the years.
A fitting tribute to a group that was set up in 1947, in the aftermath of Partition, when six young artists in Bombay – Krishnaji Howlaji Ara, Sadanand Krishnaji Bakre, Hari Ambadas Gade, Maqbool Fida Husain, Francis Newton Souza and Sayed Haider Raza – united to form the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG).
Frightened Head by Francis Newton Souza.
They openly boasted of leftist leanings and a desire to forge a new art language, free of imperialist influences or kitsch Indian art, but inspired by the likes of Picasso, Kandinsky and Klee, and Indian high art and folk traditions. By the early 1950s, they had been joined by Krishen Khanna, Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta and Mohan Samant, while Ram Kumar and Akbar Padamsee became closely affiliated with the group. Souza laid down their principles in a 1948 manifesto: ‘Today we paint with absolute freedom for content and technique, almost anarchic…’
They were patronised by the Indian elite, and then by European collectors, besides being supported by the likes of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and Air India, as well as by influential European artists living in India such as Rudolf von Leyden.
Driven by the scarcity of their works and their undeniable status in India’s art history, over the years PAG artists have achieved world-record prices at auctions: S.H. Raza’s abstracted landscape Tapovan (1972) achieved $3.5m in 2018 in New York, while Tyeb Mehta’s powerful Kali (1989) sold for $4 million, among several other notable sales.Deepali Nandwani is a journalist who keeps a close watch on the world of luxury.