In the 1970s, people first began to speak of a “Baroda School of painting”, concentrated on the Faculty of Fine Arts at the Maharaja Sayajirao University. The Baroda School marked the move away from the Modernism associated with the Bombay Progressive Artists Group and a development of an Indian Post-Modernist aesthetic with a primary focus on figurative art and narration.
Timothy Hyman in his monograph on Bhupen Khakhar enunciates, “[While the Baroda School] centered on the Faculty of Fine Arts, [it included] in its looser sense several of the outstanding artists of the middle generation. In Bombay, Sudhir Patwardhan, Nalini Malani and Gieve Patel; In Delhi, Vivan Sundaram and Jogen Chowdhury; together with Nilima and Gulam Sheikh, and Khakhar, in Baroda itself. Their shared rediscovery (in full awareness of modernist taboos) of deep space, of narrative, of the world and its depiction – all this united a distinct group. Their shared exemplars might comprise: Sienese painting, Bruegel, Kitaj, Romanesque manuscripts, Bonnard; but also, centrally, a reappraisal of the entire Indian tradition, carried out over many years by Gulam Sheikh.” (T. Hyman, Bhupen Khakhar, Chemould Publications and Arts, Bombay and Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., Ahmedabad, 1998, p. 59-60)
These works of Khakhar are important not only for their distinguished provenance but also as they reflect the artist’s proclivity towards the varied influences that came to define the Baroda School. Stylistically, the Untitled (Landscape) reflects his penchant towards Indian miniatures and Nathdwara narrative Pichhwais in its lush depiction of foliage. Church and Gardener in turn alludes to Rajasthani miniatures together with early Italian painting. The petite figure of the gardener stands rigidly in a garden, towered by a church, in a landscape of gentle green hills, against an evening lapis lazuli sky. Using the background as a foil for the central subject is an age-old Sienese convention, as seen in the art of Duccio de Buoninsegna, Simone Martini and the Lorenzetti Brothers. The white in the gardener’s clothing echoes the white of the church and the positioning of the trees in the foreground further miniaturizes the presence of the gardener. This measured disproportional combination of subject and landscape is characteristic of Khakhar’s eccentric play on perspectives, as seen in works done between 1969-1973.
Eminent critic, Geeta Kapur articulates, “The paintings from 1969 begin to be different. There is a greater personalization of his sources and the deliberately borrowed popular idiom begins to be infused with a strange melancholic mood…In these paintings, one of the major concerns of Bhupen is with pictorial space. He moves away from a two-dimensional diagrammatic space towards a ‘landscape space.’ But this is by no means naturalistic – the landscape is schematized and ornamented. This tendency suggests two indigenous references: the actual landscaping of provincial parks (and the way these are represented by naïve artists in pictures and illustrations) and secondly, the treatment of Indian landscape in certain schools of miniature painting (especially Kishangarh and Kangra) where the vast and romantic landscapes capture human beings in a strange loneliness. Bhupen’s environments have a melancholic aspect and they can also have a slightly sordid aspect.” (G. Kapur, In Quest of Identity: Art & Indigenism in Post-Colonial Culture with Special Reference to Contemporary Indian Painting, Vrishchik Publication, Baroda, 1971, p. 59)
This work is also a prime example of Khakhar’s dexterous use of the square-format of painting. “Often he paints not on an easel, but with the picture laid on the floor. The square is sometimes said to be a “difficult” ratio, because it tends to create a circular vortex; but for Khakhar, the square preserves a kind of heraldic and emblematic mobility.” (T. Hyman, p. 55-56)
From 1980s onwards, Khakhar’s works revealed evidences of his sexuality. “After my visit to England in 1979, I saw that homosexuality was accepted. People lived together.” (ibid. p. 68) This time also coincided with the death of his mother in 1980 which allowed him a “new freedom of public action.” (ibid.) Here such proclivities are hinted at within a tightly painted framework. The gardener set within the lush landscape with water spewing forth from his hose displays the potent tension also seen in Khakhar’s 1969 work Untitled (Landscape with Cannon). Other iconic works on the theme of homosexuality from this time are You Can’t Please All (1981), Two Men in Benaras (1982) and Yayati (1987). This segment continued in the 1990s but in an altered format, experimenting with other mediums such as ceramics and watercolors, as we see in Om and Figures in Landscape (lot 546- 547).
Khakhar was one of the first artists from India to be celebrated in the West with major museum exhibitions and retrospectives. In the late 1970s, after exhibiting domestically and abroad in biennales and group exhibitions, Khakhar was offered a teaching fellowship at Bath Academy of Art where he became part of the London scene with Sir Howard Hodgkin, and David Hockney, while equally holding court amongst painters and poets in Baroda. In 1992, he became the first Indian artist to be included in the Documenta, the international exhibition of contemporary art held every five years in Kassel, Germany. He has numerous retrospective exhibitions to his credit in premier institutions including the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (2002); The Lowry, Greater Manchester , UK (2002); the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai (2003) and an upcoming exhibition at the Tate Modern, London (June – September 2016). To this date, Khakhar’s influence is widespread amongst generations of artists who followed, ranging from Atul Dodiya and Sudhir Patwardhan to Jitish Kallat.