Tyeb Mehta's long and celebrated career spanned multiple decades, styles and media, but his first foray into the art world was as a cinematographer in the nascent Bombay film industry in 1944. By 1947, unable to travel to work due to escalating violence between Hindus and Muslims and deeply affected by the violent pre-Partition riots in Mumbai, Mehta enrolled at the Sir JJ School of Art to study fine art. It was there that he met the now legendary artists Sayed Haider Raza, Maqbool Fida Husain and Krishen Khanna, founding members of the Progressive Artists' Group (PAG).
Although Mehta was not an inducted member of the PAG, he remained loosely associated with the artists throughout his life, and resonated with their progressive, modernist ethos, particularly in regard to breaking away from the confines of European classicism and the Indic folk revival of the Bengal School. Mehta recalls, "... we learned and tried to understand painting through each other. Gradually, I realized that painting offered a world of expression, all of its own. I forgot about films and became obsessed with learning what painting was all about." (Tyeb Mehta, Celebration: Tyeb Mehta, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, 1996).
Like many of the PAG artists in post-Partition India – Husain, Souza, Raza, Padamsee – Mehta left Mumbai for Europe in the late 1950s and spent four years based in London. He painted the current work in London, and the painting was included in a well-received solo exhibition at Bear Lane Gallery. During this time, he painted prodigiously, often working odd jobs, and often exhibited with other Indian artists in Europe, such as Avinash Chandra, Paritosh Sen and Francis Newton Souza. From his arrival in London in 1959 until his relocation to New York City in 1968 as the recipient of a prestigious Rockefeller fellowship, Mehta's early work is characterized by his heavy impasto technique, limited and largely monochromatic palettes, and a tendency toward abstract figurativism. The central image in these works is usually a lonely, isolated figure, possibly a reflection of the artist's inner anguish at the violence and personal tragedy that he witnessed early in his career.
Contextualizing the figurative elements in his work (while emphatically denying that he is a 'figurative' artist), Mehta explains that: "... (the) reference to the human figure is essential to my work, not as an anatomical body, but as a form which helps me to create space." The artist continues: "I don't paint woman or man. I paint the human image, its plasticity ... I try to make the work as alive as possible in relation to the figure as a whole." (Mehta in conversation with Yasodhara Dalmia, Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges, New Delhi, 2005, p.359).
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