Lot 128
  • 128

Jehangir Sabavala

50,000 - 70,000 USD
90,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Jehangir Sabavala
  • The Descent from the Cross
  • Signed and dated 'Sabavala' 59' lower left and further titled and inscribed 'The Descent from the Cross / by / Jehangir Sabavala' on reverse 
  • Oil on board 


Acquired from a gallery in Bombay circa 1990s
Thence by descent

Catalogue Note

‘The Sabavala of the early 1950s […] was a freewheeling, inventive kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness, designed to record and interpret every fleeting sensation and magnificent phenomenon.’ (R. Hoskote, Pilgrim, Exile, Sorcerer: The Painterly Evolution of Jehangir Sabavala, Eminence Designs Pvt. Ltd., Bombay, 1998, p. 55)

Born in 1922 into one of the most influential families of Raj-era Bombay, Jehangir Sabavala rose to prominence as a painter in the early 1950s, at a moment when European Modernism was sweeping across the international art scene and imparting an avant-garde zeal and fervor upon the Indian subcontinent. The conflicts and challenges faced by post-War Europe and post-Independence India, informed the artists and collectors with a foot on both continents, giving rise to the Indian avant-garde establishment, of which Sabavala was a member.

Over the decades, there were notable shifts in the style and subject matter of Sabavala’s paintings. He developed his own unique visual vocabulary that evolved from his training at Mumbai's Sir J. J. School of Art, the Heatherley School of Fine Art, London, the Academie André Lhôte, the Académie Julian and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Paris. He then returned to India in the late 1950s and combined his formal technical skills with inspiration drawn from the various cultures he was exposed to, to produce an awe-inspiring body of works. Throughout the 1950s, Sabavala experimented with the plasticity of Synthetic Cubism and The Descent from the Cross, executed in 1959, represents this exciting phase of geometric and tightly ordered Cubist compositions. This sublime rendition of the Pietà is unlike any other painting Sabavala made with a Christian theme. His other works of the same subject matter such as The Madonna of the Holy Ghost -1958, Crucifixion I - 1958 and Crucifixion II- 1959, are much more figurative and remain faithful to the frescoes and other crucifixion scenes he came across on a trip to Florence in the summer of 1957. Ranjit Hoskote has noted that 'Sabavala’s diary entries testify to the excitement of Florence, as Jehangir and Shirin took in Perugino’s fresco of the Crucifixion on the Via di Colona and the Giottos in the Santa Croce.' (R. Hoskote, The Crucible of Painting: The Art of Jehangir Sabavala, Eminence Designs Pvt. Ltd., Mumbai, 2005, p. 69)

Instead of making a carefully constructed picture that leaves no doubt as to the subject matter, Sabavala has taken a wonderful risk and de-constructed this scene in a suggestion of stained glass, replete with taut curves and bold diagonals. These patterns and parabolas built with almost mathematical precision reference the ornate windows of the early Renaissance, vying for crystalline form. The viewer must concentrate in the centre of the work and Christ artfully emerges as a beige figure, cradled by Mary in very dark robes. One can glean a semblance of the brighter apostles flocking around the two central figures from amidst the fractured planes. It is interesting to note that the former stiff compositions of the early 1950s have now been abandoned in favour of a more flexible configuration, giving way to the next phase in Sabavala’s career and the emergence of his paintings with sailboats and stormy seas. Interestingly, there is also a small painting of a ship on the reverse, much like a preparatory sketch; a further testament to Sabavala's various preoccupations during this time.

This painting represents the artist’s earliest forays into in Cubism through the architecture of intersecting planes, sharp angularities and wedges of light. The canvas showcases the stark palette which characterizes Sabavala's works from this period, and demonstrates his sublime interest in the relationship between kinetic energy, light and form. The varied palette and emphasis on asymmetry heightens the textural effect here in this beautiful example of Sabavala’s introspective focus. This Pietà is made all the more spectacular by Sabavala’s varying influences coming together to create a symphonic whole and is a wonderful example of Sabavala's chaotic genius. In a critical review, Richard Bartholomew very aptly sums up Sabavala's paintings from late 1950s including the current work. 'He essays a serious Christian theme associated with a whole archive of experience—human experience—with a Quixotic bravura. Descent from the Cross I, for instance, is a stained glass window concept puddled over. Sabavala’s painting is a version of that great scene as it might have been a reflection in a puddle distorted by raindrops.' (R. Bartholomew, 'Artist ‘Earnest’ but Art ‘Bore’', Indian Express, 7 January 1962, http://www.richardbartholomew.info/artbook/excerpts.php)