Beauty and opulence are entwined with the macabre and mischievous in Raqib Shaw’s oval-shaped canvas, Napoleon I – Of Beasts and Super Beasts. Executed in 2012, the painting comes from a body of works inspired by the satirical short stories of Saki, from which the series takes its name. In these fantastical paintings, the spectacular and the sinister prevail in equal measure: in the present work, lascivious ape-like creatures fill the canvas; engaged in sadomasochistic activity, they soar with blue feathered wings across a tumultuous sky, surrounding the protagonist of the work, a Napoleonic figure – half man, half beast – who sits regally astride a writhing horse at the upper left of the pictorial plane, his lavish red cloak blowing in the wind. Around them, the sublime ruins of ancient dynasties crumble into catastrophic disarray. The canvas has been elaborately encrusted, in Shaw’s hallmark style, with dazzling rhinestones. Indeed, brimming with ornate and meticulously rendered detail, the painting at once allures and repels the viewer, conjuring what the artist has described as “a ballad of pleasure and pain, and perhaps… a dance of beauty and violence” (Raqib Shaw in conversation, in: White Cube, Mason’s Yard, Paradise Lost, London 2011, 4:58, online).
India-born and London-based, Shaw draws simultaneously from the canons of Eastern and Western art history in his practice. In his sumptuously painted, surrealistic works, the ancient and the modern, the mythical and the historical, the literary and the pictorial converge and collide in a cultural, temporal and spatial clash that speaks not only to Shaw’s personal experiences but to an increasingly globalised, interconnected and ever-changing world. As Shaw himself explains, these paintings can be read ‘as a commentary on my own experience of living in this society, and of being alive.' (Raqib Shaw cited in: Exh. Cat., Manchester, Manchester City Art Galleries, Raqib Shaw, 2013, p.10). Born in 1974 into a family of merchants, Shaw spent his formative years in Kashmir – the last generation, he recalls, to enjoy its unadulterated natural beauty before the horrors of conflict and warfare forced his family to flee in 1992, first to New Delhi and later, in 1998, to London. His pictorial practice alludes as much to Old Master painting as it does to Mughal hunting scenes, and the present work offers a potent synthesis of the apocalyptic and celestial visions of Hieronymus Bosch, the elegant grandeur of the Empire style, the Napoleonic bravura of Imperial Paris, and the exquisite of beauty Oriental decorative arts. Laced with a poignant irony, Shaw presents a troubled Paradise of pleasurable luxuriance and torturous destruction, splendour and debauchery, hinting at a contradictory world in disarray.
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