Fritz Schleicher was a German printer from Berlin, who managed the 'Ravi Varma Oleographic and Chromolithographic Printing Workshop' and later bought the printing press from Ravi Varma in 1903.
I. The Beginning
The principles of European realist painting were introduced in India with the establishment of art schools in Madras, Calcutta and Bombay in the mid-19th century. The aim of these schools was to change the centuries-old miniature painting tradition and instead cultivate the skills required to faithfully render the likenesses of their subjects as they existed in the natural world. The colonization of India also attracted a large number of European artists who were drawn to the wonders of what they considered to be an exotic and alien culture. These artists brought with them superior materials including oil paints, canvases, the portable easel and rigorous academic knowledge and training. British-born artists such as Tilly Kettle, James Wales, Thomas Hickey and Robert Home worked on commissions in various royal courts throughout India.
Due to these influences, a new class of Indian artists emerged who closely followed the Western Academic style, chief amongst whom was Ravi Varma, Koil Thampuran of Kilimanoor (29 April 1848 – 2 October 1906). Born in Kerala (the erstwhile British province of Travancore), Ravi Varma was amongst the first Indian artists to adopt Western painting traditions, yet his choice of subjects remained firmly rooted in Indian life. Ravi Varma grew up with his siblings in his mother’s ancestral home. In close proximity to his sister and other women in the household, it was commonplace for him to observe women performing their daily tasks and rituals.
When Ravi Varma married into the Travancore Royal Family, it allowed him the opportunity to further study the art books at the Mavelikkara palace and improve his English. Wary and jealous of his emerging talent, the few painters of the court who worked with oil refused to teach Varma this new medium. It was a European court painter Theodore Jensen who finally allowed him access to watch him paint. Artist and historian A. Ramachandran, has since posited that Ravi Varma’s talent in the treatment of jewellery and the human form itself was far superior to that of Jensen’s, cementing the notion that Ravi Varma was one of the most talented painters of that century.
Prominent restorer and author Rupika Chawla, who has conserved many of Varma’s works, notes, ‘No other Indian painter, till today, has been able to supercede Varma in portraiture in oil, a foreign medium, which the artist mastered over time through trial, error and hard work, while understanding the blending, smoothening and the play that was possible with this slow drying substance, a limitation in its own right… The radiological evidence of Varma’s paintings shows the build-up of layers. His luminous skin effects are brought about by an excessive use of white in the preliminary layers gradually adjusted with flesh colors…With each passing decade the potential of oil was absorbed and understood by successive generations of artists in India. Today…all this excitement over oil and impasto techniques appears excessive… [though], a hundred years back it was like a discovery for an almost self-taught artist.’ (R. Chawla, ‘Form and Substance,’ Raja Ravi Varma: New Perspectives, National Museum, New Delhi, 1993, p. 119, 122)
II. The Pioneer of Popular Culture
Ravi Varma was not only a master portrait artist for the elusive upper echelons of royalty and high society in India but was also responsible for the mass dissemination of a new visual vocabulary through oleographs. In 1894, after producing a large number of oil paintings, Ravi Varma founded India's first oleography press in Lonavala, known as the Ravi Varma Oleographic and Chromolithographic Printing Workshop to make his artwork available and accessible to the public, revolutionizing the presence of art – typically relegated to the court or temple – into everyday homes. By infiltrating the majority of households with his paintings and prints, he was essentially responsible for influencing and shaping the perceptions of art, femininity and divinity for generations to follow.
To help reproduce his paintings, Ravi Varma employed Fritz Schleicher, a German printer from Berlin, highly qualified in color lithographic printing to act as manager of the workshop. Ravi Varma eventually sold the Press to Schleicher in 1903, at which stage the firm was renamed ‘The Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Works’. Schleicher was known to have been a good businessman under whose management the press garnered a reputation for producing high quality prints. While he stayed true to Ravi Varma’s original vision for the Press, he expanded its portfolio by securing jobs to print textbooks and photographs. Schleicher had twelve children, the youngest, a daughter named Lottie, who had started her education in Berlin, but with the rise of Nazism, moved to a private school in Vienna. In 1941, Austria was in the throes of World War II, which forced her to move to India with her fiancé, Dr. Surendra Singh. Mrs. Lottie Schleicher Singh later inherited a group of works from her father, from which this exceptional painting hails.
Ravi Varma's depictions of women in particular, are considered to be excellent examples of the paintings that emerged from this period. He eschewed Western subject matter and often illustrated myriad stories from Vedic mythology as well as the Ramayana and Mahabharata. This is the reason for his evergreen popularity and also what makes this painting so extraordinary. Titled Tilottama, the protagonist is one of the Apsaras (celestial nymphs) from Hindu mythology. In the epic Mahabharata, Tilottama was created at Brahma's request by using the best possible assets to create an almost perfect being. Her purpose was to bring about the destruction of the two Asuras (demons) named Sunda and Upasunda who were brothers and could not be destroyed by anyone except themselves. As their atrocities grew, the God Indra sent Tilottama to them. So captivated were they by her beauty that the jealous brothers fought over her and ended up killing each other. This painting portrays her descent through the skies down to earth, most likely after her creation.
‘He also understood the power of the epics and classical texts that he had grown up with, and which his environment had so generously bequeathed to him. With the rich and plastic oil medium and realism as his tools, Ravi Varma transferred the wealth of stories and mythology that came so naturally to him, into paintings of great resonance.’ (R. Chawla, ‘Exploring the Source,’ Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India, Mapin Publishers, Ahmedabad, 2010, p. 158)
Many of Ravi Varma’s most iconic compositions were adapted from Old Master paintings. Ravi Varma had a large collection of images of these paintings and often referred to them to draw inspiration for his models’ faces and poses. This painting for instance, was inspired by William Adolphe Bouguereau’s (1825-1905) Birth of Venus. ‘He is said to have been particularly drawn towards two allegorical paintings of the French salon artist, William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) ‘Birth of Venus’ and ‘Charity’ which were among the most popular engravings in Europe in the 1860’s. The challenge for Ravi Varma lay in mediating images, which were life-like in appearance and often Western, neo-classical in inspiration to make them viable as Indian cultural symbols. He had, in his paintings, to make the passage from Western to Indian, from the ‘real’ to the ‘iconic’. Thus individual models and real ladies acquired, in his paintings, layers of other significance (aesthetic, social, religious and mythic), which transformed them into feminine and nationalist emblems. This is where we find an implicit nationalist project of creating typical ‘Indian’ images determining the direction of Ravi Varma’s work. Notwithstanding their physicality and seductive appeal, the sensuality of Ravi Varma’s female figures also came to be contained by distinct markers of class and status. Aristocratic homes, dress and demeanour, and the very attributes of a leisured way of life became critical in defining a feminine image, both genteel and sensual, and in differentiating it from those of common peasant women’ (T. Gujha Thakurta, ‘Raja Ravi Varma and the Project of a New ‘National Art’, Raja Ravi Varma: New Perspectives, National Museum, New Delhi, 1993, p. 48)
Venus who was the embodiment of female beauty, is used as inspiration for Tilottama, another mythological character famed for her perfect form. In this painting, one can tell that Ravi Varma strove to impart the extreme desirability that led to the demon brothers downfall. Her composed gaze, voluptuous curves and the radiance of her complexion, all project a sense of vitality and fertility reminiscent of the early representation of Goddess figures in Central Indian sculpture. Each element in the picture works in harmony to elevate it beyond just a decorative painting and into a meaningful depiction of one of Indian mythology's most storied epics. Even in modern times, these scenes and subject matter are considered amongst Raja Ravi Varma's most iconic compositions and are popular in numerous households.
The face of this particular model appears many times in Ravi Varma’s oeuvre, most notably in the painting titled Mohini Playing with a Ball in Rupika Chawla’s book - Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India and titled Tilottama in Parsram Mangharam’s book – Raja Ravi Varma: The Most Celebrated Painter of India 1848 – 1906. The figure in the present painting and the comparative work are rendered with the same pose as well. This recycling of faces, stances, stories and models is quite common in Ravi Varma’s practice but it is fascinating to see how he manages to retain a unique quality in each and every painting. In the comparable work, the figure is more clothed, wears more jewels and is standing in a forest with a detailed background. Conversely the current lot is pared down, set against a romantic sky with delicate sensuality and natural dignity. His use of color and paint is unparalleled for an artist from this period, which is another reason why Ravi Varma’s works are so desirable. Since 1979, when the Indian government declared him to be a National Art Treasure and prevented the export of his paintings from India, it has become very uncommon for his works to appear at auction internationally. Extremely rare and exceptionally prized, this is a luminous and sensitive rendering of Tilottama and an excellent example of his mastery.
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