‘Bikash chose the most difficult path. It was difficult for two reasons. First, he directed all his energies to master the techniques of academic realism, which the modernist aesthetic of the West considered deadwood in this age of photography and it also drew flak from those who clamored for an Indian identity in our art. Not that he rejected modernism, but he needed sharp edged rendering of surface reality as the accessible primary structure of a complex visual text. And like many of the senior artists of the 40s he carefully eschewed any ideological loyalty to an imagined Indian identity in art, believing that the native identity was bound to emerge from what
, not how
, he painted. Secondly, the consummate skill needed to evoke the subtleties of surface realism is not merely difficult to acquire, but more challenging it is to transform the skill into a pliant tool of creativity. Any lesser genius than Bikash would simply walk into the trap that this kind of spectacular skill sets to kill creativity in a painter.’ (M. Majumder, Bikash Bhattacharjee
, Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, 2004, unpaginated)
Bikash Bhattacharjee is arguably one of India’s most technically skilled painters whose command of realism is unparalleled in 20th century South Asian Modernism. His highly finished technique meant there were minimal visible brushstrokes, and many of his paintings appear like photographs or stills from a film. The foundations of his art practice are based on the traditional and academic style of painting that was associated with the Government Art Schools. Unlike his peers who chose to distance themselves from the colonial art tradition, Bhattacharjee looked to the European masters for inspiration, admiring Francisco de Goya, Peter Paul Rubens, Johannes Vermeer and Rembrandt van Rijn for their ability to alter the atmosphere of a painting with subtle variations in light and tone. An exceptional colorist, Bhattacharjee was also brilliant at capturing the quality of light however his true talent lies in his ability to create hypnotic imagery by subverting reality and omitting or adding certain naturalistic details so that his paintings and drawings take on an uncanny, macabre element that defies visual logic. The heightened tonal and textural effects achieved through his mastery of the oil medium, also infuse his works with a sense of foreboding and alienation. As in a number of his canvases, he combines technical mastery with elements of the surreal and hyper-real.
Greatly influenced by the work of American realist painter Andrew Wyeth, Bhattacharjee has said "… after my graduation... I [came] across an Andrew Wyeth album and an issue of the Span
[magazine]... Christina’s World
and other subjects, and even his ambience merged with the subjects, are very familiar to me... and the difference of country, period and characters melted away." (M. Majumder, Close to Events: Works of Bikash Bhattacharjee
, Niyogi Offset, New Delhi, 2007, pp.182-183). Both Bhattacharjee and Wyeth were committed realists and like Wyeth who painted people and places that were familiar to him, Bhattacharjee focused on the life and culture of his home city of Kolkata, highlighting the daily struggle, corruption and social inequalities within society. ‘He particularly admired […] his treatment of light and shadow, his manipulation of monochrome tonalities, and his use of windows and wall-like empty spaces as devices to structure the composition and set the mood.' (S. Bean, Midnight to the Boom: Painting in India after Independence
, Thames & Hudson, London, 2013, p.132).
Since the 1960s, the main focus of his paintings were the lives of average middle-class Bengalis; their aspirations, superstitions, hypocrisy and corruption. Bhattacharjee lost his father as a child and his consequent struggle for survival is often reflected in his work. However, large-scale abstracted works without any sign of life or humanity
are rare. When speaking about his works, Bhattacharjee said they transcend reality and endeavor to make social statements in a direct manner. “I see myself as a sort of painter journalist, using paint and canvas as a photo-journalist might use his camera. What I have to say is right there on the canvas.”(J. Nath, Indian Painting Today
, Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay, 1981, p. 17)
The present works (lots 4 and 8) are part of an early series that he did on Kolkata cityscapes. The city's crumbling facades which appear repeatedly in these paintings have become metaphors for loss. Here, Bhattacharjee has expanded on Wyeth’s use of windows, houses and empty spaces devoid of life to dramatically alter light and texture, creating an intensity and element of uneasiness, thereby achieving the haunting quality that became the hallmark of many of Bhattacharjee's canvases. In these works, his use of light and shadow create negative and positive spaces, building a three dimensional effect, bringing the canvases to life, yet the absence of people creates a distance with the viewer and imparts an eerie tone to the paintings.
This subject in particular, pays homage to a decaying city for which the artist probably had mixed feelings; pride over its opulence and gloom about its slow dilapidation. When writing about a similar painting Spring at The Roof Top
(1964), M. Majumder makes some poignant observations that also relate to these current paintings which Bhattacharjee started painting in the same year. ‘Here the city scene sprawls across rooftops of old shabby tenements to a low skyline disappearing in the distance behind the block of some silhouetted structures. The otherwise drab cityscape is brilliantly lit up by a shaft of strange soft yellow gleam of the morning sun in early spring, recalling not remotely, some of Edward Hopper’s canvases depicting urban gloom cut across by passages of morning or evening light.’ (M. Majumder, Close to Events: Works of Bikash Bhattacharjee
, Niyogi Offset, New Delhi, 2007, p. 106).
'The views of the city teeming with houses and dwellings standing cheek by jowl, forming confused blocks of structures of uneven size and elevation, of dull surfaces with diverse tones and bristly texture evoke a synechdochic suggestion of dense human presence. Moreover, Bikash must have been primarily fascinated by a city-sight cluttered by a cluster of heterogeneous structural shapes and forms. He had certainly thought of the immense potential of its lending itself ideally to a vigorous formalist treatment on canvas as is evident in the companion abstract pieces of his cityscapes.’ (M. Majumder,
Lots 4 and 8 are amongst the strongest and most powerful works that Bhattacharjee has ever made. The complete lack of any signs of life imparts a mystical otherworldly feeling. The viewer is transported into Bhattacharjee’s very own post-apocalyptic world that only exists in his mind and through his paintings. There is beauty amongst the seeming disorder and haphazard placement of the houses and the roofs and his choice of colors- more aqua, green and yellow for lot 8 and ochre, white and gray for lot 4 also give each work their very own mood and personality.‘Bikash’s stylistic stand is poised somewhere between realism and the outer limits of surrealism. […] No doubt an artist is free to use the surrealist tropes to facilitate his meaning and message to get across. But what counts most in Bikash’s paintings is what carries them beyond their moralizing message content. His works have a stunning range of rich and complex imagery in which appear unforgettable faces and figures, which no photography can ever match. They engage the viewer in an inexhaustible aesthetic tension simulated by the intriguing forms inalienable from their intellectual and emotional content.’
(M. Majumder, Bikash Bhattacharjee
, Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, 2004, unpaginated)