PRABHAKAR BARWE’S BLANK CANVAS

November 15, 2013

 

Mumbai-based Percept Art will be showcasing works of eminent artist Prabhkar Barwe from November 22, 2013 onwards.

Prabhakar Barwe, who passed away in 1995, was a prolific writer and visual thinker in addition to being a distinguished painter. This exhibition commemorates Barwe in both these aspects. It comprises a range of works, beginning with life drawing studies and sketches from his college days in the mid-1950s and continuing through his designs and the explorations of his Tantric phase, to conclude with the symbolist abstract works that he produced from 1980 until his untimely death at the age of 59. The exhibition includes a large trove of works from the artist’s family that have never been exhibited before, accompanied by a selection of canvases on loan from major private collections. Important archival material about the artist in the form of articles and photographs will also be on display and accessible to viewers.

 Prabhakar Barwe would meticulously note his thoughts and observations about art and life in a relay of diary entries consisting of word fragments, considered texts and drawings. He began these notations in 1972 and continued until 1995. A few of these diaries will be displayed by digital means.

On this occasion, the gallery will release the first complete English translation of Prabhakar Barwe’s book, Kora Canvas. Translated from its original Marathi into English by novelist and columnist Shanta Gokhale as The Blank Canvas, the book has been edited by Jerry Pinto and features an introduction by Ranjit Hoskote. The book is published by Bodhana. The Blank Canvas offers its readers invaluable aesthetic, and philosophical insights into the creative process. Rare and intriguing images from the diaries complement the text. Printed in an elegant black-and-white handbook format, as a 250-page hardback volume, this is a must-read for any artist and art lover. 

Excerpts from the book:

Excerpt from the chapter – The Blank Canvas

The mystery of a blank canvas lies in its apparent emptiness. The surface suggests this emptiness, but is it really so? Or is there more to it than that? The blank canvas throws these questions at the artist and falls silent. But, even as he contemplates it, its mysterious emptiness appears to expand; the dimensions of time-space, length-breadth as we know them begin to change rapidly; the white space within the frame grows deeper; the texture as the artist first saw it, disappears, giving way to a sky covered in cloud. The light shifts; subtle shadows fall on it. There is a blister near the frame, a knot in the weave. An ant scurries along the frame. The white paint used to prepare the canvas and the fine threads of its warp and weft begin to assume strange shapes and meanings. Soon the surface gives way to unsuspected depths where the artist’s imagination rapidly follows.

Excerpt from the chapter – Inspiration

One morning I saw a chameleon napping amongst the broad leaves of a papaya tree. When it sensed my presence, it opened one eye, lifted its head, sized me up and went back to sleep. A long time later I realised it had disappeared from there. I saw a field filled to the brim with water in which a building behind it was reflected. So life like was the reflection that for a moment I was taken in when I saw a crow flying across it. But of course, the crow was flying in the sky. One crow in the reflection, another flying over the field--the effect was of two separate pictures joined together. It was a memorable image—the reflection of a calm, immobile building and a crow flying across it.

These are some of the many experiences, beautiful, grave, strange, mysterious, comic, joyous and sad, which tease the mind with questions. What is this universe all about? What and where is my place in it? Who am I and why do I experience these things? Is it mere coincidence or is there a design somewhere? Am I really moving from one point to another or is it an illusory journey? What is the truth of it? At the root of all these questions I feel the presence of an invisible and mysterious power. This power has many names. But let us call it inspiration.

Inspiration may come to the artist from anywhere—water, land, wood or stone. When you are by yourself, sitting absolutely still, something begins to happen inside you. You gradually enter a state of semi-trance in which you become oblivious to everything else. Your connection with the outside world breaks. In this state, nothing in the world seems impossible. You have reached the highest summit of joy. Nothing clouds the mind, neither doubt nor opposition. Instead, there is complete coherence and harmony within you. You have merged with something whose nature you do not know. In such a state, not a single part of the painting you are working on seems to come from you or is meant for you. The painting exists for itself and by itself.

Excerpt from the chapter – Logic and Coherence

There is a wide difference between the logic employed in science, the rational perspective that is brought to bear in its pursuit and the logical harmony that art aspires to. Reason can be extraordinarily useful in science because scientific explorations progress in a linear fashion. But reason plays an entirely different role in art where creation takes place in many directions simultaneously. Thus the artist must aspire to objectivity while evaluating a work of art correctly. Such an evaluation will help him immeasurably in his future work. However, while being judicious, dispassionate and objective, he must not lose sight of the limitations of this approach. He must combine objectivity with trust in the truth of spontaneity, which connects his work with the fundamental rhythm of nature. In some forms of art where emotion takes second place to composition and the socio-political ideology that is reflected in it, logic and causality occupy an extraordinarily important place in the creative process. In such works, the presence of logic is established even when a conscious position is taken against logic.

Art must combine and balance the two mutually opposite faculties of emotional sensitivity and aesthetics. In the creative process the first comes from intuition, while the second comes from reason. In the absence of either one or the other, the work of art is likely to be either too dry or too heavy with sentiment. It is my belief that intuition and judiciousness are both equally important in the process of making art.

Excerpt from the chapter – Joy of Creation

The life of an artist is not easy. He has to pay a price for the pure joy that his creative work beings him. Many of his problems arise out of the immense amounts of time he has to devote to his painting, leading to a certain neglect of the practical aspects of life. This is aggravated by the fact that success is not guaranteed. The only way the artist can reduce these problems is by choosing to live simply. The price should not be difficult to pay, for the joy of creation is unique. You are giving birth to something new each time you put paint and brush to a canvas. The thrill of this knowledge inspires the artist to keep on creating. What doubles his joy is the knowledge that his work brings joy even to the people who see it. If one is to pinpoint that single moment when the artist finds himself at the very pinnacle of joy, it is when he finishes a painting. He has been through painful doubts and fears while working on it. He has often been immobilised by a deep sense of inadequacy. But he has soldiered on, keeping his faith. Finally he arrives at a point when he knows that if he were to change even the smallest dot in the work now, it would destroy its balance completely. That is the point at which he stops and that is the point at which he stands on that pinnacle of joy. This moment comes upon the artist quite unexpectedly because as he works at his painting, he can predict neither its success nor its failure nor even the time when it is likely to be completed. But he recognises the moment of completion when it comes. It brings him such an intense degree of joy precisely because he has been so hounded by uncertainties earlier. This joy may not be named or described. But it stays with him till he feels inspired by the next idea for a painting.

Excerpt from the chapter – Nature’s Debt

Nature is the bedrock of artistic expression. It is a limitless treasure trove of invaluable images. Trees, water, stones, birds, grass, wind, clouds, sky, stars, reflections, shadows, shifting light, each of these manifestations touches the heart. Their inter-relationship and harmony seduce the artist. They are in constant flux. They change from second to second. But each transformation is complete in itself. Shapes, which are still when there is no wind, will bend and sway with the breeze. When it is a gentle breeze, the shapes bend in one direction and the colours are steady. But when the wind freshens and changes direction, they begin to dance as though possessed. Even then, they do not lose their inherent balance. Nor do they lose it when the rain begins to pound down on them. The rain gives new life to colours. It gives them a lustre that is unforgettable.

The artist strives to reproduce nature’s variety, delicacy, and the harmony of its colours in his work. The more time he spends with nature the more he understands what he must do to achieve it.

Excerpt from the chapter – The Experience of Beauty

The idea of beauty may change from person to person, but some values are common to all definitions of it. Proportion, harmony and balance constitute beauty in art. Ideas of beauty change with time too; but here again, three values remain unchanged—purity, innocence and rhythm.

The cycle of birth, growth and decay governs everything in nature. So we may say beauty is that in which there are fewer defects than virtues. Man strives for perfection. But with perfection comes the end of growth. That is why we resist the idea of perfect beauty. We believe that a woman is more beautiful when there is a mole somewhere on her face.

 We believe in beauty as something that is constantly evolving towards perfection, never attaining it. Perfect beauty carries within itself the seed of its own destruction. When we recognise something as beautiful, our joy at the sight is tinged with fear, because what we see will not last in its perfection. By the rule of nature, it will decay and die. We would fervently desire beauty to be both perfect and immortal; but since it cannot be immortal, we wish it not to be perfect. 

Excerpt from the chapter - The Limits of The Real

(very interesting and autobiographical) 

I remember idle Sunday evenings when I did not want to paint, was too tired to read, but could not bear the idea of sitting around at home doing nothing. The evening stretched before me like a gigantic yawn. I did not want to drop in on friends for fear of disturbing their plans. There was no chance of friends visiting me. I dislike booking tickets in advance for films and plays, and tickets are not always available on the spot. So I had worked out a strategy for such evenings. I would leave the house around five o’clock in the evening with no fixed plan in mind. I would join the queue at any one of the several bus-stops near my house. When a bus came along, I’d read the sign to find out where it terminated and buy a ticket for the last stop. I would catch another bus from the terminus and make another journey, occasionally getting off midway on an impulse to take a third bus to wherever it was going. When I had had enough of riding around the city, I would catch a bus home, arriving back around 10 at night. 

I enjoyed seeing parts of the city that I had never seen before, noting their character, general atmosphere, smells, noises or silences, shops, crowds and architecture. I also enjoyed observing my fellow passengers, their personalities and mannerisms. Amusing things happened during these bus rides. Sometimes there were quarrels, which turned into fisticuffs. If you were not interested in looking around and amusing yourself, you could always sit back and think your own thoughts. I rediscovered shapes, sub-shapes, colours, shades, lines and their mutual inter-connections on these rides. The rides also afforded me a first hand experience of reality. I saw the monotony of human activity. Given a certain situation, people would invariably behave in a given way. Certain events produced predictable emotional reactions. Neighbourhoods that appeared different at first sight, turned out not to be very different as regards the lifestyles and social transactions of their residents. Reality is monotonous because it is related to time. Its linearity is its limitation. The values we live by are determined by birth and death. The reality of our lives is constricted between these two points.  

The purpose of art is not to reproduce the monotonous surface of reality, but to go to its roots, to explore it from every angle, and to create something new based on these observations. Many creative processes are going on under the dry surface of reality. The routine activities of our lives leave us with neither time nor inclination to observe them. The artist is sensitive to these creative events. It is this reality that forms the basis of the independent world he creates. A work of art may be called classic only when it is pure, independent and self-contained. 

We feel the need for art because it takes us away from reality. The artist too feels the urge to create because he wishes to get away from the dry monotony of the real world. Art cannot and should not be measured in terms of practical utility. It stands on its own ground, appreciated precisely because it has nothing to do with the practical business of living, but everything to do with giving aesthetic pleasure. 

Excerpt from the chapter - Bliss 

Joy is of different kinds, but each one is intense. You cannot share in this intensity unless you open yourself up totally to its source. Joy awaits you when this miracle happens, when you forget yourself completely to enter into an experience. It is very easy to surrender to a work of art, to start a dialogue with it, because it mirrors your innermost impulses, echoes your experiences. When you surrender, you discover the treasure of intense joy.  

Joy is evanescent. It is all around us but we are not always ready to receive it because our minds are filled with other things. The creation and appreciation of a work of art, which reminds us of a primeval joy, is also evanescent. We experience it for a brief moment of time before becoming embroiled once again with the business of living and its attendant emotions-- desire, hope, disappointment, temptation and ambition. 

The words of a classical music composition are not high literature; yet, the sweetness of the melodies to which they are set, releases us into the freedom of primeval joy. There is a unique feeling of liberation in this. Similarly the oracle of colours and shapes in an abstract work of art make our spirits rise and soar with joy. Music and paintings touch our most primeval feelings. They render words, meanings and symbols redundant. It is a direct experience. Without pure, free joy, life is merely duty or even punishment. That is why art has a vital place in our lives. Art has the same importance in life as space has in a picture. Without art life would be barren—a mechanically lived series of events. The moon makes the sea heave and surge. Aesthetic experience creates a similar feeling in our hearts. The spring that flows through the notes of music touches two banks, joy on one side and sorrow on the other. It flows beyond the words of a poem and into the spaces between two lines. It rises like the sun in a work of art, illuminating our existence with its brilliant rays to make it shine like gold. The entire world of nature gleams as though dipped in molten gold. Our life becomes enchanted with the touch of that intense joy. In the radiance of the moments of joy that are gifted to us, we cease to be afraid even of death. Meaningless questions like what is the purpose of art in life simply do not occur to us. Everything is in a perpetual flow, continuous and eternal. 

It is for this joy that we live. It rushes to embrace us from all sides. The heart of an art lover welcomes it warmly. We do not even recognise our own selves when we are mirrored in that intense joy. It is as though we are reborn. 

(Courtesy: Bodhana and Percept Art)