Saturday, 11 March 2017

"An artist! an Amateur in the real sense! A man of passions!"

The weekend is but a reprieve to a 'regally reclined' reading time! 

Today it was yet another ‘unputdownable’ by Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, where, he holds his gritty sway over your concentration straight on - right from his insightful and hilarious 'Introduction,' which bowls you over with his free, unstilted conversational prose, to the next chapter, where he proceeds to ask the enigmatic question that an exile encounters: “What does it mean to be 'Indian' outside India? How can culture be preserved without becoming ossified?”

Well, one particular chapter attracted me the most! Of course, it was more for the title than for the essence contained therein J

“The Painter and the Pest”

It’s about an artist from Bengaluru – whom Rushdie describes as ‘an amateur in the real sense: a man of passions. In fact, he is quite possibly the most enthusiastic individual on the face of the planet.’

The following extract - culled from Rushdie - is given below, for your Sunday motivation! :-)

The Painter and the Pest

A new name, it appears, must be mentioned, the name of Harold Shapinsky, sixty years old this month, an artist of Russian extraction presently living in New York City, where for most of the past four decades his work has been completely ignored.

Now, after all the years of neglect, there has been a remarkable reversal of fortunes, and Mr Shapinsky is experiencing an annus mirabilis, with a major retrospective of his work at London’s Mayor Gallery, loads of publicity on both sides of the Atlantic, and several important European galleries reportedly queuing up to buy his work.

The story of the belated ‘discovery’ of Harold Shapinsky must surely be one of the most extraordinary in the history of modern art. It is hard enough to believe that a painter who is now attracting lavish praise from every corner of the European art establishment could have languished so long in Manhattan, the undisputed capital of the art world, without gaining any sort of real recognition. Even less plausible, perhaps, is the identity of his ‘discoverer’; because the man who has singlehandedly worked the miracle is not an art expert at all, and has no links with -either the American or European art establishments. He describes himself variously as ‘some crazy Indian’ and ‘a pest’.

This man is Akumal Ramachander, thirty-five, a teacher of elementary English at an agricultural college in Bangalore in southern India—a suitably improbable background for the hero of a shaggy-dog story whose saving grace is that it happens to be quite true.

Professor Ramachander—Akumal—is an amateur in the real sense: a man of passions. In fact, he is quite possibly the most enthusiastic individual on the face of the planet, as I discovered a couple of years ago when I was on a lecture tour of India. Akumal, then a complete stranger, arrived at my Bangalore hotel room, introduced himself, and proceeded to overwhelm me with the unstoppable frenzy of garlands, vast smiles, flashing eyes, unceasing monologues and emphatic gesticulations to which those who find themselves in his vicinity rapidly grow accustomed. He struck me as a bit of an operator, but it was impossible not to warm to his openness and affection for life, as well as his obviously genuine love for literature, art, cinema and many other things, including butterflies. (He also sings.) This inexhaustible, ‘crazy’ energy needed something to focus on. That necessary sense of purpose was provided when Akumal met, by chance—though one sometimes wonders if anything in his life really happens by chance—the son of the painter Harold Shapinsky.

In September 1984, Akumal, visiting the Indian poet A. K. Ramanujan in Chicago, was taken to a party where he met David Shapinsky, and heard about Harold for the first time. At David’s home he saw a few examples of the father’s work and became, as he put it, ‘alerted’. He travelled to New York— it should be pointed out here that Akumal is no zillionaire, jetsetting Indian; he has never had much money, and during this period went quite some way into debt—and met Harold and Kate Shapinsky for the first time.

He was impressed and moved by the paintings, and also by the dignity with which the Shapinskys lived, in spite of their considerable poverty. The apartment was minute. There was, Akumal found, no liquid soap with which to do the washing-up; they used a cake of hard soap placed at the bottom of a jar of water instead. The painter had been so short of funds for so long that he was unable to afford canvases, and was obliged to work, as a result, on thick sheets of paper. (So the paintings are all rather small, and, to my eye at least, one of Shapinsky’s most impressive achievements has been to paint epic, ‘big’ concepts on this artificially constricted scale.)

Kate Shapinsky is a dancer by profession, a contemporary of Martha Graham’s. Now, while Shapinsky paints, she makes quilts, sweaters and pullovers and sells them to boutiques, and the small income from this work is what has, for many years, enabled the Shapinskys to live and Harold to paint.

Akumal discussed with David Shapinsky the possibility of his, Akumal’s, trying to promote Harold’s work, and it was agreed that he should try. Now the professor from Bangalore made a bet with the painter’s son—that within twelve months he would get Harold Shapinsky a major exhibition in Europe, in London, perhaps, or Amsterdam; and that the Encyclopaedia Britannica would have to rewrite its section on Abstract Expressionism, to make room for the achievement of the long-neglected master.

But Harold Shapinsky had spent most of his career in total isolation from the art marketplace, unnoticed by galleries and dealers. In 1950 his work had been included in a new talent exhibition, and even praised by the New York Times, but since then there had been virtually nothing, except for a few obscure group shows. Indifference had forced him into seclusion. And any establishment hates to admit to a mistake.

It was this wall of indifference and scepticism that Akumal had to scale, or to demolish. He had slides of Shapinsky’s work made at his own expense, and began a frontal assault on the Manhattan art world. He had no success; the wall held firm.

After all, how was it possible that the crazy Indian from the Bangalore agricultural college had spotted something that the New York mandarins had missed? After about thirty galleries had refused even to look at the slides, Akumal decided to try Europe. And now his luck—and Shapinsky’s—changed.

In London in December 1984 Akumal arrived at the Tate Gallery, without an appointment, clutching his, box of slides. A few minutes later Ronald Alley, the Keeper of-the Modern Collection, was telephoned from the front hall and told that an Indian gentleman had arrived, in rather an agitated state, and was insisting on showing somebody a group of slides that he claimed were a major discovery. Alley agreed to look at the slides. Akumal had broken through the wall.

When Ronald Alley saw the slides, he says, ‘I was amazed that a real Abstract Expressionist painter of such quality should be unknown,’ and he put Akumal in touch with the Mayor Gallery. He also put in writing his feelings about Shapinsky’s work. In the next few weeks many European experts followed suit. Professor Norbert Lynton, Professor of Art History at Sussex University, wrote: ‘He is certainly a painter of outstanding quality . . . the slides suggest a rare quality of fresh and vivid (as opposed to mournfully soulful) abstract expressionism, a marvelous sense of colour and also a rare feel for positioning marks and areas of colour on the canvas or paper.’ The leading modernart galleries of Cologne and Amsterdam also expressed enthusiasm. And James Mayor of the Mayor Gallery flew to New York, was impressed and excited, and made a selection for the Shapinsky retrospective. The bet was won.

One suspects that, as well as the genuine enthusiasm all over Europe for the quality of Shapinsky’s work, there has been a certain amount of gleeful hand-rubbing going on, because the Shapinsky case reflects so badly on the New York art scene. And New York has been ruling the roost for so long that this piece of European revenge must taste sweet indeed. As for Professor Ramachander, he, too, should now benefit from the ‘launch’ of Harold Shapinsky. But what was it that enabled Akumal to see what everyone had failed to see? The answer, it seems, is those butterflies: ‘My art school was a small field near my house. I would spend quite a long time there, chasing butterflies. Hundreds of thousands of them, you know, in all their brilliant hues. I would never destroy a butterfly, just chase them and wonder at that great profusion of colours. And I think all that colour sank into me . . . all those permutations and combinations, they were already there in me. All that had to happen was to get someone’s work, and see if I could get back all the colours I saw in my childhood. And Shapinsky seemed to come very close to that.’

For centuries now, it has been the fate of the peoples of the East to be ‘discovered’ by the West, with dramatic and usually unpleasant consequences. The story of Akumal and Shapinsky is one small instance in which the East has been able to repay the compliment, and with a happy ending, too. And if we are asked to believe that it all began in a field in Calcutta, where an Indian boy ran with butterfly-colours swirling all around him, then why not? It’s as likely as anything else in this story, after all.


No comments:

Post a Comment