Author: K G Subramanyan
Publisher: National Gallery of Modern Art
ISBN/UPC (if available): N/A
A versatile and acclaimed artist, pedagogue and writer, Subramanyan was bon in 1924 in north Kerala. Although he was interested in art from childhood he was drawn into the freedom movement while at school and Subramanyan actively participated in its as a student activist until he decided to make art a vocation. This took him to Santiniketan in 1944 where he came under the influence of artists-teachers like Nandalal Bose, Benodebehari Mukherjee, and Ramkinker Baij whose impact is visible on his early work. He noticed how their work showed an awareness of global traditions but also sensitivity to local environment. Like them he began to pick everyday motifs and give them an iconic value. But in the final count both his work and thinking also owes a lot to Nandalal. Like Nandalal, he is today recognized as an artist and pedagogue with a total perspective.
After leaving Santiniketan he worked for a while in a rehabilitation project in Punjab, giving vocational training to post-partition refugees. In 1951 he joined the newly created faculty of fine arts at the M S University in Baroda where, with a few breaks, he continued to teach and work for the next three decades. During 1955-56 Subramanyan went to study at the Slade school of Art on a British Council Scholarship. He used his first visit to the West not only to gain a first-hand familiarity with western modern art but also to see the amble collections of other traditional arts stacked away in western museums. In 1958, taking a second break from teaching, he joined the Handloom Board as the Deputy Director, Director, Design, at Bombay. This gave him an opportunity to know the traditional craft scene at greater depth. Working with traditional craftsmen, he became sensitive to the relation between medium and image, and realized that a modern artist need not necessarily foreclose all contacts with traditional, functional or popular arts to ensure his uniqueness.
In his reverse-paintings on glass and acrylic sheets, his second major innovation after the terracotta reliefs, he returns to the common place through a retake on the popular genre of traditional glass paintings. They are his bazaar paintings, images of the floating world caught in a golden mirror that gives them a mock preciousness. High-keyed and earthy they suggest something between a pin-up and an icon. The earlier ones recall traditional glass paintings more closely in theme and appearance; but more in the spirit of ironic quotation. In the later reverse-paintings the themes and techniques are more varied and less conventional. In them the iconic expands into tableaux, fables, and metaphors and he takes a tongue in cheek look at our foibles and realities.
Subramanyan in his recent murals and paintings-done in very varied mediums-comes across as an artist who reads the world as a rich collation of polymorphs and as one who has many responses to it. He almost always begins from simple visual facts and, through juxtaposition, strings them into a narrative, or freezes them into a tableau. He reads one experience into another, an old myth into a contemporary event, allegories into facts, and sets them out on a capricious play; injecting new associative and emotional innuendos the tale is recast from painting to painting.
In his recent works Subramanyan also slides, using the many registers of language, from high seriousness to irony, descriptive rendering to lyrical evocation, celebration to subversion, fact to metaphor, and from the real to surreal and vice versa with stunning ease. He as many interests and each finds expression in a different voice. But if there is one experience that stands out in his recent work it is that of sensuous plenitude. His paintings are a rich and bristling surface of painterly marks and animate motifs.
Subramanyan who left Baroda and moved to Santiniketan as Professor of Painting in 1980 continues to live and work in Santiniketan where he is presently Professor Emeritus.