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Free expression

  • Rare works by Bhupen Khakhar and Ram Kumar will be up for sale at Sotheby’s in London
  • These are among 30 works from the significant Guy and Helen Barbier collection of 20th century Indian art

‘Varanasi’ (1967) by Ram Kumar. Courtesy: Sotheby’s
‘Varanasi’ (1967) by Ram Kumar. Courtesy: Sotheby’s

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Two Men In Benaras, a large painting from 1982, is considered one of the most significant works of Bhupen Khakhar. The work was extremely bold for its time, depicting two male nudes in a close embrace. This painting and You Can’t Please All (1981)—which is in the permanent collection of Tate Modern—are considered “confessional paintings”, through which Khakhar became the first Indian artist to disclose his sexual orientation. In sharp contrast to this figurative work is the equally significant Varanasi (1967) by Ram Kumar, in which the artist straddled realism and abstraction. The painting has not been seen since 1987.

Now, Two Men In Benaras and Varanasi are among 30 works from the Guy and Helen Barbier collection of 20th century Indian art that will be offered at an auction by Sotheby’s in London for the first time.

Two Men In Benaras, estimated at £450,000-600,000 (around 3.9 -5.2 crore) marks a dramatic shift in Khakhar’s work. A 2003 article in The Independent by writer-curator Timothy Hyman mentions how, over the next two decades (1981 onwards), Khakhar would create the most challenging gay iconography of our time, in which the sexual and the sacred are often conjoined. “After his mother passed away, Khakhar began to openly express his sexuality. This painting is a celebration of the freedom that came to him very late in his life,” says Ishrat Kanga, a specialist in modern and contemporary South Asian art and head of sale, Sotheby’s London.

The painting was first unveiled at Chemould Gallery, Mumbai, in 1986 amidst protests from locals. “Gallerist Kekoo Gandhy was threatened by the police and there were demands to remove the canvas from view. That’s when the Barbiers, Swiss collectors who had been exploring Indian art in depth in the 1970s-80s, came to the aid of their friend Kekoo, and acquired the canvas,” says Kanga. The auction house believes this is the most important work by Khakhar to be auctioned at Sotheby’s since De-Luxe Tailors, from the collection of Howard Hodgkin, in 2017.

Guy Barbier began this collection in 1978 during his first visit to India. A chance meeting with art collector Jeroo Mango at industrialist Naval Tata’s home led to his exploration of Indian art and the forging of myriad friendships with curators, writers, poets and artists. Mango took him to Rabindra Bhavan, Delhi, that very year when he acquired his first piece of Indian art—an M.F. Husain work, Umbrella VII, also part of the forthcoming sale. Barbier then went on to collect works by Krishen Khanna, Tyeb Mehta, Ram Kumar, and more.

“Among the three works on sale by Ram Kumar is also a rare figurative work, Untitled (Man And Woman Holding Hands), from 1953. With Modigliani-like lines, it was intended as a gift for his wife. But Ram Kumar agreed to sell this painting out of friendship, and in part because the Barbiers hosted his son in Switzerland during his travels,” says Yamini Mehta, deputy chairman, Indian and South Asian Art, Sotheby’s.

After Guy Barbier married Helen, she too imbibed his passion for Indian art and organized an exhibition, titled Coups De Coeur, as part of the Festival of India held in Geneva in 1987 to celebrate 40 years of India’s independence. “The Barbiers banded together with other prominent collectors such as Chester and Davida Herwitz, Krishna Riboud, Gurcharan Das and Howard Hodgkin to organize the 1987 exhibition as a first-of-its-kind in Europe,” says Mehta.

The forthcoming sale draws its title from this very exhibition, which roughly translates as a stroke of passion, and embodies the Barbiers’ lifelong tryst with Indian art.

Coups De Coeur: The Guy And Helen Barbier Family Collection sale is on 10 June.

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