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The House that Raza built

This is a big year for Saffronart, as it holds its 200th auction. Among the works on offer is a 1951 painting by a young S.H. Raza

‘Paysage Provencal—I (Cagnes)’ by S.H. Raza, 1951. Photo: Saffronart
‘Paysage Provencal—I (Cagnes)’ by S.H. Raza, 1951. Photo: Saffronart

Next week, Saffronart will celebrate its 200th auction, marking a significant chapter in its 18-year-old history. The auction will offer a mix of 150 modern and contemporary artworks. Tyeb Mehta’s iconic Kali III (1989)—the largest of the three standing Kali figures (67x54 inches) in Mehta’s repertoire—will headline the Summer Online Auction from 13-14 June. There are other works as well, like Raja Ravi Varma’s unique rendition of Shiva as Dakshinamurthy (1903), a painting that once belonged to the nizam of Hyderabad, as well as contemporary artist Subodh Gupta’s Hungry God (2005-06).

Among this collection of paintings and sculptures is a unique S.H. Raza painting that predates his trademark bindu phase. Paysage Provencal—I (Cagnes), a painting of rural France on paper, provides a glimpse into the humble, yet foundational beginnings of the artist.

It might seem of late that there is an increasing interest in Raza paintings made during his early years in Paris. While Paysage Provencal is estimated to be sold at Rs1.3-1.95 crore, Ville Provençale (1956) was offered recently at an estimated Rs16 crore at a Sotheby’s, New York auction on 19 March, although it remained unsold. Minal Vazirani, Saffronart’s co-founder, explains that the interest in Raza’s work from this period, however, “is not necessarily a recent phenomenon. For instance, in May 2006, Saffronart auctioned an oil-on-board painting titled Village, dated circa 1960s. In our 2009 Winter Online Auction, an oil on canvas titled Temple (1959) was sold for Rs83 lakh."

‘Untitled’ by Prodosh Dasgupta, 1954.

The year 1950 marked a pivotal chapter in young Raza’s life, when he left India with a scholarship to study at the École Nationale Supérieure Des Beaux-arts, Paris. Raza painted the Paysage Provencal in 1951, a year after he landed in France—a country he would go on to adopt for several decades. This painting, characterized by its peculiarly contorted row of houses (reflecting Cubist influences) and colours, gives a distinctive outsider’s perspective—which the French critics took note of.

In fact, when Paysage Provencal was exhibited in 1952 at the Galerie Saint-Placide, alongside works by Akbar Padamsee and Francis Newton Souza, the painting was “widely lauded in the French press and singled out for its unique portrayal of Provence", states Saffronart’s press release, “...pushing the young artist into prominence".

What’s unique about Paysage Provencal is that it belongs to the period when Raza still used watercolours—after 1953, he had begun experimenting with oil paints.

Raza’s early years in Paris were a time when buildings, cityscapes and landscapes (with eccentric geometrical lines) became subjects in the artist’s visual narratives. Human figures remained conspicuously absent. “Raza’s preoccupation, even at this early point in his career, was not the peopled landscape so much as a landscape that was set at the verge of a cosmic vista, an expanse that both challenged and exalted the viewing eye," says art historian Ranjit Hoskote on email. “In Paysage Provencal—I (Cagnes), it seems to me that Raza was assimilating and refining several artistic legacies. For one, there is the presence of the Cubist landscape as developed by (Georges) Braque—the house a geometricized token of order set against the unruliness of nature."

It seems though that his fascination for buildings and cityscapes was something he had developed during the 1940s, when he was working as a designer at Express Block Studios, in south Mumbai. He told art critic and poet Ashok Vajpeyi in an interview published in Passion: Life And Art Of Raza (2005), “I loved Bombay and I painted its street scenes, Pherozeshah Mehta Road or the Parsi temple from the Express Block Studios where I was working from 10 to 6.... I painted the city because there was no time to go out to nature. The expression was limited to cityscapes."

In the same interview, he explained how the French countryside and architecture had a hypnotic effect on him. “The French landscape became a dominant theme of my work from 1954 to 1965.... I went to Brittany where I painted French churches and villages... I went to the central part of France...and to the southern part called Provence: in the villages dating back to the middle ages the houses were beautiful. The look they gave to furniture and architecture was a subject of study.... The wonderful thing is existence, which should be understood, to be enjoyed."

The works are on view at Saffronart New Delhi, New York, and London till 14 June. They will be auctioned on on 13-14 June.

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