Birds of India New Found Lands
A Pioneering Exhibition of Company Paintings Devoted Entirely to Indian Birds
Curated by Giles Tillotson
Works of art made by Indian artists for Western patrons in the early colonial period are what we now call Company Painting. The artists, who might otherwise have worked for an Indian court, sought new markets among those employed in various capacities by the European trading companies, and especially the British East India Company. Some patrons supplied the artists with new materials such as European-made paper and transparent watercolour pigments, and expressed preferences regarding subject matter, leading to new departures in both style and substance in Indian art. One of the most delightful genres of Company Painting was Natural History: images of India’s plants, animals and birds.
The core of this exhibition is an album of 99 paintings of birds, painted by unknown hands, in Bengal around 1800. We do not know the names of the artists, or even that of the original collector, though the flyleaf has notes indicating that for a long period the album belonged to a family called Cunninghame Graham. The birds depicted include raptors, game birds, coastal waders and many woodland and forest birds, some very familiar and several that are now scarce.
Only one of those—Chuni Lal of Patna—has been identified from this extraordinary collection of Company Paintings of Indian birds, represented here in an Edward Inge album from 1835. However, the most extraordinary paintings in this exhibition—99 of them—belong to the Cunninghame Graham album, and the artists remain unidentified. Finally, there is the Faber album from 1830 in which the artist’s observations appear less detailed, while nevertheless contributing to the ornithological studies expounded in this exhibition.
An Exhibition Devoted Entirely to Landscape Painting in India Spanning 200 Years from 1780 to 1980
Curated by Giles Tillotson
New Found Lands looks at landscape painting in India over a period of two hundred years, from 1780 to 1980. We start with English artists who travelled in India from the late 18th century onwards, to rediscover what they were looking for, and how they saw what they found. The introduction of new materials and the teaching of new methods in the art schools from the middle of the 19th century encouraged some Indian artists to adopt similar approaches. Later, in the 20th century, a reaction set in, as Indian artists sought new modes of expression.
The visual story that this exhibition unfolds goes from an imposed colonial gaze, through Indian accommodation and adjustment, to rejection, and the profusion of new forms of imagery, rooted in the land. The parallel with the course of the freedom movement is no coincidence, as artists react to the conditions and events of their times. Landscape artists are acutely alert not only to time but to space, finding ever new ways to depict the land on which they stand, even as the control of it is reclaimed.
Divided into three sections, the selection looks to explore:
The English aesthetic known as the picturesque developed in the late 18th century in the work of artists such as Richard Wilson and Thomas Gainsborough, and was articulated by theorists including William Gilpin and Richard Payne Knight. For the latter, it was as much about looking at real landscapes in a pictorial manner as it was about painting them. The first artists to bring the aesthetic to India were Richard Wilson’s pupil William Hodges, who was in India from 1780 to 1783, and Thomas Daniell, who toured extensively through India with his nephew William Daniell between 1786 and 1793. They made countless drawings and paintings, both in India and after their return home, and published sets of aquatints, which disseminated their vision of India more widely.
That vision was of dramatic landscapes with varied terrain: towering hills and forests, deep valleys and rugged country roads. It also included buildings, for, as Richard Payne Knight expressed it, architecture should be considered as ‘a mere component part of what you see’. The picturesque approach to architecture was scenic not functional. Indeed the most picturesque building would be unusable, as a ruin, because ruins tend to have the most irregular and varied forms.
It is not surprising that the first great Indian artists to produce pure landscapes – as distinct from literary or religious ones – were all associated with the Bombay School. They include pupils of Griffiths who went on to teach at the School, such as Pestonji Bomanji and M. V. Dhurandhar, and their younger contemporaries such as L. N. Taskar and M. K. Parandekar. Their approach soon became a self-perpetuating tradition, joined by the likes of S. L. Haldankar, N. R. Sardesai and D. C. Joglekar. These artists were all born between 1850 and 1900 and were active through the first half of the 20th century, producing views of Indian scenery in a Western style. Their watercolours in particular show an obvious debt to the formulaic principles of the picturesque. For their critics, it was a matter of nationalist identity and pride to reject Western illusionism and to insist that the essence of Indian art is spiritual not materialistic. But for the artists of the Bombay School there was much catching up to do in exploring the potential of art to render convincingly the appearance of the visible world. The schism is well illustrated by the case of S. G. Thakur Singh, originally from Amritsar, who made his career initially in Bombay and later in Calcutta.
Among the many forms of artistic expression practised by Indian artists, the depiction of the country’s landscapes was well established and widespread by the early 20th century. Initially, as we have seen, the usual approach was naturalistic. It went without saying that the artist should be faithful to the chosen scene. The point of painting a place, after all, was to show it and share it, to capture some aspect of its particular appearance or atmosphere. But soon, some artists began to question the need for realism in the genre. Such an approach seemed to them too literal, and much too dependent on alien academic conventions. Why should landscape not be treated like any other subject – like the human figure perhaps: not as a form to imitate, but as a source of inspiration while creating new forms? In part these artists were responding to global developments such as Expressionism and Abstraction, in part they were asserting a self-given right to greater freedom to experiment.
Although what we are here calling the ‘free’ landscape emerged later, there was no linear progression from one approach to the other. Indeed they existed alongside one another. The artists represented in this section were all born between 1900 and 1947, in what was still a colonial state.
Featuring approximately 108 works as part of the exhibition, New Found Lands is open for public viewing in New York at DAG, The Fuller Building and online on the gallery website.