Monday, 30th October 2017

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From Ram Kumar’s celebrated Varanasi series, the painting acquired directly from the artist in 1982, straddles the boundaries between abstraction and realism. With its sombre hues and dark shadows, this haunting vista matches the mystery of the sacred city itself. Estimate: £100,000-150,000

Iconic works by Bhupen Khakhar, Ram Kumar and Tyeb Mehta to go under the hammer

Swiss collectors Guy and Helen Barbier's collection of 20th century Indian art is being auctioned by Sotheby's in London on June 10

By The Telegraph
  • Published 27.05.19, 5:16 PM
  • Updated 27.05.19, 5:16 PM
  • a min read
  •  

Over three decades, Swiss collectors Guy and Helen Barbier assembled one of the most important collections of 20th century Indian art in private hands, through their friendship with many of the artists they admired. The Barbier Family Collection began with Guy Barbier’s first visit to India in 1978. In 1987, their passion evolved into an exhibition titled Coups de Coeur, under the auspices of the Festival of India, Switzerland.

Now, thirty works from the collection are being offered at Sotheby’s in London on June 10 in a dedicated sale. More than two-thirds of the artworks going up for auction were acquired directly from the artists themselves, and none have ever been offered at auction before. A look at the highlights. 

Sotheby's
Photo Credit: Sotheby's
When Bhupen Khakhar unveiled Two Men in Benares (1982), he became the first Indian artist to freely disclose his sexual orientation through his work. With this ‘confessional painting’, in which he painted himself (recognisable by his trademark shock of white hair) entwined in a naked embrace with another man, Khakhar announced his sexuality to the world. Shockwaves followed the first unveiling of the work at the Chemould Gallery in Mumbai in 1986. Critics decried the promiscuity, there were protests from the Cottage Industries authorities (on whose premises the gallery was located), and two days after the exhibition opened the gallery owners were forced to remove the canvas from view. Thirty years later, in 2016, the work would star in Tate Modern’s 'You Can’t Please All exhibition of the artist’s work, the first retrospective of an Indian artist to be held at Tate Modern. Guy and Helen Barbier treasured the painting ever since acquiring it from the controversial 1986 Mumbai show to save their friend and gallerist - Kekoo Gandhy. Bhupen Khakhar, Two Men in Benares (1982), Oil on canvas, 160 x 160 cm., est. £450,000-600,000
Sotheby's
Photo Credit: Sotheby's
Ram Kumar was close friends with Guy and Helen Barbier and even sent his son Utpal to stay with the Barbiers in Switzerland for a few months. Untitled (Man and Woman Holding Hands) is a rare figurative work by an artist who dedicated the majority of his long career on abstract art. It had originally been intended as a gift from the artist to his wife and hung on the wall of the Kumar home. The Barbiers' bought the painting in 1985-6. Ram Kumar, Untitled (Man and Woman Holding Hands) (1953), Oil on board, 73 x 60.6 cm., est. £220,000-280,000
Sotheby's
Photo Credit: Sotheby's
Krishen Khanna is one of South Asia’s most eminent modern masters. Acquired directly from the artist, the painting comes from his early 1970s series, Concerning a Drowned Girl, inspired by a haunting poem by Bertolt Brecht in which a girl is described slowly descending into the sea. This painting is consistent with many other works by Khanna in terms of its engagement with identity and politics and can be read as a metaphor for the ills afflicting Indian society more generally. Krishen Khanna, Drowning Girl (1970), Oil on canvas, 182.7 x 121.7 cm., est. £90,000-120,000
Sotheby's
Photo Credit: Sotheby's
Tyeb Mehta, like many artists of his generation had been witness to the tragic events that took place in India during and after Partition and his memories of this period had an immense impact on him and the vocabulary of his art. Growing up in the Muslim area of Bombay as a member of the Dawoodi Bohra minority, Mehta empathised with the marginalised. His art is a contemplation of suffering and shows an empathy with human anguish which he witnessed. Characteristically of Mehta, the focus here is on a single figure. Despite the distortion of limbs and the inherent violence of the imagery, the potency of Tyeb's work lies in the balance of harmonious tones and lines within a deceptively simple composition. Tyeb Mehta, Sitting Figure (1967), Oil on canvas, 124.1 x 92.7 cm, est. £220,000-280,000
Sotheby's
Photo Credit: Sotheby's
The current painting belongs to the body of work that Maqbool Fida Husain produced between 1948 and 1951, the time of the formation of the Progressive Artists’ Group. The relationship between artist and his childhood is crucial to the understanding of this period of Husain's work, when his painting was informed by the colours and forms of the brightly coloured traditional Indian toys. Maqbool Fida Husain, Marathi women (1950), Oil on canvas, 83.3 x 82.5 cm., est. £75,000-100,000
Sotheby's
Photo Credit: Sotheby's
Acquired by the Barbiers the year it was painted, this work hails from the artist’s Portrait of an Umbrella series in which Husain explores what the umbrella could mean as a metaphor to different people. For example, the artist’s grandfather who used to take him to school ‘umbrella in one hand and Maqbool’s hand in the other,’ the vegetable seller protecting her son from the scorching heat, and Queen Victoria and her favourite manservant with an umbrella. Here we see a village woman whose face is obscured by the umbrella. Maqbool Fida Husain, Umbrella VII (1978), Oil on canvas, 146.5 x 116.5 cm, est. £100,000-150,000