The Triumph of Modernism: India's Artists and the Avant-Garde, 1922-1947
London: Reaktion Books, 2007. 271 pp.; 100 color ills., 50 b/w. $45.00
Partha Mitter is the most established scholar of modern South Asian art working in Western academia, and this book continues his extended project of documenting the development of art in South Asia since the midnineteenth century. A student of E. H. Gombrich, his first work, Much Maligned Monsters, examined European responses to Indian (Hindu and Buddhist) art from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century. (1) In this work, published in 1977, around the same time as Edward Said's Orientalism, Mitter had pursued a similar argument of misrecognition, but without foregrounding the theoretical armature of Foucauldian and Gramscian relations between power and knowledge that informed Orientalism. Mitter's next book, on art in India between 1850 and 1922, is the most comprehensive study we have of that period. (2) It is especially detailed on the rise of the Bengal school of painting, the first self-consciously nationalist school that rejected academic illusionism in favor of a flattened picture plane, with its technical and aesthetic modes developed from Migul miniatures, Japanese watercolor wash techniques, and Art, Nouveau. This Orientalist mode of painting was thematically tied to Indian mythology and history.
Mitter's strength consists of his mastery of detailed and close readings of artists in relation to institutions, which the present study continues by examining the period between 1922 and 1947, when Bengal school Orientalist historicism had become well established in many art schools across India. However, academic painting made a come-back, and modernism also made inroads into a diverse and polycentric Indian art scene. Bengal remained an important art center, but increasingly, modern artists began working in Lahore. Bombay, and other sites as well. Moreover, a concern with primitivism also surfaced powerfully, especially in the work of Bengal-based arists. The large framework of the book can be characterized as tracing the complex interplay between Orientalism, academisicism, primitivism, and modernism. Mitter also considers the importance and role of patronage--both Indian and colonial--in shaping the kind of work that was possible. This book does not seek to advance a singular or overarching thesis but maps specific artists and institutional trajectories. It introduces the work of many artists who are not normally part of the discussion on modern art in India, thereby enabling a fuller, more complex picture to emerge.
The Triumph of Modernism is divided into four chapters. A brief first chapter ("The Formalist Prelude") analyzes the impact that the 1922 Bauhaus exhibition at Calcutta had on the development of modernism in India. The show introduced the works of Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and other artists to India, which had until now only "feasted on Alma-Tademas and Lord Leightons" (p. 17). While the subject of modern- ism and the avant-garde had come up occasionally in print before 1922, the force of the exhibition constituted an attack on academic painting and on the Orientalist his-toricism of the Bengal school. During the 1920s and 1930s, the cosmopolitan ideas of the celebrated poet Rabindranath Tagore played a decisive role, especially in Bengal. Tagore, a persistent critic of nationalism, had founded an influential university at the village of Santiniketan where artists were encouraged to undertake alternative, experimental works based on the local, rather than on the self-consciously national. Through her writing and teaching, the Viennese art historian Stella Kramrisen--whom Tagore had hired in 1919 to teach at Santiniketan--also played an important...