Honi, a “miracle maker” in Talmud, a Jewish religious text, is waking back from sleep after 70 years in French contemporary artist Gerard Garouste’s mammoth painting Warsaw Bridge and the She-Asses, on display at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Delhi. In the background is the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest Jewish ghetto in Germany-occupied Poland that housed nearly 4,80,000 Jews at one point of time, before sending them to gas chambers and mass killing centres. The canvas speaks volumes to the viewer, as it has a number of captured donkeys hoarded together under a foot over bridge on Chlodna Street, which became a tragic image from World War II and a powerful depiction of the Holocaust.
“Gerard Garouste — The Other Side” marks the first Indian retrospective of Garouste — a leading French figurative artist. It comprises over 50 paintings that lend an insight into his thinking process and artistic style that often brings together surrealism with mythology and literature.
Born in Paris, his father was a furniture dealer, an anti-Semitic who dealt with the furniture of deported Jews — the earnings funded Garouste’s education. The artist’s traumatic childhood experiences that often landed him in psychiatric vaults, seem to come alive in his canvases. “My father collaborated with the Nazis, and I want to say that one shouldn’t forget Nazism. This painting is my answer to that. Faced with my father’s attitude, I felt like painting this, and a few other paintings in the exhibition are in the same vein. This is a painful inheritance and I have no intention to hide it. We have to learn a lesson from it. I just didn’t want to make it a secret,” says Garouste. His wife Elisabeth Garouste is a Jew, who comes from a family of deportees.
Seated at the NGMA, Garouste, 73, holds a walking stick that he inherited from his woodcutter uncle, moulded from a tree’s root into the shape of a snake. He wears a beige hat, as he sits down to speak about his life and grand and picturesque paintings. His artworks are heavily inspired by biblical texts, the Old Testament, Hebrew Bible, mythical tales and literary giants such as Cervantes, Dante and Franz Kafka. Garouste smiles when he recalls how he was a very bad student in school, especially in science and math, but his drawings were always appreciated by his teachers. “My boarding school was very strict. We were not even allowed to read comics. So I started making comics and caricatures,” says Garouste, who studied art at École des Beaux-Arts de Paris. In the exhibition, he paints self-portraits with a comical twist. The 2017 canvas Pinocchio and the Dice Game, has him as Pinocchio, with an elongated nose and a smirk on his face.
Garouste, whose works are housed in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Fine Arts Museum of Caen, and The Santa Monica Museum of Art, among others, says, “My hands are my life”.
We also see several animals in his works. In the 2002 Mask of the Dog (self-portrait), the artist wears a dog mask in an attempt to pay an ode to the animal’s striking sense of smell, serving as a metaphor for intuition. Garouste draws heavily from Aesop’s and La Fontaine’s fables, where animals serve as metaphors for human characteristics. The diptych Frog Tale is inspired from the Talmudic tale of a frog being eaten by a snake, who in turn is swallowed by a crow. Looking at the numerous toy-like houses that appear in this ceiling-high painting, Garouste says, “The text says that the frog was larger than a village of 60 houses. The myth goes that this frog was eaten by a snake and then the snake was eaten by a crow. There is a master going past them and when he sees this, he says, ‘If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I would not have ever believed it.’”
Seated atop a boat in the vast unending landscape of an ocean, Garouste also appears as Tintin, from Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s Cigars of the Pharaoh, comprising The Adventures of Tintin. There are also several serious questions that Garouste poses through his artwork — for instance in Witch with Goat (2011), he draws from the biblical encounter of Adam and Eve. With Eve posing with apples, seated on a goat, he signals how apples are associated with Eve and witches, and how the popular Biblical narrative has helped construct misogyny. He renders a token of advice to his viewers: “When you look at my paintings, you don’t get the full story, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is the subject. It is like a bottle thrown in the sea: there is a glimpse of hope that stands out in the drama. It is secret, obscure in a way, just like how life is.”
The exhibition is on at NGMA, Delhi, till March 29
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