ARTIST ATUL Dodiya’s fascination with the masters go long back, from his time at the Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai in the early 1980s, where he saw them in books, to 1991-92, when he was on a scholarship in Paris, when he saw their originals for the first time. “I saw paintings from the early Renaissance onwards to the modern times for the first time. I was overwhelmed by the thickness of the centuries-old paint, and wondered how my work could measure up to these masters,” says Dodiya, 58. In the decades that followed, he has reinterpreted the masters in his own work. If, in his 2015 exhibition ‘Mahatma and the Masters’, he juxtaposed episodes from Mahatma Gandhi’s life with the works of Picasso, Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich, in an ongoing show, ‘Girlfriends: French, German, Italian, Santiniketan, Ghatkopar…’ at Vadehra art Gallery in Delhi, he revisits female portraits by the likes of Albert Müller, Francis Picabia and Piero della Francesca. Excerpts from an interview:
Can you talk about your engagement with the masters in your work?
There is a tremendous amount of affinity and some sort of intimacy in the way the masters have guided me. In some of my brushstrokes and application of oil paints, I literally follow how Picabia, (Pablo) Picasso or (Henri) Matisse would have done it. I am not trying to create something new, but I’m looking at something that is recognisable to arrive at those works again, transforming it in my way. You would lose interest if you just copy the work. It needs to be relevant in my context today. I get so much joy looking at them, learning from them, that I feel they belong to me and I can transform them.
What prompted you to look especially at female portraits?
The emotions a female face generate have deeper quality as compared to male portraits. There are some really great portraits by the masters, particularly by Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci and Picasso. In the exhibition, each room is devoted to female portraits by particular artists. I am looking mostly at the European masters. From India, I looked at Santiniketan because I am a great admirer of Rabindranath Tagore. Since he was not a trained painter, he did not have a controlled command and I like that vulnerability.
The series also has its roots in a work I had done in 2001-2002, in three watercolours called My Italian Girlfriends. It had images from frescoes of the pre-Renaissance period, including Piero della Francesca’s The Legend of the True Cross in Arezzo, Italy. There were two other paintings based on profiles of women made by the Pollaiuolo brothers. That time, I had used plaster patch on the faces, with independent floating abstract forms. I have continued that in this series. This specific aspect has its roots in my wife Anju’s skin condition, vitiligo, where she had white patches on her body. She used to say, ‘They are like floating clouds on my body.’ I liked that concept of a human being as an open, vast and transparent sky.
Isn’t the process intimidating? These are widely recognised works, after all.
There are several concerns — are you insulting them, will you enhance the quality (which is not possible), there is a possibility that what you create will be laughable…there are many layers to it. I have given them my own form. For instance, in the German Girlfriends, by 16th century painter Albrecht Durer, I have abstract forms floating. One can see the face of his females through a maze or a puzzle. The tonality of the wash, use of paper and technical aspects are important. After so many years of practice and minute observations of other people’s work and my own process of painting, I am confident about facing my work.
The background that you have used for the Italian series is very intriguing. It is very kitsch, unlike Francesca’s
I first saw the fresco in 1999. These were done hundreds of years ago. The work of the masters in the Renaissance period was so sublime. They are mostly in chapels, and you feel calm when you enter those spaces. But, times have changed. I feel there is a rupture in the peace. There is violence and terrorism. I have painted red blobs in some of the works — these could be blood stains or rose petals. In some cases, the frescoes, too, have deteriorated. There are changes during the restoration, damages during natural disasters and war — I have tried to bring all of that. The contrasting decorative laminate in the background, I thought, would make the work more contemporary.
The exhibition has Anju’s face morphed on to the Fayum mummy portraits. Why did you put her there?
At the JJ School of Art, I was very good at portraits. I won the Ratan Wadke Portrait Prize for three consecutive years. Around 12 years ago, I was discussing with Anju how we don’t go back to the work we did as students. I wanted to continue with portraiture, and she said, ‘If you paint portraiture, do mine too, and in the Fayum style.’ The Fayum portraits are the earliest known, and placed on the mummy of the respective person. I was shocked, because they were done for the dead. But I said okay. So when I started this series, the first portraits were the Egyptian ones. I felt that I was going back to my student years.
There is a set of work called Ghatkopar Girlfriend, which is based on a set of drawings by a hobby artist. How do you look at its placement with the masters?
The set of drawings were bought from a flea market in Mumbai 10 years ago. They are portraits of American girls done by a young local artist. I have used stains, tear drops and abstract forms in them. There are Bollywood songs from the ’60s (including Teri pyari pyari surat ko kisi ki nazar na lage and Tum kamsin ho, nazuk ho) that I have written on the sides of the frame. There is humour and wit. If one is familiar with the works of the masters, they would say that a lot of drawings by Picabia are just like the ‘Ghatkopar’ series. That would be an interesting connection, because I also have some of his paintings here.
You’ve been greatly influenced by Picasso, but you have excluded him from this show. Why?
Picasso has already done such a strong transformation in his work of the female figure that I did not want that. I wanted my own interpretation of the work. Artists such as Picabia and Philip Guston are important for different reasons. Picabia, for instance, had an academic and romantic style with a touch of eroticism. During the Dada period, his work changed completely. At one point, he abandoned the figurative works for something abstract, almost like tantric circles and lines.
Coming to the title of the show, these are not girlfriends of the masters. Why call them that?
They are all my girlfriends, female figures of artists whom I have admired for a long time. I just turned 58, it’s high time I reveal my girlfriends.
What does Anju think of them?
Anju likes the work, I think. She has a sense of humour and we take it like that.