Depicting two men in close embrace, including the artist himself, when Bhupen Khakhar’s oil Two Men in Benares was first exhibited at Chemould Gallery in 1986, it created quite a stir. Among the artist’s earliest coming-out paintings, there were several protests against the 1982 canvas, forcing gallerist Kekoo Gandhy to reportedly remove it from display.
Purchased by Swiss collectors Guy and Helen Barbier in 1986, the seminal work will come under the hammer for the first time at Sotheby’s auction in London on June 10. Featuring 30 works from the collection of the Swiss couple, the Khakhar is estimated to fetch £450,000-600,000, and is perhaps the most important work by the artist to come for auction, ever since De-Luxe Tailors — from the collection of artist Howard Hodgkin — set a world record for the Baroda artist at £1.1 million in 2017. “Two Men in Benares is a seminal work, both for the context it was made in and its powerful and complex imagery. In equal parts it is subversive, sensual and sentimental,” says Ishrat Kanga, Specialist in Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art and Head of Sale, Sotheby’s, in a statement.
The lots on auction also include several other significant works of the modernists. If Ram Kumar’s 1953 Untitled (Man and Woman Holding Hands) oil on board, estimated £220,000-280,000, we are told, was originally intended as a gift from the artist to his wife, in another 1967 work titled Varanasi, Kumar paints the city in sombre shades. In bright shades, MF Husain’s 1978 oil Umbrella VII, from ‘Portrait of an Umbrella’ series, has a village woman covered by an umbrella, and Tyeb Mehta’s 1967 Sitting Figure comments on human sufferings. “The Barbiers were pioneering for their time, collecting in the ’80s in a field of Indian art that few westerners sought. Their works are historic, exciting and fresh,” says Yamini Mehta, Deputy Chairman, Indian and South Asian, Sotheby’s.