You can’t miss the large canary yellow canvas hanging on the left wall as you enter Delhi NGMA’s new wing, now showcasing a large exhibition, a mini-retrospective in its scope, of Atul Dodiya. It’s called Dadagiri, and shows an artist standing straight in the foreground, his raised arm stretched out, holding a brush with majestic nonchalance — almost like a teacher holding a scale, or a leader showing the way — as he paints on a canvas. On the bottom edge, his paint boxes and brushes can be seen in silhouette, and the message: “So the negation of the productive act in art, as introduced by Duchamp and revived by Warhol, was never acceptable to you? No, because the artist’s productive act cannot be negated. It’s just that it has nothing to do with the talent of ‘making by hand’ only.”
The allusion, for viewers and readers who haven’t got the art-historical reference, is to Marcel Duchamp, who exhibited a factory-made porcelain urinal in an art show in 1917, negating the very idea of art as something unique and beautiful made by an artist, and Andy Warhol who, starting the ‘60s, collaborated with a retinue of “art-workers” in his “Factory” to mass produce paintings.
Artists who’ve come after Duchamp and Warhol have grappled with the fundamental questions about the nature of art and artistic production, that they raised.
In Dadagiri, Dodiya is engaging with Duchamp and Warhol, and stating his own position — that while you can’t ignore the “productive act” of the artist, it has little to do with “making by hand”, that is, merely with the artist’s skill in reproducing what he sees around him. Dodiya doesn’t go on to say what the “productive act” is, but, perhaps, he is hinting that the “mind” of the artist, that
produces the “idea” in the work of art, is more important?
“Hand” and “mind” — is the central paradox of Dodiya’s art. In almost every one of the 80 or so works that fill the ground floor of the new wing and spill over into two rooms of the old, heritage wing inside Jaipur House, this play between skill and idea is evident. For Dodiya, who was described in a recent article as “a consummately cerebral artist”, is also one of the finest draughtsmen around, at least in Indian art — his skill in reproducing what he sees around him is so great that you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish it from photographs. And you can see this throughout his body of work — from the earliest portraits of Paul Klee and the like, through his roller shutter works, his delicate watercolours and his large reproductions of stock images of the freedom movement.
This paradox is most evident in the body of work called Painted Photographs/Paintings Photographed executed in the last year or so. These works are all diptychs (two paintings that together make one work) with one half a photograph of Gandhi that Dodiya has reproduced as a painting and the other half a famous work of Western art that he has photographed. So skilfully does Dodiya reproduce the black and white images of Gandhiji that it becomes difficult to tell that these are painted works.
Dodiya has said that in Painted Photographs... he was trying to play on the fact that just like India was in the throes of a freedom movement in the first half of the 20th century, so was Western art, with artists like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian and others saying that the traditional values, which stressed on faithfully reproducing what the artist saw around him, did not matter — the real artist was one who could hint at a “greater” reality. Today, Cubism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Minimalism and so on, which resulted from the ideas of Picasso, Mondrian and their ilk, have led to such a dilution of the artist’s basic skills in drawing and painting, that nowadays most of those who draw and paint well are dismissed as unfashionable.
Ironical isn’t it that Dodiya, while doffing his hat at the fathers of avant garde movements, should demonstrate such extreme hyperrealism in his paintings? This is also what makes Dodiya one of the most significant artists of our time.
A diptych from the collection Painted Photographs/Paintings Photographed. (Left panel) Onboard of SS Rajputana, 1931 (2013) is an Oil on canvas, (right panel) Composition, Piet Mondrian, 1936, Archival digital print on hahnemuehle bamboo.