Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Clemente's Kalighat Crimes

The original Kalighat painting Courtesan Dressing Her Hair (ca. 1900) is the imitative source of Clemente’s Self-Portrait as a Bengali Woman (2005).

And Cat with a Fish in its Mouth (1890) is the imitative source of Clemente's Self-Portrait of the Other (2005)

And The Courtesan And Her Sheepish Babu (c. 1865-70) could very well be yet another imitative source of another self-portrait Clemente has in his studio, which Adams states. is based on Kalighat sources-a work in which he is depicted as a dog and his wife Alba as the master.

In May 2006, Art in America magazine published a critical essay, on Francesco Clemente's works written by the Paris based art critic Brooks Adams titled “Demon Iconographer" in which two works of Clemente were reproduced that were almost identical copies of two ancient Kalighat paintings. The Kalighat paintings in question are in artist Balraj Khanna’s collection and they are also reproduced in his book on his own collection. Not only Clemente copied these Kalighat works, but he failed to attribute where his “inspiration” was from. Additionally, Gagosian Gallery in London, museums in Rome and Clemente’s native place Naples (where these works were exhibited) and ironically, Salman Rushdie – the author of Clemente’s catalog for the show also failed not only to make the connection to but even to mention the source of reference. I was puzzled by irrational behavior of all involved that was a mixture of cultural arrogance, ignorance and deceit that was almost saying that as a first world establishment in art and literature, we could cover up our plagiarism and you guys from the third world can not do anything about it. The West often dismisses contemporary Indian art as a poor imitation of the western modern art, but covers up their artists’ direct copies of un-named Indian artists by pathetically remaining silent about it.

So New York based Indian artist Vinod Dave wrote to the editors of Art in America and the following is the debate that took place in couple of issues of the magazine following this incident. Since no one in New York ever talked about this, I guess no one happened to read this. There are many Indian artists, art galleries representing Indian art (including Kalighat paintings) and other Indian oriented institutions, foundations and organizations in New York that claim to be promoting Indian art. I am once again puzzled that none of them have read this article and the debate that followed or seen these art works and noticed their stunningly resembling connection. So I take this opportunity to once more make this public by posting the whole thing in its entirety in the interest of artistic awareness and public service.

Art in America, September 2006
Letters (to the Editors):

Dear Editors:
In response to "Demon Iconographer" by Brooks Adams (AiA May '06), I wish to draw your attention to the similarity of some of Francesco Clemente's works to Kalighat paintings and to note the writer’s failure to acknowledge the obvious influence of these Indian works.

The Kalighat school of Indian painting originated in the late 1800s/early 1900s around the temple of goddess Kali in the Kalighat district in Calcutta. Its practitioners, heirs of displaced miniature painters who had lost their royal patronage due to the British takeover of power in India, earned their living by depicting scenes from local history, myths, and daily life in colonial society. They painted very fast in order to increase sales to the pilgrims who flocked daily to the temple and their hurried style gave their work a boldness characterized by swift brushstrokes used to suggest modeling and volume. Usually a single stroke completed the tonality of figures or objects, turning them into simple forms. These works were recognized for their fine synthetic artistry only long after they ceased to be painted. Today, the largest Kaligfhat collection is in the Victoria & Albert Museum.

When Adams discusses Self-Portrait of the Other (2005), "in which Clemente depicts himself as a big bold cat eating fish", he cites only “Beckman's tough tonal handling, and the unflinching scrutiny of his self-portraits in various guises.” No mention is made of the obvious Indian precedent, Cat with a Fish in its Mouth (1890). Adams sees Kahlo’s presence in the “archaistic drag” of Clemente’s Self-Portrait as a Bengali Woman (2005) and in “his use of the self-portrait with vivisected torso, an even older tradition from Mannerist and Baroque medical and anatomical sculptures,” but he fails to recognize the immediate influence of Courtesan Dressing Her Hair (ca. 1900). A third Clemente work, Clairvoyant (2004), is inspired by a combination of Indian genres: popular glass painting, Tanjore pictures, Rajasthani palace art and some elements from the late Indian artist Jamini Roy’s paintings. I do not have a specific source image for Clairvoyant, but I have seen many works that closely resemble it.

Though Adams briefly mentions India’s influence on Clemente, he does so without offering the deserved formal and historical analysis. I can accept his reading of Clemente’s art as an amalgamation of Rococo, Baroque, Mannerism, Kahlo, Haring, Warhol, Beckman, Guston and others, but such influences are indirect compared to what obviously commands attention in the painter’s recent work-his intermixing of elements that are profoundly Indian.

Vinod Dave
New York

Brooks Adams replies:

I think Dave’s letter is very apt. Clemente tells me that he first encountered Kalighat paintings through the art historian Stella Kramrisch, who bought some work in the 1940’s. The artist doesn’t own any examples himself and has never seen any in India. Someone did give him a catalogue about them once, and another friend showed him a publication on a young Indian painter who is working with Kalighat imagery. Clemente has in his studio another self-portrait based on Kalighat sources-a work in which he is depicted as a dog and his wife Alba as the master.

Clemente notes that Salman Rushdie never mentions the connection in his Gagosian Gallery catalogue essay. Moreover, he says, no one brought it up during the show in London, even though-as Dave points out-the V&A has the world’s largest collection of Kalighat paintings. Incidentally, Clemente was delighted to learn recently that British art historian Peter De Francia traces a direct link between Fernand Leger’s work and Kalighat painting. Clemente sees similarities especially in the facial expressions.

So it’s a great service Dave has done in bringing these sources to everyone’s attention, thus adding yet another layer of richness to our understanding of Clemente’s art. This is one more instance of the artist’s use of direct appropriation, a way of revitalizing pop imagery both Asian and Western. The practice most directly recalls his collaboration with Indian miniature painters in the “Francesco Clemente Pinxit” exhibition of 1980-81.

Art in America, January 2007
Letters (to the Editors):
Clemente’s Kalighat “Crimes” Part II

To the Editors:
I am an untrained artist who has long used A.I.A. as a means of self-education. Sometimes, I’ll even copy paintings in the magazine to see how they’re made; but these copies are exercises that I destroy or tuck away for reference. To present them as my own work would be to cheat the original artist and betray my own reasons for painting. Or so I thought.

Brooks Adam’s matter-of-fact reply to Vinod Dave’s revelations has made me puzzled about questions of influence and origin (see Letters, Sept. ’06). Isn’t it stealing when Francesco Clemente makes unattributed direct copies from the works of vernacular Kalighat paintings? Yes, he inserts his face into the paintings, but this is different from pasting his face onto Dr. Dachet or Woman 1. In such cases we’d recognize the source and the irony. But Clemente’s borrowings from late 19th-century Indian sources aren’t even ironic. He copies anonymous, little-known works and passes them off as his own. Does the speed and whimsy of these self-portraits excuse them from being deceitful?

I don’t want to coy or self-righteous here; I’d really like to understand. Is Brooks Adams’s “direct appropriation” a euphemism for “theft,” or is this accepted practice in the world of art? In the world of letters this is not accepted practice. It’s called plagiarism, and it can destroy careers.

William Flintoff
Somerset, N.J.

To the editors:
Brooks Adams’s response to Vinod Dave was clever but it somehow felt like a cover-up. Echoing Clemente, he cites the fact that the Indian-born writer Salman Rushdie “never mentions the connection in his Gagosian Gallery catalogue essay,” But any artist can see that Clemente was looking at the catalogue of Indian art that he has owned up to having or at images by the young, unnamed Indian artist whose work he admits to being aware of. So, he copied or “appropriated”-that’s allowed. But not admitting to the obvious-that he was looking directly at the work while he created his own-is dishonest.

Sara Stites
Miami Beach

To the Editors:
I am at a loss to understand why Francesco Clemente did not simply disclose his Kalighat “appropriations” to Brooks Adams. For the feature article [A.I.A. May, ’06], he told Adams about his working procedures in great detail, but chose to omit his Indian borrowings. Consequently, Adam’s claim that Clemente’s Self-Portrait as a Bengali Woman shows the artist “at the top of his game” is amusing at best.

Once the Kalighat sources were pointed out by Vinod Dave, Clemente still avoided the subject-electing to tell us, instead, that even Salman Rushdie didn’t make the link. What does this comment really mean? That Rushdie should have done research to ascertain if Clemente’s work was original? Or that Clemente expects viewers to suspend the use of their reason? When confronted with Kalighat images that are clearly very well known to him, Clemente seemed to express memory failure-a form of denial that proves to be irritating for the reader.

Adams, Rushdie and the Gagosian Gallery all failed part of their critical mission. We can categorize them as simply ignorant of the existence of these images from the Kalighat School. But the artist, who admittedly knew the material, has committed a failure of acknowledgement that is totally unacceptable.

Marco Sassone
Toronto, Canada

Brooks Adams replies:
First of all let’s be clear: there is no question of a “cover-up,” as Ms. Stites claims, because I honestly did not know about the Kalighat sources for Clemente’s paintings at the time I wrote the article. I cannot speak for the artist, but my impression is that the Kalighat works feature conventional, off-repeated imagery that cannot be ascribed to a single author, and that perhaps the whole notion of authorship, in the western sense, may not apply to such works. My feeling is that these works are indeed fair game for appropriation or “theft” (Mr. Flintoff’s term). It’s a bit like Roy Lichtenstein lifting images directly from the Yellow Pages.

We should also not underestimate the effect of the change in scale. Kalighat watercolors are small handheld objects, while Clemente’s figure paintings are monumental. (I suspect his Self-Portrait in an Imperial Age may be based on a small ancient bronze or print source, but I am not losing any sleep over it. That kind of imagery has been out in the world for a long time.) In any case, all this attention is good for Kalighat painting (which many of us never knew about previously), good for Clemente’s work and good for my thinking about how to write art criticism. In going into this project-which, by the way, started as a catalogue essay about the “Tandoori Satori” series for a Roman museum show- I stated very clearly to Clemente that I didn’t feel comfortable talking about the Indian content in his work (I still don’t) and so wouldn’t address it. Now that refusal has reared up in my face. Nevertheless, I’m glad that other people are talking about these issues, and I must say it’s been a learning experience.

Clemente’s painting, and the subsequent controversy, is expanding awareness about Kalighat painting. I stand by my contention that Self-Portrait as a Bengali Woman is Clemente at the top of his game: it’s a question of monumental scale, appropriation, self-parody and charade. According to Clemente, another work in the Gagosian show was directly inspired by a Mughal painting, Inayat Khan Dying (1618), probably by Govardhan. Was it Picasso who said that all creation is theft? Few were looking at Kalighat painting, as Mr. Sassone seems to assume, but now lots of people will be. Clemente, in characteristic fashion, is giving something back to India, and he is not obliged to explain this, either in title or a text. Think of the way late Picasso plundered the old masters. Are defenders of Rembrandt complaining? Art just doesn’t work that way: it’s ruthless, and takes what it needs. Apologies to those who feel hurt by this, and thanks again to Mr. Dave for stoking the fires.

Adams' essay "Demon Iconographer" can be read at the following link:

1 comment:

Scott Rothstein said...

There was one more letter that was published by Art in America on this issue.

Reclaiming Kalighat art.(Letter to the editor)

As a contribution to the Kalighat discussion that has been playing out in this magazine's letters pages [A.i.A., Sept. '06 and Jan. '07], I want to pass on a bit of information that may be of interest. Francesco Clemente is a friend of Jyotindra Jain, who wrote the major book on Kalighat art, Kalighat Painting: Images from a Changing World, and contributed to the large catalogue that accompanied Clemente's exhibition several years ago at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. In addition, Jain curated "Kalam Patua, from the interstices of the city," an exhibition presented in 2004 at Gallery Espace in New Delhi. Kalam Patua is an Indian artist who has reinvigorated and, in a sense, reinvented Kalighat painting in India today. There is a catalogue from Patua's exhibition, and it is very probable that he is the Indian artist whom Clemente was aware of and whom Ms. Stites refers to in her letter.

Anyone familiar with Clemente's work understands the Italian artist's great love of Indian culture. It has infiltrated his painting and drawing in the best possible ways, and few Western artists today have incorporated a non-Western source as elegantly and honestly as Clemente. However, one can be left feeling a little uncomfortable in this case. Art in America and other important Western art institutions are mesmerized by Clemente's encounters with Indian culture, yet almost completely ignore the efforts of contemporary artists, like Kalam Patua, from the very culture that enriches Clemente's work.

Kalam Patua is a provocative, insightful artist whose response to the Kalighat tradition is astute. Yet who in New York will show his work, and what international art magazine will debate his merits?

Scott Rothstein

there is more information on Kalam Patua here