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Ganesh Pyne

Indian Modern Artist
Born 1937, Kolkata, India
Died  2013, Kolkata, India
Lived and worked in Kolkata, India

Ganesh Pyne was one of the few painters of the country who had an overbearing influence of surrealism in his works. Morbid and eerie, his choice of themes revolved around death with a profusion of bones, skulls and skeletal creatures. But despite the ghastly nature of his subjects, his style of depiction was subtle and subdued to the point of being ‘poetic’.



Government College of Arts and Craft, Kolkata

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Pyne's works are consumed in an omnipresent darkness

Darkness is not just an element in Ganesh Pyne's work. It is the essence of his paintings and can be read in the themes, figures, colours and all other aspects of his art. Having witnessed the pre-partition violence as a child in Kolkata, death and other memento mori are recurring motifs in his artworks. Bones, skulls, skeletal creatures, darkened faces and black shadows regularly feature in his paintings and sketches - a culmination of the artist's own experiences of pain, solitude and alienation.

In The Flower (2005), Ganesh Pyne takes a typically beautiful, serene pose of a man bending over a flower and gives it his own dark interpretations. The bending man is more bones than flesh, more creature than human. The flower itself seems to be growing out of bones. The foreground is slightly lighter than the dark background. Overall, the painting simultaneously evokes a sense of mystery and decay. It also has the spiritual dimension of transience of life and beauty, like so many of Pyne's paintings.

Ganesh Pyne, The Flower, 2005, tempera on canvas

A mythology of his own

Ganesh Pyne's works are never social commentaries. The darkness comes not from social angst, but rather a result of his attempt at working out his inner demons. From his grandmother's stories taken from folk tales and mythology to his brush with death as a child in riot-ridden Calcutta and the world in general - he presents us with the impact these have had on him. His canvas depicts the 'demythologized' versions of these events and myths that resonate with his inner imagery and are suggestive at best (being slices of his psyche or subconscious).

The Effigy is inspired by burning of effigies in the socially aware and active Calcutta of the mid 1970s. But the work produced seems, like other Pyne canvases, a piece of the painter's inner world. The skeletal effigy is the central figure without any indication of protesters around.Here Pyne has perhaps put himself in the effigy's shoes to create a work that exists on the thin line between life and death, material and immaterial, light and dark and 'is' and 'was'.

Drawing from his childhood experiences and fantasies, Pyne often painted visual narratives of monkeys as princes, talking insects and child magicians. Untitled(Bir Bahadur) features a monkey called Bir Bahadur, who began life as Akbar's pet and is now tied with a collar. A similar character appears in The Ape and the Flower, but this time featured as a naked monkey, his neck still harnessed, but eyes closed as if resigned to his fate. There is no simple allusion or narrative here, and therefore it compels the viewer to spend more time with it like all Pyne's  canvases, and come up with his or her own interpretation of the painter's mythology.

Ganesh Pyne, The Effigy, tempera on canvas, 14 3/8 x 17 7/8 in

Ganesh Pyne, Untitled (Bir Bahadur), tempera on canvas laid on board, 56 x 51.4 cm

Ganesh Pyne, Ape and the Flower, tempera on canvas, 38.1 x 48.9 cm

Tempera best served his interests of playing with light and shade

While he started with watercolours, and often sketched in ink (for lack of money) Pyne soon moved to other mediums. He experimented with gouache before finally settling down to tempera in the mid 1960s, a medium that would eventually become synonymous with Ganesh Pyne. Using fine medical gum as the binder for ground pigment, tempera was perfect for the surrealistic effects Pyne wanted to create. He hardly used primary colours in his paintings - brown and blues dominate overlapping each other at times, giving an eerie effect. His skeletal creatures seemed aglow from within despite their dark contours and shadowy backgrounds. With tempera he perfected the play of light and dark.

The Window is a perfect example of Pyne’s work on tempera. He created as many layers as there are elements on a single canvas. And though the layers overlap, they are separate and it is often difficult to tell which layer is beneath and which is above. The overall effect is a dream-like quality, as if the painter has recorded for eternity a flash of his subconscious.

Ganesh Pyne, The Window, tempera on canvas, 18 x 21.5”

The eclectic influences of the artist come across in his depictions

Pyne's poetic surrealism owes much to other artistic influences as much as to personal experiences. It was Abnindranath Tagore whose works inspired him to take up art and whose structural style echoes in Pyne's works. The fascinating play of light and dark on his canvases, the strange, ethereal glow of figures are influenced by Rembrandt; and his figuration is a nod to Paul Klee. But, by his own admission, it was Walt Disney's cartoons and his experience as an animator in Calcutta that finally liberated him and helped him develop his own style of distortion and exaggeration. This is clearly seen in Before the Lamp (2005), a perfect specimen of all his stylistic inluences.

Ganesh Pyne, Before the Lamp, 2005, tempera on canvas, 21 x 22.5”

The architectonic quality of Pyne's work

Ganesh Pyne’s compositions have clearly defined architectonic structures that he planned extensively as can be seen in his notebooks. Even his depiction of commonly used elements like figures and headgear and everyday household items has a structural rigidity. In addition, architectural features like doors, windows, columns and pillars often feature in his canvases.

Night of the Flower and The Plant, the Chair and the Wall use both architectural features and architectonic structures, while the humans in them are mere shadows or silhouettes, bringing in sharp focus the desolation and loneliness that exists within domestic walls.

Ganesh Pyne, Untitled, pen, ink and colored pencil on paper, 4.5 x 8”

Ganesh Pyne, The plant, the chair and the wall, tempera on canvas, 22 x 26”

Ganesh Pyne, Night of the Flower, tempera on canvas, 22 3/4 x 26 3/8 in