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Tyeb Mehta

Indian Modern Artist
Born 1925, Kapadvanj, Gujarat, India
Died 2009, Mumbai
Lived and worked in Mumbai and London

Part of the seminal modernist group Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, Tyeb Mehta epitomised a new modern language in Indian art, moving away from his initial expressionistic vision to a more minimal stage where even brushstrokes would disappear to just let the image and block colours speak. His recurring imagery of the bull, the Mahishasura myth, the rickshaw driver and the diagonal formed the visual idiosyncrasies to foster his ideas of the Partition and minimalist art.

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Mythological figures form a large corpus of his works

Tyeb Mehta revisits characters from Indian mythology, altering the iconography and placing them within his minimalist contexts. The grandeur and ornamental elements that Indian mythology is represented with, both in antiquities and popular culture, is stripped clean, and re-configured to contain just the evocative and narrative factors. Their identity and the epic narratives are masked by his minimal styling, refocusing rather on just the spine of the narrative and the archetypal nature of the characterisation of the gods and demons.

Mehta’s Untitled (Mahishasura), 1996, part of the Mahishasura series, recalls the myth of the fight between the goddess Durga and demon Mahishasur, and the inevitable triumph of good over evil. This particular painting is typically Mehta, with the figures placed on block coloured and segregated backgrounds, while the bodies are entangled in a grotesque embrace. This fight is one that is not physically flamboyant in its representation in this painting, but edges more towards a philosophical premise—the fusing bodies alluding to the blurring boundaries between good and evil, and their demarcation and ultimately the victory of good.

Tyeb Mehta, Untitled (Mahishasura), 1996, acrylic on canvas, 59 7/8 x 48”.

Diagonal paintings mark another peculiar touch

Tyeb Mehta’s simplicity is furthered to add another form of segregated quality to it with his Diagonal series. These paintings are qualified with a diagonal running across the canvas, breaking the visual fluency into two while maintaining the other segregations with different block colours. This forms a visual marker to situate polarities of ideas and actions within the same canvas.

This formalist diagonal is resident to many of his canvas, where it threatens and splinters the subject into multiple selves, dislocating identity and making a fluent reading of the image and the figure rather difficult. This partition in the canvas alludes to his choices between the ancestral home and the new ideal home after the Partition, between an old hybrid cultural identity and an identity solely based on religion. This schism is best exemplified by the diagonal.

Tyeb Mehta, Untitled (from the Diagonal series), 1978, oil on canvas, 59 3/16 x 47 5/16”.

Record auction prices mark Mehta's prolific output

Tyeb Mehta, who had a nonchalant attitude towards the art market and record auction sales, quite ironically, was the trendsetter in boosting sale of Indian contemporary art like never before. It was the record auction of his paintings that marked the departure of a low confidence art market for Indian contemporary art to being a leading output area for record sales. His painterly life in the beginning was supported by his working wife, while being unemployed, he continued painting until he sold his first set of paintings for around $30, 12 years after picking up the brush.

His record streak began with the sale of a 1997 Mahishasura for $1,584,000 at a 2005 Christie’s New York auction making it the highest paid for any Indian living artist, and this surge in prices continued with his paintings consistently crossing million-dollar marks. His diptych Bulls, 2005-07, sold for $2.8 million in March 2011, while his Untitled (Figure on Rickshaw), 1984, sold for $3.24 million in June 2012. In spite of these sales, the auction money never reached his hand as his works were in the secondary market, and he continued to be exact and recluse with his output left untouched by market interest.

Tyeb Mehta, Untitled (Figure on Rickshaw), 1984, oil on canvas, 59 x 47”.

Minimal lines and pure colours are characteristic of Mehta

Tyeb Mehta’s early works were rendered with thick brushstrokes and impasto, usually representing lone figures. Later during the Rockerfeller Foundation fellowship in New York he encountered the works of American minimalists like Barnett Newman, seeing whom he underwent an incredible creative change, shifting to his now idiosyncratic clarity in lines, flat backgrounds bereft of brushstrokes and pure colours. He consciously attempted to avoid any extra elements in his painting henceforth, and to seek autonomy of the image to speak for itself and the colours to build an emotive quality in the paintings.

Mehta’s The Dancing Figure, 1997, samples this minimal style, with the contours and creases marked by crisp, clear lines situated on the background of divisional block colours. This minimalism marked his intention for an aesthetic that negated any visible brushstrokes and undulating backgrounds, focussing on the bareness of bodies.

Tyeb Mehta, The Dancing Figure, 1997.

The bull as the visual narrator of the violence of the Partition

The Partition gave Mehta an affective impetus to search for a new imagery to narrate the violence that he had witnessed. The Hindu-Muslim clashes prefigured a search in him, triggering a painterly response to locate new forms to visualise the violence. Any realist representation would have been a preferred recourse but owing his minimal aesthetics and philosophy he settled on the figure of the bull.

An imploding violence was configured within the figure of the bull in the paintings, positioning the energetic, formidable bull by tying the beast down, mutilated and tamed. The explosiveness comes from this duality, an unhinged brute force ultimately subdued. The diptych Bulls, 2005-2007, shows two fractured and broken down figures of the bull, face-down and smashed, the poignancy lying in the violence meted out to these otherwise strong beasts, their fate both rousing and senseless.

Tyeb Mehta, Bulls (diptych), 2005-2007, acrylic on canvas, overall 78 x 60”.