Nepal Contemporary Art Evolution
Nepal is famous for its architecture and temple squares and has great tradition in metalwork and woodcarving. However, Nepali art is more often associated with thangkas (paubhas) and bronze and silver sculptures of a religious nature. The move towards contemporary art began with Prime Minister Jung Bahadur’s visit to England in early 19th century. On his return, he commissioned some traditional Chitrakar artists (temple artists) to paint royal family portraits and royal hunting scenes in the “European Court Style”. The first Chitrakar to paint in the European style was Bhajuman Chitrakar. During that time, only a few artists like Chandra Man Maskey, Tej Bahadur Chitrakar and Kesab Duwadi went to India for formal training, nevertheless, some self-taught artists like Manohar M Poon, Bal Krishna Sama and Amar Chitrakar painted in the western style. Lain Singh Bangdel was the first Nepali to ever receive formal artistic training at the Ecole National des Beaux Artist in Paris in the early 1950s
Excerpted from: www.siddharthaartgallery.com
Lok Chitrakar is a leading proponent of Paubha painting (thangka painting) in the world of Nepal art. ‘Paubha’ comes from two words, ‘Pau’ and ‘Bha’ derived from the Newari term Patra Bhattarak, which means, ‘depiction of god in flat form’. The oldest one ever found, a Ratna Sambhav (12th to 13th century) is lodged in Los Angeles County Museum in the United States. Chitrakar’s own work (his largest) a set of 2 m by 1.5 m Garbadhatu and Vajradhatu Mandala, is housed in a temple in Saitama Perfecture, Japan. It fetched him Rs.25 lakhs (about USD 28,000). Some of his other works can be seen in the Mohatta Palace Museum, Karachi; the Kemi Museum of Arts, Kemi, Finland; the Shouji Temple,Saitama, Japan; the Museum Kanzouin in Tokyo and the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan.
Shashikala Tiwari is a doyenne of Nepal’s art world. One of her works, bought by a Japanese collector, fetched the princely sum of USD 10,000. She says, “I think only one other painting (contemporary) by the late Lain Singh Bangdel was sold for a higher price in Nepal—for about USD 15,000…but that was after his demise, so possibly, my painting was a record in itself for a living artist.”
Kathmandu’s Siddhartha Art Gallery, a premier art gallery of Nepal, has been running for 25 years now. In spite of its formidable reputation, it still cannot claim to be secure from the financial angle. According to its founder/curator, Sangeeta Thapa, “It’s not a cake walk running an art gallery. The art market, even though it might look like it’s flourishing, is severely affected by the low number of patrons. What’s more, the number doesn’t seem to be growing…Nepali art is relatively cheap because of this. And it might not sound so nice, but really, patrons, because they know this, are not averse to exploiting the situation by demanding heavy discounts.”
The above three examples should give a fairly good idea about the state of Nepal’s art world as it stands today. Add to this the fact that you will find some artists abroad participating in one exhibition or the other every other month, and the picture becomes more complete. In short, Nepali artists get good opportunities to travel abroad frequently and Nepali artists’ works fetch amounts that are far from being comparable to those in the developed world. Before delving further, let’s have a look at Nepal’s art history.
Arniko and the Renaissance Period
In 1260, at the Chinese emperor’s request, King Jaya Bhim Dev Malla of Nepal sent a team of 80 artisans to China under the supervision of architect Arniko (who was then just 16-year-old) to build a temple. Arniko went on to build many other structures in China, among which the most renowned is the White Pagoda of Miaoying Temple, Beijing. Other eminent works were nine Buddhist monasteries, two Confucian shrines, the Archway of Yungtang and one Taoist palace. Arniko was equally good at painting and sculpture. He painted a series of portraits of Chinese emperors and so happy was the emperor with all that Arniko had done, that he was conferred with the title of Liang Guo Gong (duke) besides being rewarded with 15,000 acres of farm land, about 1000 serfs, and 100 heads of cattle. In 1306, Arniko died at the age of 62 in China. His real name was Balabahu but the Chinese named him Arniko (ara: woman; niko: face like), because he had delicate feminine features. Another meaning could be Aa Ni Ka: respectable brother from Nepal. Arniko can be said to be the greatest of all Nepali architects/artists. He was responsible for spreading Nepalese art and architecture not only to China and Mongolia but also to countries like Indonesia.
At the same time, it is also true that art (especially stone carving) flourished in the country long before Arniko. Nepali stone sculpture goes back at least 2000 years while works in wood and terra cotta date back to the 17th century. Mostly, the Newars of Kathmandu Valley were responsible for early Nepali sculptures and their style influenced Chinese art, since Nepali artists regularly went there to work on their shrines. Wooden sculptures were mostly related to things like windows, door surrounds, struts, toranas, etc. In due time, Nepali art developed a distinctive style—deities with languid eyes, wide faces, stylized curves and lovely proportions. Traditional Nepali art and architecture prospered during the Malla Period (1200-1769) in Kathmandu Valley.
The Renaissance Period (1400-1600) and the fantastic paintings of the Old Masters should perhaps be recalled at this point. The Renaissance Masters included Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Rubens and Rembrandt. Most of their works are priceless although Titian’s ‘Diana and Actaeon’ auctioned for $ 70.6 m recently. Similarly ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ by Paul Rubens was sold for $ 76.7 in 2002. ‘David’ is Michelangelo’s legacy as a sculptor while ‘Genesis’, ‘The Creation of Adam’ and ‘The Last Judgment’ are his great paintings. Likewise, ‘The School of Athens’ (Raphael); ‘Venus and Adonis’ (Titian); ‘Venus before the Mirror’ (Ruben) and ‘The Night Watch’ (Rembrandt) are immortal canvases of this period. Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’, ‘The Vitruvian Man’ and ‘La Gioconda’ (better known as ‘Mona Lisa’) are priceless legends. The last mentioned is valued at $ 700 million to $ 1 billion.
Current Art Scene in Nepal
At the present moment, art has become somewhat of a run-of-the-mill affair in Nepal, with exhibitions every other week and art schools producing artists by the dozen every second year. Most Nepali artists’ works are pretty much influenced by Impressionism even if words like ‘contemporary’ and ‘post modern’ are bandied about often. In the end, most describe their works as ‘semi abstract’. Pablo Picasso and Salvatore Dali are the contemporary icons as is Paul Gauguin, a leading Neo Impressionist.
Kiran Manandhar, a leading proponent of contemporary art here, and the current chairman of the Nepal Fine Arts Academy, calls himself an ‘Expressionist’ and one of his idols is Vincent Van Gogh. Kiran has had a successful tenure and a certain standing here. He is a Fellow of Cite’ International des Arts, Paris, France, and a member of the Association des Arts Plastiques, Draveil, France. About his style, a critic has observed, “Kiran paints very fast…he scatters or flings colours on to the canvas in order to explore the physical qualities of colour”. However, unlike Van Gogh and his many famous paintings such as “Starry Nights”, no particular work of Kiran’s come to mind. Artists here just do not give a distinct identity to their individual canvases by giving them a name. This applies to most Nepali artists including the likes of Shashi Shah, Uttam Nepali, Madan Chitrakar, Uma Shanker Shah, Sarita Dangol, etc.
Similar is the case with Lalitpur’s youthful Kasthamandap Art Studio (KAS) founded in 1994 (Asha, Erina, Binod, Pramila, Bhairaj, Pradip, Sunila). This group can be compared to the equally youthful Impressionists founded in France in 1874. In general, the group admits to being influenced by the Impressionists, but nevertheless, each has managed to carve out a unique identity of his/her own.
Internationally, the dawn of the 20th century saw the rise of Cubism and the art world was never the same again. This radically novel idea and its most famous proponent, Picasso, were welcomed by art lovers everywhere. In a list of the 30 highest-priced paintings, seven are by Picasso: Garcon a La Pipe ($104.2m, 2004), Jardin ($49.6m, 1999), Les Noces de Pierrette ($49.3m, 1989), Yo Picasso ($47.85m, 1989), Arlequin ($38.5m, 1988). Shyam Lal Shrestha is a Nepali artist who admits that his works contain ‘shades of cubism’. Many other Nepali artists have tried their hand at this art form but it is of course next to impossible to be original at the same time. Although some might take Cubism as the beginning of modern art, but no, the modern art period extended from the 1860s through the 1970s, beginning with the Romantics, Realists, and Impressionists. In the case of Nepal, Shashikala Tiwari’s works are romantic in nature and have been often described as being lyrical by critics. ‘Merging With Nature’, is one of her personal favorites. It shows a lovingly proportioned woman, clad in a white – out in the open being buffeted by the powerful gusts of a strong wind. It is a painting that is soulfully sensuous in content
The early 80s saw the advent of Post-Impressionism and Symbolism followed by Contemporary or Post Modern Art such as Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, Futurism and Surrealism. Gustav Klimt’s ‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer’ I ($ 135 m) and ‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II’ ($ 87.9 m) became two of the highest priced Symbolism works. Salvador Dali’s ‘La Persistencia de la Memoria’ and ‘The Enigma of the Hour’ by Giorgio de Chirico are the best known surrealist works. Abstract Expressionists like Willem de Kooning (whose ‘Woman III’ fetched $ 137.5 m) emerged during the latter half of the 20th century. Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko’s (two abstract expressionists’) works created sales history with the former’s ‘No. 5, 1948’ selling for $ 140 m in 2006 and Rothko’s ‘White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose)’ being auctioned for $72.8 m in 2007. Other styles (Color Field Painting, Pop Art, Op Art, Hard Edge painting, Minimal Art, Lyrical Abstraction, Post-Minimalism, Photo Realism, Land Art, Performance Art, Conceptual Art, etc.) followed soon enough and larger installations and performances became popular. Andy Warhol became the guru of Pop Art with his ‘Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I)’ fetching $ 71.7 m in 2007.
There are plenty of young Nepali artists following the footsteps of the avant-garde artists including Sujan Chitrakar (who calls himself a ‘visual interpreter’), Ashmina Ranjit, who specializes in installation art and Manish Lal Shrestha, who is endowing a particular hallmark to his abstract works. Sujan says, “I prefer to be called a ‘Visual Interpreter’”. His desire to increase art appreciation among the public has resulted in what he calls ‘artivity’. He says, “I want to trigger public interest in art by involving the public themselves in the activity of creating art.” Ashmina’s ‘Women and Sensuality’ in 1998, meant to “express the feminine perspective towards women’s sexuality’, had some oils that created quite a stir— a profusion of blood red depicting depths of womanhood. Another work to create waves was an installation titled ‘Shakti Sworup—Menstrual Blood’. Manish Lal Shrestha’s slight stature belies his considerable status in the Nepali art world.. ‘Sound of Intimacy II’, ‘Sound of Hope’, ‘Sound of Existence’, ‘Sound of Existence’ and, well, yes, ‘Sound of Silence’, were a few of his successful exhibitions. Going by all these examples of contemporary art, Nepali artists today are indeed sparing no efforts to innovate and improvise but they are facing tough times ahead in the Nepal art world.