The reticent modernist: Late artist Ganesh Pyne's work emerges as a favourite at auction houses
In an interview in the late 1990s, the late artist Ganesh Pyne had said of his oeuvre, “True darkness gives one a feeling of insecurity bordering on fear but it also has its own charms, mystery, profundity, a fairyland atmosphere.” A largely reclusive artist, who rarely ventured out of Kolkata, Pyne’s painting style was a painstaking process.
He applied multiple layers of translucent colour onto the canvas and then burnished it. This labour-intensive process gave birth to a canvas of penetrating light and shadow.
In the last few years or so, this artist—who was described by the celebrated MF Husain as ‘the best painter in India’—has become a favourite of auction houses.
Recently, AstaGuru’s online auction—Collectors Choice: Modern Indian Art—put one of his works under the hammer. In fact, the auction households the world record for the most expensive Pyne work ever sold—‘The Door, The Windows’—that went under the hammer in August 2017 for Rs 2,83,17,897. The work was painted after the artist lost his brother due to medical complications.
This doyen of modern art was well into his 50s when he finally ventured out of Kolkata for his first solo exhibition in Delhi. Surprisingly, Dolly Narang—the owner of The Village Gallery in Delhi—decided to showcase his ‘notebook jottings’, rather than the sublime tempera canvas Pyne was known for. Ina Puri, art writer and curator, says, “Pyne is one of the most important artists of our times. It is but expected that auction houses dealing with Indian art will vie for a work of his to grace their collection.
Also, unlike some other names that routinely make it to auction catalogues, Pyne’s name offers an element of surprise, only because his works aren’t seen in auctions very often. His works are rare to come by and deserve the highest recognition.” While in his jottings, he uses plain graph paper, filled with lines from his eclectic reading—both in Bengali and in English—and creating a montage of image and text, he blends poetic surrealism and rich imagery inspired by folktales for his larger canvas.
Somak Mitra, director, Gallery Art Exposure, believes Pyne is one of the most underrated Indian artists, who are yet to get their due. “Recently one of his works was sold at 10 times that of its estimate in an auction which just shows its craze among serious collectors. His works are as real and hard hitting as it can get and that’s what makes it different from a lot of the others. I see only an upward trajectory for his future prices,” says the director of the Kolkata-based gallery.
An artist who embraced the darker side, Pyne was obsessed with death. At the age of nine, he was deeply affected by the killings during the Direct Action Day riots of 1946. In fact, his family was forced to seek shelter in a hospital where he witnessed the mortuary being filled up with bodies. “I was shaken by the sight,” the artist had often admitted. This stark memory is present in his early images. Director of Delhi-based arts and culture initiative Artspeaks India, Ashwini Pai Bahadur, is a keen modernist enthusiast and believes Pyne’s dark obsession with death appeals to a select few.
“But his prices are steadily robust. Pyne is very much a collectors’ delight. His repeat sales are good and one always has a queue waiting to buy his works. Usually his watercolours, pastel and pen on paper are much sought-after due to their affordability compared to his tempera canvas,” she says. Recently, two more auction houses, besides AstaGuru, had Pyne’s works up for bidding.
There was the Silent Bids Auction of Indian Art Masters by Bid & Hammer, run by the over 100 years old Dadha Group, of which HH Gaj Singh II, Maharaja of Jodhpur, is a founder-patron. Also, Christies had two of his works up for auction. The works were from the private collection of Dutch business consultant Kito de Boer and his interior designer wife Jane.
The couple was acquainted with Pyne’s poetic works during a chance visit to the Kumar Gallery in Delhi. They found him to be “a very unsettling artist with a distinctive technique”.Pyne, as actor Barun Chandra put it so eloquently in the documentary The Painter of Eloquent Silence, “raises the ghosts of the past”.
“Recently one of his works was sold at 10 times that of its estimate. His works are hard-hitting and that makes it different from a lot of the others. I see only an upward trajectory for his future prices.”
“Pyne is one of the most important artists of our times. His works are rare to come by and deserve the highest recognition.”