A buyer once saw a work by Nasreen (Mohamedi) — an 11-by-14-inch frame — a few years back and really liked it,” says Bhavna Kakar, director of Delhi’s newest gallery, Latitude 28. “When she heard it was priced at Rs 4 lakh, she was taken aback and said, ‘I like it, but I’ll wait for a larger work by the artist.’ I had to tell her that the wait would be very long (Mohamedi passed away in 1990).”
Size was indeed on Mohamedi’s mind. “Large size is traditionally associated with maleness, with patriarchy, with phallic imagery. Nasreen and Arpana Caur were among a few feminists who used a small, intimate size to invert the hierarchy,” says Parul Dave Mukherjee, dean of the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Mithu Sen has recently hit this ‘male preserve’ right where it hurts. Her work for ‘Size Matters or Does It?’ — a show curated by Kakar that opened last week — is ‘David’. In it, Michelangelo’s proto-male is all penis and no body.
But the question of size in art — about how an artist and then the gallerist, viewer and buyer take to it — is not just a gender-bender. The market, too,
dictates the debate. “Buyers and gallerists often look at works by the square foot. Some take a benchmark sale rate and then calculate the price of another work of the same artist by square inches,” says Kakar, who had curated a show in 2007 titled ‘Does Size Matter?’ to address the fixation.
Even when not dealing directly with this obsession, many gallerists are today supporting smaller-format works — including some by artists better known for their wall-straddling frames. In October 2009, Mumbai’s Galleria Art mounted ‘Small Treasures’, a show that included works by K.G. Subramanian and Krishen Khanna. At the last Art Summit in Delhi, the Art Alive gallery gave several artists a fixed, not-so-large size to work on.
Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra, artists who have their tongues firmly in their cheeks, have made a 32-feet dinosaur (sold to a private US museum for Rs 80 lakh) as well as a 1-inch book, David and Goliath, whose 428 pages deal with — what else? — size (sold to an Indian collector for Rs 1 lakh). The duo’s comment is as much on the gallery as on the market: “It’s a cultural adjustment where malls act as museums, and vinyl playgrounds displace public parks.”
That, in turn, affects the size. Rajeev Lochan, director of the National Gallery of Modern Art, says, “Artists have become more daring in scale... But can they all handle it [big size]?”
“Contemporary art generally tends to be ‘statement art’, in which the size is implicit,” says Amin Jaffer, international director of Asian art at auction house Christie’s. “A small work from a master’s ‘golden age’ may be priced higher. But for a contemporary artist, a larger size usually means a higher price... Finally, it comes down to the labour, intensity and quality of the work.”
That’s what sets apart the postcard-sized landscapes by Bireswar Sen (1897-1974), whose ‘semi-retrospective’ opened in Delhi last week. B.N. Goswamy, a former professor at Panjab University who curated the show, says, “He was influenced by Nicholas Roerich, whose paintings were theatrical, even loud. But there was a certain quietness in Sen’s works. He managed to convey everything in short... It reminds me of a Chinese proverb: ‘The line does not end, you have to lift the brush’.”