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It’s a still life watercolour

An art exhibition of the masters in the city of Chicago, and desi-geek talk on the flight to it, writes Soutik Biswas.

india Updated: Jun 09, 2007 07:10 IST
Soutik Biswas
Soutik Biswas

I paint still lifes because women nudes scare me, wrote Paul Cezanne to his peer Claude Monet. Cezanne did paint nudes, but if this admission is anything to go by, he was clearly not comfortable with them.

Then there are reflections on Édouard Manet’s droll oil on canvas of a woman reading a picture magazine desultorily on a Paris street. “It seems,” the canvas notes reveal, “to be poking fun at the tradition of painting solitary female readers as muses. There is nothing expressive about the model’s face and the artist too has made clear that her magazine is filled with nothing but pictures”.

This and other revelations can be found at an amazing exhibition of the world’s masters at the Art Institute of Chicago which has become the talking point in this wind-swept city. Bringing together the prized works of masters such as Cezanne, Gauguin, Degas, Matisse and Picasso, it showcases their relationship with the legendary art dealer Henri-Loius-Ambroise Vollard.

When he arrived in Paris in 1887, Vollard had few contacts and fewer credentials to pursue a career in the art world. But blessed with a good eye for art and willingness to learn, he was representing and exhibiting artists who “though were not necessarily unknown, but significantly undervalued”.

To give an idea of Vollard’s sheer reputation as an art dealer — two-thirds of Cezanne’s work- passed through him. Vollard hosted the artist’s first solo exhibition in 1895. It was not easy to sell. The Feast, the artist’s debt to the old masters and what was painted between 1867 and 1870, was sold only in December 1912.

Renoir’s apples are also prominent at the exhibition. I remembered growing up to framed Renoir prints of his famous apples at our family home — ‘smooth, round, fresh, ponderous, dazzling, of shifting nature, not the ones you’d like to eat’, as a critic once said.

Then there are the paintings of the art dealer by his favourite artists. Cezanne’s oil on canvas of Vollard, a carefully rich pastiche of colours with the dealer looking down, was painted in 1899. The dealer was in his thirties and apparently endured more than 100 sittings for the painting — one day he sat through totally silent and still ‘like an apple’ between 8.30 am and 11.30 pm. In the end Cezanne was still not happy with the “shirt front”.

There’s a dazzling cubist rendering of the dealer by Picasso, circa 1910, a kind of splitting image of the Vollard. There’s Chagall, and there’s all the Gaugin you can ever hope to see — from his woodcuts to charcoal and pastel to oil on canvas to glazed stoneware to bronze, to the sensuous Tahitian women and limpid pastorals. And in the end, Chicago’s talk of the town serves up some amazing stories on how the art market worked in its renaissance days — Van Gogh’s A Pair of Boots, a gritty piece of art, was bought by Vollard for 30 francs and sold to a fellow dealer for just 20 francs more. A year later, his stunning Starry Night Over The Rhine, was alone insured for 1,000 francs.

Fair trade caffeine

American television continues to be more of the same — shrill weather reports, screechy talk shows, calorie-obsessed snack ads, and manic all night-home shopping. So this is where the Coen brothers get their stories from.

But tonight, one channel is talking about Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s twin feature, Grindhouse — how Tarantino’s film is better than Rodriguez’s. Now that’s interesting. The reviewers are giving a glowing review — Tarantino scores again a film that deals with uber women at the centre, in the tradition of Jackie Brown and the Kill Bill films.

On another channel, a prim lady is talking about how she is trying to live more ‘a conscious life’. My ears perk up in interest, because her ‘conscious’ living extends to buying the right coffee.

“What kind of coffee should I buy,” she asks herself. “I buy fair trade coffee”. What’s that, asks the interviewer. “It’s coffee where the workers are paid fair wages for producing it. The coffee may cost a little more, but you can drink it with a clear conscience.”

A flat world

The world is flat. The Lufthansa flight from Calcutta to Frankfurt is unsurprisingly packed with desi geeks, bawling babies and harried mothers. The one from Frankfurt to Chicago is a surprise — a third of the passengers are, yes, Indians tucking into chicken even as their high-decibel babies bawl and men who look like software engineers fill in their homeland security immigration forms nervously.

Young Indians look each other up — one company has a clutch of employees flying to the US, and one young man introduces himself to a peer saying that he was flying off to a “maybe two year” assignment in Lussane after a stint in the US.

“That is a beautiful place, this Switzerland,” says the peer. Another whispers that he’s quit a software major in India to join a “small, small company” in the US.

“Small company good. You will grow up the ladder. Big company only lateral movement,” says the wiser Lussane-bound geek. It almost feels like home on transatlantic flights these days.

(The writer is India Editor, BBC News Online)

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