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You Can’t Please All: Bhupen Khakhar at The Tate Modern

15 June 2016 | Tom Faber

The Tate’s new exhibition looks at one of India’s most esteemed modern artists. Bhupen Khakhar’s work draws your eye with its bright colours and vital scenes of everyday life, but on closer inspection more complex ideas emerge. The works often deal with controversial subjects such as homosexuality, violence and iconoclasm, bound together with an eye for storytelling utterly outside the Western tradition.

The title of the Tate’s new exhibition tells us a lot about the man behind it. A self-taught artist, an out homosexual and an interrogator of faith and nationalism in a conservative country, Bhupen Khakhar was never going to please everyone. Through his deeply confessional work, we see a journey of self-acceptance almost heroic in proportion. Yet though this retrospective certainly gives the impression of an artist pushing boundaries, Khakhar is more than an angry protestor or a sarcastic commentator on daily life. More than anything, his paintings gesture to a man of great sensitivity and kindness.

One of the first major artists of a newly-independent India, Khakhar was positioned at a unique time in Indian art. He had access to Western history and culture, the result of a post-colonial education, yet was part of a generation seeking to decolonise its art, to build bridges between India’s rich artistic heritage and its present. He died in 2003, and thus his body of work presents a rare freeze-frame of India’s history – a country liberating itself from the shackles of colonialism, not yet subject to the cultural flattening of globalisation.
 


Death in the Family, 1977, Bhupen Khakhar. Oil paint on canvas. Victoria and Albert Museum. © Estate of Bhupen Khakhar
 

The exhibition is laid out to reveal his progression over time as an artist, the changes in his style and subjects. While some of these shifts are dramatic, many constants remain across his work – he always uses colour generously, unreal pinks, blues and greens popping from the canvas. His work is also busy with symbolism and nested narratives, often referencing the play with perspective used to tell complex stories in traditional Indian painting.

Khakhar is a consummate storyteller, and much of the first two rooms are devoted to his depictions of daily Indian life, his ‘trade paintings’. He portrays the lives of watch-makers, barbers and tailors with sympathy and humour, even a hilariously miserable British man drinking alone in a pub, his ‘flaccid’ leather gloves resting on his lap. As his artistic skills improve he is able to tackle more complex subjects, such as a diptych wedding scene and grand mythical spreads. Yet even in these more ambitious pieces, some aspect of Khakhar is always present in his work. Look closer at that wedding scene, and you’ll see the lucky couple to be married are both men. A casual glance at the portrait of a window cleaner shows him holding his hose in a manner which is more than a little suggestive.
 


You Can't Please All, 1981, Bhupen Khakhar. Oil paint on canvas. Tate. © Bhupen Khakhar
 

These homoerotic undertones move to overt depictions of homosexuality in his later work. The turning point is the titular piece, ‘You Can’t Please All’, a reference to an Aesop’s fable that shows Khakhar standing naked on his balcony, looking out at a street scene and finally exposing himself. Shortly after this painting was completed, Khakhar came out of the closet to his friends in the art world. After this point many of his paintings deal with love between men, but it’s not animal coupling – the way the mythical couple gaze at each other in ‘Yayati’, the toes brushing against each other in ‘Two Men in Banaras’ are evidence of a striking intimacy.

Given how deeply personal these paintings are, and how closely they follow the contours of Khakhar’s own life, it’s no surprise that the violence of his terminal illness is presented with the same vivid imagery. These disturbing final images show the effect of his cancer, his technicolour intestines exposed, the clear lines of his past work blurred in these last paintings into small, horribly muted images that remain deeply evocative.

All artists chronicle themselves in some way through their work, and Khakhar did it more explicitly than most. That he happened to live through a fascinating period of social change, reflected with talent and a lightness of touch, is ultimately incidental to the story of a man that this exhibition reveals.

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