If it doesn’t perplex you, it isn’t modern art: Raina Bhattacharya


Modern art confuses as well as fascinates. There is something awe-inspiring that one experiences while staring at the works of Picasso or Salvador Dali, yet very few understand it. No academic or painter has yet come up with a satisfactory definition of modern art. There are genres, yes, but the nomenclature has been a feeble attempt to articulate the complexity of this form of art. I have had the good fortune of being able to gaze at the works of Picasso, and the most striking of them, for me, was ‘The Weeping Woman’.

It was a representative painting of a woman whose child had died in the Spanish Civil War. Racked by grief, she weeps and Picasso captures her expression, albeit in his usual style of overlapping contours, outlandish colours and abstract images. For those who wish to understand art, modern art can bewilder, shock and even induce disgust. But there are a few things that need to be kept in mind while art is concerned, and it is these very things that modern art challenges.

Before the advent of modern art, art was always used to create objects of aesthetics. Beautiful paintings, chiselled sculptures all bore the mark of skill to represent objects as they were, or even to amplify the beauty that was contained in them. Beauty was worshipped in art, and it is the depiction of this beauty that decided an artist’s value. And then came Marcel Duchamp, who rocked the world of art by saying that art need not be aesthetically pleasing! In fact, he sent a urinal to an exhibition signed as a pseudonym R. Mutt, to be considered as an exhibit. The organisers of the event were so flabbergasted they did not know what to do with it – and finally tucked it away in a corner. It was years later that people came to terms with this shocking artefact. The first adage of modern art was created – art and aesthetics need not go hand in hand always.

Another aspect of art was the realism of it – the skill to depict things as they are. Artists would toil hard on a piece of art for years, making sure that every bit is perfect, getting the details right and depicting a picture as close to the object as possible. The National Gallery at London is full of artworks that bear testimony to this style of art – for centuries artists have laboured to depict scenes such as farm life, animals, aristocracy, nature, with precision. Even for scenes that are completely conjured up from imagination, such as scenes from the Bible or Greek mythology, the effort still remained to depict them in this manner. Even angels and other mythical creatures were zealously portrayed with the exactness of mathematics, as described in the scriptures.

But with the advent of photography, that need disappeared. The camera could capture an object with many times more precision than a product of human eye-hand coordination. So, the artists were left to ponder over the purpose of art.

Avant- garde artists like Salvador Dali realised that art is now on the verge of a new revolution, where art could be manipulated to the artist’s taste. It can be used to shock, to draw the attention of people of aspects hitherto uncovered by the realism of art, the subtle elements that make up life. Feminism, rebellion, nihilism, science – all found their way to art. It needed a new group of artists to explore and work upon this new revolution, and in came the modern artists.

And then of course arrived the master himself, Pablo Picasso with his new form called Cubism (though the creation of this form is also credited to French artist Georges Braque). Hannah Gadsby in her latest and last comedy show, Nanette, explained Cubism in her own words as introducing a new form of perspective (from not just the front, but the back, the top, the bottom, the behind, the sides) and freeing us from the compulsion of creating a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional surface. (However, I have to mention here that Gadsby criticised the artist heavily for his misogyny and abusive behaviour towards his ‘muses’, something she expressed while talking about perspectives by saying, “But tell me, how many of those perspectives was a woman’s?”)

With the overlap of different and contrasting vantage points, the result was the breakdown of an image into geometric forms, and a form of expression that had gotten free from the confines of the 3-dimensional world. Look at it from all sides, from all angles, think of the distorted two-dimensional shadows of a 3-dimensional object, and understand that the hidden perspective is represented here instead of concealing it in the cage of our vision.  

Next time when you look at a piece of modern art, don’t think in terms of the usual definitions of art – think in terms of the exact opposite. This form of art is meant to perplex you, and get you thinking. It is meant to show the impalpable, the ones that cannot be felt without deep thinking. Because if it doesn’t perplex you, it isn’t modern art.

A lover of literature, music, babies and anything that captures her imagination, Raina loves to write about topics that challenges her notions and brings out hitherto unexplored bits. Currently a development professional, she loves interesting conversations and experiences that leave a mark in her heart and mind.

Teresa Rehman

Teresa Rehman

Teresa Rehman is an award-winning journalist based in Northeast India. She had worked with India Today magazine, The Telegraph and Tehelka. She is now the Managing Editor of The Thumb Print. She has been awarded the WASH Media Awards 2009-2010. She had recieved the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for two consecutive years (2008-09 and 2009-10) for the category 'Reporting on J&K and the Northeast (Print). She received the Laadli Media Award for Gender Sensitivity 2011, Sanskriti Award 2009 for Excellence in Journalism and the Seventh Sarojini Naidu Prize 2007 for Best Reporting on Panchayati Raj by The Hunger Project. She was also featured in the Power List of Femina magazine in 2012. Her two book are 'The Mothers of Manipur' (Zubaan Books) and Bulletproof (Penguin).