Apocalyptic vision in Nepalese art
An academic working on the relationship of the arts and the dark atmosphere created by the pandemic questions: how do Nepalese painters respond to the atmosphere of serious human crisis? His other question is about the spirit of such restlessness in modern Nepalese paintings of the recent past and present. These questions struck me because I had not seriously thought about the direct relationship between the serious crisis and painting. It has become essential for all art lovers to look into this subject. The scholar’s inquisition generates another crucial question: why can’t painters immediately respond to the difficult situation? This short article tries to answer these questions in the context of the serious situation created by the pandemic. This requires a long discussion, which is not possible here.
Arts and literature are sensitive to serious events and changes, but since art and literature are aesthetic works, depicting moments of crisis and unpleasant circumstances does not necessarily present an instantly realistic picture of them. As the practice of art would require, it takes time for them to form ideas and create compositions about the crisis. The world of art and literature records artists’ creative responses to events. But it is only sometimes that events elicit an immediate reaction from artists.
An example that people often cite is the mural by Spanish-born painter Pablo Picasso who visited Guernica, his native space destroyed by German bombing, and spontaneously painted the apocalyptic picture of the city’s destruction. This mural became very popular in 1937 and 1939. The painting is one of the enduring images of a period of realistic action. Writers have also composed some literary impressions. But the process of depicting the horror or terror of war, pandemic or human misery takes time to take shape. Why this happens is a matter of debate and reflection.
Works of art with apocalyptic vision are not lacking in Nepal. But they are not necessarily propelled by a particular event at a specific time. It’s not easy to find the right way to explain it. Here are some examples of modern Nepalese paintings. The white stallions that senior painter Sashi Shah paints in almost most of his canvases are good examples. Its stallion imagery reminds us of the prominent white horse in Picasso’s Guernica work. Sashi Shah evokes the apocalyptic sense represented by the stallion’s wild speed and temper. But he prefers to call him the Kalki avatar of Bishnu from the Hindu pantheon, who takes this incarnation in what is imagined as our time to set the world in order.
This is an example of such paintings, especially of the abstract style which deals with the apocalypse or Pralaya theme. But they depict the mood of the times experienced by humanity as a whole. This topic can be approached by citing examples from modern Nepalese paintings. Writing long articles in different issues of the Journal Sirjana edited by artist Navindra Man Rajbhandari, I have chosen abstract Nepalese paintings which are so receptive to the mood of the time in both the depiction of distress and joy. I don’t want to dwell on that here. But what I want to discuss is the nature of artists’ response to the disruptive order that threatens our regular order of life as everywhere else.
Some young artists have depicted the state of horror. For this, they chose the motives of fear and threat. It’s the instant answer. But the imagination of the apocalypse exists in almost all significant works of art. The question we can ask ourselves is: can such works describe the situation of pandemics that we face today? This is an important question that art lovers and connoisseurs around the world are asking now. Artists have always felt a certain sense of apocalypse or crisis in human existence and the times in which they live. The famous method is to evoke such works of art to portray the situation at the time. I want to refer to the imaginary of the crisis and the difficult times that some Nepalese painters have depicted long before the start of the current pandemic.
Manujbabu Mishra’s paintings openly depict such moments. I wrote earlier (Sirjana, 5:2018) that Manujbabu represents “distorted images such as the elongation of human forms”. But he is attracted by the cubist style of Pablo Picasso. “By using blue and green he creates the intense effect of human misery. Such paintings seem almost monochromatic when he uses one color primarily.” Another pioneering painter, Lain Bangdel, depicts human misery, particularly in his early paintings which reveal the influence of Picasso’s Blue Period paintings.
But Bangdel’s abstract expressionist paintings and portraits are filled with warmth and love for humans and sentient beings. Uttam Nepali’s push has always been anthropomorphic; human beings appear with all their potentialities and their love. As a portraitist, he does not distort the figurality of the famous portraits of the British painter Francis Bacon. (Kathmandu post office, August 1, 2021).
Other senior artists are SKIB (Sashi Saha, Krishna Manandhar, Indra Pradhan and Batsagopal Vaidya). The general mood of these painters is humanity and its various inclinations – from the mythological nature to the realistic nature. I wrote about them in the same newspaper (Sirjana, 6:2019). Kiran Manandhar’s paintings do not project horrible semi-abstract images, his style. Ragini Upadhyay’s intaglio works seem somewhat apocalypse savvy. They play with the frightening side of characters from legends and the artist’s imagination.
Sashikala Tiwari’s paintings with their figurative treatments and pigments portray certain modes of apocalypse. Asmina Ranjit’s paintings directly address the problematic human situation through lines and performative figurality. Based on my various articles and pamphlet texts have been written about their works, I can say that an apocalyptic vision is represented in them, except in the work of Manjubabu Mishra, with a great humanistic idea of hope. Among younger painters I remember some works by Suman Chitrakar, Bidhata KC, Sushma Shakaya, Asha Dongol and others, I found no direct use of apocalyptic vision. The general genius of modernist and modern Nepalese paintings is one of calm, hope and aesthetic joy rather than a mood of Pralaya or apocalypse. But it remains to be seen how artists express the current crisis caused by pandemics and disorder from here and elsewhere.