Good Taste Can Be Very Killing
Bhupen Khakhar at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle

In India, Bhupen Khakhar is one of the most influential protagonists of contemporary art. In the West, however, his paintings are scarcely known. That will change. After the premiere at Tate Modern, Khakhar’s magnificent exhibition “You Can’t Please All” is now on view at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle.
“When I feel I’m telling the truth, then there is no restraint,” said  Bhupen Khakhar in his last interview. In keeping with this maxim, the Indian artist, who died in 2003, created a fascinating oeuvre – paintings and watercolors whose colors seem to glow. The sacred and the profane stand side by side; spirituality and everyday life interpenetrate. Kahkhar’s life is the point of departure for his art. He is the first painter to devote himself to middle-class Indian life. With radical openness, he visually explores his homosexuality as well as his cancer.

You Can’t Please All is the title of the Khakhar show that is currently on view at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. The retrospective, curated by Chris Dercon and Nada Raza, is part of the collaboration between the KunstHalle and Tate Modern. In this framework, important artistic positions from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East are being presented in Berlin for the first time. The first joint effort was the presentation of Meschac Gaba’s Museum of Contemporary African Art in 2014.

You Can’t Please All is also the title of one of Khakhar’s most important paintings, which marks the beginning of the exhibition. It shows a naked man on his veranda observing everyday life in an Indian city. The artist also set different episodes of an Aesop fable in urban surroundings. It tells the story of a father, his son, and a donkey. The father always does exactly what different passers-by tell him to do. At the end of the fable, the donkey dies. The moral is: those who try to please everyone are bound to fail. The man could be Khakhar himself – someone who observes life yet presents himself to the viewer as being naked and unprotected.

The painting was executed in 1981, shortly after the artist’s coming out. Khakar presumably waited to reveal his homosexuality until after his conservative mother’s death. The work is very typical of his style of these years, which is fueled by various sources. The influences of Pop Art and David Hockney are unmistakable. But he was also inspired by fourteenth-century Sienese painting, in terms of the depiction of landscape and above all the simultaneous narration. The bright colors, however, reflect everyday Indian culture. Khakhar avidly collected toys, kitsch figures, and mass-produced idols. Things that were frowned upon in the houses of the upper class adorned the walls of his home and atelier. “Good taste can be very killing,” Khakhar once said.

Human existence is at the center of Khakhar’s work. “I feel my paintings are incomplete without figures.” Thus he very consciously decided against abstraction, the painting style propagated by international modernism. Nor did he consider traditional academic realism suitable for bringing his “truth” onto the canvas. Instead, he developed his very own, distinctive form of narrative figurative painting, which touches the viewer very directly. With success. The autodidact from the provincial town of Baroda (today Vadodara), who worked part time as an accountant for many years because he couldn’t make a living from his art, was the first Indian artist to be invited to the documenta, together with Anish Kapoor, in 1992.

Baroda may be a provincial town, but at the Faculty of Fine Arts, where Khakhar received a master’s degree in art criticism, everything from Indian miniature painting to Cézanne to current tendencies in international art was discussed. At the beginning of his artistic career, he was particularly taken by the “naïve” paintings of Henri Rousseau. “Because of my awkwardness, I could relate to him.” Khakhar belonged to a vital circle of artists and authors who looked for new, contemporary forms of expression. He had particularly close contact to the British art scene. Jim Donovan, a now forgotten artist who lived with Khakhar for a few months as an exchange student, introduced him to the Pop Art of David Hockney and R. B. Kitaj. Later he met the painter Howard Hodgkin, who would invite him in 1982 to the pioneering show Six Indian Painters at the Tate.

The first part of the exhibition at the KunstHalle is devoted to Khakhar’s so-called “trade paintings,” empathetic pictures of hairdressers, watchmakers, and window cleaners. He surrounded the portrait of a man with a bouquet of plastic flowers in his hand with a number of little scenes from daily life – a formal device that Khakhar borrowed from temple painting in Rajasthan and altar paintings from Siena. But whereas in the former such episodes depict the lives of gods or saints, here we see an anonymous man reading the newspaper or taking a nap in an armchair. The demonic Hathayogi (1978), on the other hand, a naked, holy man who glares at the viewer, attests to the presence of mysticism.

When the artist got cataracts in the early 1990s, his painting technique changed. The application of paint was lighter, the contours blurred, the motifs became more fantastic. In  Son is the Father of Man, a man is holding an aged dwarf in his arms – the strange travesty of a Madonna with child. In the 1990s, Khakhar created of his stunningly beautiful watercolors.  Landscaping on Head (1996) from the Deutsche Bank Collection looks like a self-portrait: a whole universe of overlapping pictures of people, plants, and animals streams out of the artist’s head. In this universe, we encounter the divine Krishna intimately embracing the ape warrior Hanuman, and even a pregnant man in whose stomach two embryos nestle against one another.

The exhibition ends with works in which Khakhar addresses two taboo issues – his homosexuality and his prostate cancer. The depictions of his suffering are unsparing, but also full of black humor. The pictures he made after his coming out meld eroticism, spirituality, and human intimacy. He is not celebrating male beauty, but exploring “warmth, pity, vulnerability, touch” as he put it. Two Men in Banaras (1982) provides a counterpoint to You Can’t Please All. Instead of a random Indian city, we find ourselves in holy Banaras, which has been a place of pilgrimage for devout Hindus for 2,500 years. A visibly excited couple replaces the single man. The two naked men hug each other affectionately. Their feet are surrounded by a kind of white-and-blue shimmering aura, as though the energy of this encounter is actually releasing electrical energy. Here Khakhar painted his own reality, his own “truth”. A truth that must have shocked India at that time. There was a good reason that the title of his first catalogue is Truth is Beauty and Beauty is God.
Achim Drucks

Bhupen Khakhar: You Can’t Please All
11/18/2016 to 3/5/2017
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Berlin