Coming out of the Krishen Khanna retrospective organised by Saffronart, my companion, a person familiar with the art world, remarked, "This guy didn't develop much in his career, did he?" I replied Khanna's art had developed a fair amount, but the exhibition didn't demonstrate that fact. Saffronart has gathered an excellent collection of the artist's paintings spanning a six decade career, and then hung them randomly on the walls of Delhi's Lalit Kala Akademi. Laypeople would need to memorise labels and compare canvases in their mind in order to unscramble the selection and create some sort of order from it.
For me, the show confirmed my placement of Krishen Khanna as a bridge between the generation of the 1950s and that of the 1970s. Khanna was born in 1925 in what is now Pakistan, and studied in England before settling in independent India. He was employed by Grindlays Bank, and grew friendly with artists like Husain, Padamsee and Tyeb Mehta. His own painting, largely self-taught, was immature through the fifties and sixties. Saffronart's retrospective has a few examples of these early works, which resemble student studies, like this painting from 1956:
And this Family Portrait from 1967, when the artist was 42.
He really found his voice in the early 1970s, with portraits of working class citizens of Delhi. The images capture some of the feeling of hopelessness of the era.
Artists in the 1950s had concentrated on the human figure, but painted it without associations of class and location. This changed in the 1970s, with artists like Bhupen Khakhar, Arpita Singh, Anjolie Ela Menon, Nalini Malani, Jogen Chowdhury, Gieve Patel, Sudhir Patwardhan and others beginning to see identity in social rather than universal terms. That's why Krishen Khanna seems a better fit with these younger artists than with those of his own generation.
In the 1980s, he began painting brighter canvases, using more impasto and picturing jolly bandwallas instead of squatting cardplayers.
In the work created at the end of the decade and the beginning of the 1990s, the figure sometimes almost vanishes in a razzle dazzle of red yellow and green.
Over the past decade, the quality of Khanna's work has dipped significantly. Awkwardly foreshortened figures and crudely expressionist emotions dominate, and his brushwork has lost its energy, its vitality.
All these images are copied from the Saffronart website and are part of the show, which closes on the 5th of this month. Looking at the catalogue makes me regret once again that the show was not hung largely in sequence. Sometimes it's best to adopt the simplest solution.