dated and signed ''71 / J. Swaminathan' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
49 1/2 x 49 1/4 in. (125.7 x 125.1 cm.)
Painted in 1971
Sotheby's London, 8 October 1996, lot 75
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Indische Kunst heute, exhibition catalogue, Darmstadt, 1982 (unpaginated, listed)
B. Khanna and A. Kurtha, Art of Modern India, London, 1998, p. 88 (illustrated)
Darmstadt, Kunsthalle Darmstadt, Indische Kunst heute, 11 July - 15 August, 1982


Nishad Avari
Nishad Avari Specialist, Head of Department


“The bird is there ‘constantly and faithfully’ as a messenger and a message; as one’s redemption. And it sings hymns of awareness, coaxingly and persuasively, as a perforation in space releasing the all-enveloping presence. But the bird is not bird: It is also snake, tree and leaf, linking up and holding together spaces and pointing to more. And the mountain is also cloud, human torso and curtain, mischievously inviting to be parted to reveal the vistas beyond” (S. Navlakha, Fleeting Images, New Delhi, 1979, p. 4).

Jagdish Swaminathan was one of the founders of Group 1890, an artists’ collective which was established in 1962. As part of its manifesto, the Group rejected ideals of Western Modernism and the “vulgar naturalism and pastoral idealism of the Bengal School,” instead aspiring to “see phenomena in its virginal state” and reveal it to the viewer in the same way (Y. Kumar, ed., Indian Contemporary Art Post Independence, New Delhi, 1997, p. 298). While Group 1890 held only one joint exhibition, Swaminathan held this guiding principle close, applying it in his creative practice over the course of several decades.

Instead of revealing this ‘virginal state’ using realism, Swaminathan combined the natural, conceptual and figurative in order to create a space of freedom for his viewers to discover it and understand what it means for themselves. On his canvases, symbolic forms and colors came together to bring down barriers between the real and imagined, and communicate the purest state of nature that lay beyond the everyday illusions of the world.

The present lot, a large painting from 1971, gives the impression of an image within an image, echoing the traditions of Pahari and Basholi miniature painting. The focus of the viewer is first directed to the mountain-like forms at the center of the painted surface. Above them floats a boulder and the archetypal figure of a peacock-like bird. These elements are enclosed within a painted frame, which is further contained in an egg or womb-like receptacle, emphasizing perhaps the layers of artifice and illusion that have to be transcended to reach what the artist described as the ‘numenous image’, a term he borrowed from Philip Rawson to describe the ‘para-natural’ or magical and mysterious essence of things that is ever-present yet unavailable to the senses.

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