BHUPEN KHAKHAR (1934-2004)
BHUPEN KHAKHAR (1934-2004)
BHUPEN KHAKHAR (1934-2004)
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BHUPEN KHAKHAR (1934-2004)

Untitled (Tree in a Walled Garden)

BHUPEN KHAKHAR (1934-2004)
Untitled (Tree in a Walled Garden)
inscribed 'BHUPEN / KHAKHAR' (on the reverse)
oil and gold paint on board
36 x 36 in. (91.4 x 91.4 cm.)
Painted circa 1967
Acquired in Delhi, 1968, by Catherine and John Freeman, during Mr Freeman's posting as the British High Commissioner to India, 1965-68
Thence by descent


Nishad Avari
Nishad Avari Specialist, Head of Department


Bhupen Khakhar, a chartered accountant by trade, moved from Bombay to Baroda in 1962 in search of the community and environment he craved to encourage and sustain his creative process. The artist's early years in Baroda proved critical in the development of his oeuvre, allowing him the freedom, for the first time, to experiment and express himself and become the world renowned artist he is recognized as today.

By the time Khakhar arrived, Baroda was renowned for its dedication to the arts and modernism. Besides the University, the city was home to the Baroda Group, a pioneering collective formed in 1956 by select artists from the Faculty of Fine Arts including N.S. Bendre, K.G. Subramanyan, G.R Santosh and Jyoti Bhatt. Although the group disbanded the year of Khakhar’s arrival, Baroda had become a melting pot and center for artistic exchange out of which emerged a new generation of the Indian Avant-Garde.

The first works Khakhar produced during this exciting period of experimentation were mixed media collages. In these works, his bold, kitschy Pop aesthetic and bright palette referenced traditional miniature paintings and images from India's bazaars, creating pastiche depictions of religious iconography in a street-culture style. These almost sculptural pieces bear very little resemblance to his now more recognizable works of the late 1960s and early 1970s, so much so that one could be forgiven for finding it hard to imagine how such an evolution occurred. It is actually the subsequent, all too brief stage in Khakhar’s artistic development that captures the seismic shift that would set the artist upon a new trajectory. Untitled (Tree in a Walled Garden), painted circa 1967, embodies this momentous shift and is an exciting new discovery in the quest to understand the evolution of Khakhar’s now iconic visual idiom. Geeta Kapur, one of the first critics to discuss this moment in the artist's career, noted, "In 1967, after two years of slapdash flamboyance, Bhupen started painting his pictures with all the meticulousness he was capable of. The inspiration for these paintings came from the maps designed for pilgrims going to holy cities” (G. Kapur, Contemporary Indian Artists, New Delhi, 1978, p. 160).

1967 was the year that Khakhar moved in with his friend and fellow artist Gulammohammed Sheikh, who had just returned to Baroda from a brief stay in England. Along with the artists Nagji Patel and Krishna Chhatpar, they moved in to one of the outhouses of Shivmahal Palace, owned by a branch of the Baroda royal family whose accounts Khakhar looked after. Sheikh was at this time greatly interested in Rajasthani miniature painting and brought Khakhar and Chhatpar with him on a trip to Bundi-Kota via Udaipur and Nathdwara to see these works and other forms of Indian folk art in person. This trip had a very significant impact on both artists. Sheikh recounted that they "devoured the visual feast of frescoes and miniatures there" (Artist statement, G. Kapur, Ibid., 1978, p.164). Another trip to Chandigarh followed soon after, where Sheikh and Khakhar saw Le Corbusier's work as well as Chandigarh Museum's large collection of miniature paintings. Upon their return to Baroda, Khakhar’s works shed all the clutter and sculptural elements of his Pop collages, in favor of stunning and exquisitely executed flat surfaces that were neo-miniaturist in style. However, Khakhar drew inspiration for these paintings not from the ‘high art’ of Court Painting but the living art of India's traditional craftsmen. In a sense, therefore, this shift was in keeping with the local vernacular and street aesthetic he used in his earlier Pop works, and also in his later series of portraits of tradesmen. The desire to elevate the mundane, the disenfranchised and the everyday would remain a cornerstone of Khakhar’s work throughout his illustrious career.

Untitled (Tree in a Walled Garden) is an exemplar of this small series of works executed in 1967-68. Khakhar combines visual cues from classical landscapes, architectural drawings and temple maps made for pilgrims to create multifaceted elegant paintings that combine multiple viewpoints and perspectives within a single flattened, exquisitely executed frame. In the present lot, Khakhar uses the motif of the fortress-palace rendered in gold to frame a rich blue sky above a lush green grove out of which springs a single tree in full bloom, anchoring the entire composition. His palette of blue, red, green and gold borrows from Rajput miniature paintings and classical Indian art. However, Khakhar’s use of multiple perspectives and non-naturalistic scale creates an image that is completely contemporary. The artist's trademark humor and inclination for pastiche is also evident in the slight visual imperfections he employs in presenting the arches slightly off kilter, juxtaposing the ideal and the real with great virtuosity.

Kapur discusses the technical brilliance of Khakhar’s neo-miniature work, writing that, “In the act of displacement he can wedge the facts, figures and metaphors, and introduce insets and outlets to accommodate, simultaneously and in a closely constructed composition, reality and fantasy of the most far-fetched kind. It also allows him brilliant decorative possibilities; but the decorative details do not obtrude upon the central motif of the picture precisely because the spatial handling of the picture space is suitably schematized for the purpose of accommodating a variety of elements, giving each element a place of its own, often literally by enclosing it in a palace pavilion or a grove of trees” (G. Kapur, Ibid., p. 162). This mastery of space and detail may also be related to Khakhar's reverence at the time for the work of Henri Rousseau, the French tax collector whose post-impressionist paintings Khakhar found accessible and relatable.

Khakhar’s use of multiple perspectives would become a signature device in the unique narrative style of his figurative works. Even though the present example intentionally excludes the human figure, it manages to imbue a sense of narrative and playfulness in the picture, providing a blueprint to Khakhar's artistic evolution over the coming years. Smooth pools of color in decluttered spaces and the use of architecture and vegetation as framing devices allow for a narrative to infold at the center of the painting. This is the only example from this series of works by the artist to come to market, and shows Khakhar’s schema for delineating pictorial space and the beginnings of what would become his distinctive voice. However, it also represents a unique moment in the artist's trajectory: not merely a formative step, but a stunning example of how a painter with no formal training was able to create an exquisite, jewel-like picture that maintains the sardonic playfulness so central to his oeuvre.

Untitled (Tree in a Walled Garden) was acquired in Delhi in 1968 by the late Catherine and John Freeman during Mr. Freeman's posting as the British High Commissioner to India. John Freeman was a well-known figure in the United Kingdom, not only as a politician and diplomat, but also as a television broadcaster who presented Face to Face and Panorama. Freeman’s then wife Catherine also worked as a producer in broadcasting for the BBC, where they met. Seen as a rising star in politics, Mr. Freeman was posted to India as High Commissioner by Prime Minister Harold Wilson, and John and Catherine set sail for Delhi in 1965. Catherine ensured the couple became renowned as fantastic hosts. Their distinguished guests included a variety of celebrated figures such as Marlon Brando and Lord Mountbatten, prompting Baron Bradwell, the former British journalist and Member of Parliament to fondly refer to their residence as ‘Camelot in Delhi’. During their time in Delhi the Freemans became active patrons of the arts, visiting exhibitions and galleries and acquiring several paintings, from classical to contemporary. The jewel in the collection was this exceptional picture by Bhupen Khakhar. Following the conclusion of a highly successful posting in India, Mr Freeman was appointed British Ambassador to the United States. Mr and Mrs Freeman brought Untitled (Tree in a Walled Garden) with them to Washington, where it was displayed at the British Embassy. The painting then travelled back to the United Kingdom, where it remained in pride of place in Catherine Freeman’s private collection until her recent death.

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