Giorgio Vasari was an Italian painter, writer and historian of Renaissance and is most famous for his treatise ‘Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.’ Often called ‘the first art historian’, Vasari compiled artistic biographies, immortalising works and lives of artists of his era. By this argument, cultural theorist, art critic, curator and poet, Ranjit Hoskote has become the ‘Vasari’ of contemporary times. Through his writings and meditations, which range between poems, essays, monographs and biographies, he has chronicled the works and lives of many artists. His latest curatorial work on the twentieth century Goan artist Antonio Piedade da Cruz is on display at Sunaparanta, The Goa Centre for Arts.
In retrospect, Hoskote writes that during his student days’ in the 1980s, he had often sighted Cruzo’s studio marked with red metal letters on the first floor of Stadium House on Bombay’s Churchgate Street. After Cruzo passed away, the studio had fallen into obscurity with time given India’s negligence towards its art and heritage. Sixteen paintings, which are now on display in their magnificence, had been relegated to oblivion, shut in the abandoned dark studio in Bombay’s humid weather conditions. Dataraj Salgoankar chanced upon them in the old studio and realised the treasure he had found. He commissioned restorer Kayan Marshall Pandole to resurrect the paintings and called upon Hoskote to research and curate the exhibition. Thus began the ‘Quest for Cruzo’.
During the opening of the exhibition at Sunaparanta this month, Hoskote dwelled upon the importance of Cruzo’s art in the history of Indian art history. Cruzo spanned a tumultuous and eventful era in Indian and European cultural milieu in the twentieth century. Born in Velim, Goa, Cruzo studied at the J J School of Art, Mumbai and further went to Germany to study painting at the Academy of Arts in Berlin – the Akademie der Künste. His influences included Dhurandhar, a renowned faculty at J J, known for his mythological and historical subjects. In Germany, he was under the tutelage of history painter, Arthur von Kampf; nationalist artist, Ferdinand Spiegel and church painter and poster artist, Paul Plontke. Dusseldorf School of painting, dramatic poster art and Christian art against the backdrop of First World War and build-up of nationalistic fascist regimes must have left an imprint on his persona. His loud claim to be identified as an Indian colonial subject rather than a Portuguese national (Portugal had granted citizenship to Goans) during his exhibition at Lisbon speaks of his rootedness and belongingness to his native soil.
Hoskote has streamlined the curatorial construct of Cruzo’s works into three sanctums. At the beginning is the ‘Sanctum of the Self’. In this curatorial walk at the exhibition, he defined portraitist art of a painter as a search for self. In the journey of self-exploration, an artist finds himself in his portrayal of the other. In his times, Cruzo was in great demand for portraits by the Indian elite, expatriates and British administrators. Life-like paintings of his clientele boast of Cruzo’s patronage and popularity within prestigious circles of colonised India. Amidst these, his two self-portraits acquire a significance of their own. With a brush and palette in hand, he is flanked by a nurse on one side and a lively skeleton with a violin on the other. About this piece, Hoskote writes in his catalogue essay, “Da Cruz tunes the convergence of art, intellect and medicine to a hallucinatory intensity. The rival claimants exerting their hold on the artist suspend us in a paradox. Is the nurse Life or Love or inspiration or Stasis? Is the skeleton Death, or Art? Does sanity ossify, or is art fatal? ” He says that the painting mystifies and does not leave us a simple Manichean choice between clear opposites (black or white/good or evil)
The other two sanctums, of the Mahatma and of Christ, though presented in linearity for easy comprehension at the exhibition, are a reflection of Cruzo’s internal strife. He may have revelled profitably in his portraitist art but his core resonated to the beat of a different drummer. Torn apart by the misery and anguish of India’s anti-colonial struggle, the Bengal famine, the Partition, the exigencies of poverty and hierarchy of caste system, his artwork conveys his complex inner miasma of despair. There is no denying the anguish and agony largely writ through the expressionist lingo of his art form.
The unquestionably arresting and dystopic tableaux ‘You Crucified Me Again’ and ‘Mother India’ intertwine realism with allegory. In the former, the crucifixion is projected on a backdrop of modern warfare (painted during the Vietnam War and the continuing Cold War) portraying bombed multi-storeyed buildings, marching soldiers and battle tanks. The atmosphere is painted with rough dark brush-strokes complementing the subject, incorporating the Danube School of painting, says Hoskote. Mother India, evoking the striking poster art of Paul Plonke, is a dramatic, defiant figure open to any challenge, for she has seen the ultimate – fratricidal war in which a Hindu brother has fatally crossed with his Muslim kin.
These allegorical works through symbolism and allusions also direct the viewer’s attention to the recurring motif of a redeemer in his paintings – Christ, Buddha or the Mahatma. Whereas Buddha is merely alluded to through pictorial tropes, the life-like figures of Gandhi and Christ surrounded by people merge to invoke the liberation theology of the oppressed – God is after all on their side. Hoskote also alludes to the Mexican votive in these works, which represent a narrative of a personal story of miracle or favour received rather than static images of saints. Hoskote opines that the Christ iconography of Cruzo can be contemplated in tandem with the Indianised Christian art studies of Angelo da Fonseca and the biblical art of FN Souza.
The ‘Quest for Cruzo’ has just begun, and will keep gathering substratum with Hoskote’s ceaseless strivings on the path to fortify a cultural legacy of our times. Maya Angelo believed in leaving gaps and holes in her prose, such that a reader could enter and actively engage with it, and in the process of participation complete it. Vocalising a similar thought, Hoskote says that Cruzo’s creative art too can be interpreted in myriad ways. Finally it’s the engagement which matters!