Madrid

Bhupen Khakhar

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

Indian artist and writer Bhupen Khakhar’s career began in the ’60s, but some of his works might seem to be from an earlier time. An oil on canvas titled Royal Circus, 1974, looks like something Henri Rousseau, that classic “primitivist” of Western art, could have painted nearly a century ago. In Khakhar’s painting, a man accompanied by an odd-looking animal of enormous proportions plays a strap-on keyboard. He appears to sing as the beast stares at us with its tongue hanging out of its mouth. Neither funny nor sad, the two companions stand in the middle of a round arena; no audience is seen. The painting’s faux-naive and populist quality allows Khakhar to position himself as a deliberate outsider to modern tradition, treating it as an airy fantasy.

A turning point in Khakhar’s career came in 1981, when the seemingly unsophisticated stylization of Royal Circus was replaced by a visually more complex syntax, referencing a gamut of visual sources from Persian miniatures to Brueghel and modern Indian posters—while challenging established tastes in Indian art. (Khakhar’s work belongs to the so-called Baroda School, a group of figurative painters living in Baroda, Gujarat, whose art endows genre scenes with Pop aesthetics.) Khakhar’s paintings acquired a gentle “Eastern” flavor, applied through color and form, but also through a specifically Indian—or so we believe—blend of sexuality and spirituality. In You can’t please all, 1981, a naked man stands on a balcony, contemplating a city vista. Life below is busy with daily activities, from fixing a car to strolling around the town to digging a grave for a donkey. The near-total absence of women in the scene suggests a man’s world in which men are interested solely in other men. The underlying narrative refers, in fact, to a folktale about two men, a father and a son, who get swindled while trying to sell a donkey—to which Khakhar has added an erotic component: The animal carrying the two men (before it dies) has an erection. As the exhibition curator Enrique Juncosa observed looking at this painting, “It is not difficult to see in it the story of someone who buries a burden when revealing [his] sexuality.”

Starting from the early ’80s, Khakhar’s paintings explore gay life, emphasizing a tendency toward sexual promiscuity while juxtaposing it with local Indian context. They often depict a sort of ritual of cross-dressing and an anxious search for all-male domesticity. In Seva, 1986, a pair of older men sitting on a gardenlike carpet prolong their intimacy in the semidarkness of the foreground. In Next Morning, 1999, two naked men seem to wonder how to move their relationship beyond casual sex—facing the morning after. Without ceasing to be fantasies verging on delirium, Khakhar’s works are highly introspective and seemingly autobiographical, exposing the complexities of lust, love, and aging. But to look at these paintings and focus on their explicit sexual content or analyze their take on gender identity and minority discourse is to see only half the picture. What strikes one in the works from the ’80s on is that Khakhar grew as a painter only after he had come out of the closet. The selfprotective veil of faux naïveté was no longer necessary for him to paint freely and to enjoy the painterly qualities of oils or the translucent delicacy of watercolors. The influence of Francis Bacon seems to lurk behind the Indian artist’s latest portraits, in which faces ooze with blood and entrails. Made after Khakhar was diagnosed with cancer, these works reflect on mortality but also suggest that sexual phantasmagorias mirror the tragic and often violent facts of life.

Marek Bartelik