Published in the 2016 Summer Quarter of the Asian Art Newspaper. Digital version available here.
In January 2016, University of Florida’s resident museum – The Samuel P Harn Museum of Art – completed the restoration of seven paintings by the prolific Indian artist Jamini Roy. A US$50,000 grant award from the E Rhodes and Leona B Carpenter Foundation financed the project. The Harn Museum of Art, founded in 1990, has been committed to preserving and exhibiting diverse categories of art, with special focus on Asian art. This institution has had a long association with Roy’s works. In fact, their collection of 45 works by Roy, including paintings, drawings, ceramics, and sculptures, constitutes one of the largest and most varied public collections of the artist outside of India.
Jamini Roy, widely regarded as one of India’s most influential 20th-century painters, ushered modernism into the country. Under the tutelage of the noted Indian artist, Abanindranath Tagore, who taught at the Government College of Art in Calcutta, Roy initially embodied the tenets of European academic style.
At this time, there was a desperate need to create a new identity for Indian artists, which was uniquely independent and stemmed from a traditional aesthetic system. Realising this, Roy abandoned the predominant Bengal School and Western tradition of Art, in favour of a new aesthetic that took inspiration from folk and tribal art predominant in his native Bengal. His paint application was flat, depicting subjects in a level two-dimensional form. The palette he adopted was of an earthy tone, with umber, burnt sienna and ochre dominating his canvases.
Identification with the visual aesthetic of rural Bengal helped to ground identity, binding rural India to its more urban counterpart and thus providing a cohesive aesthetic tradition of the country. Roy was particularly fascinated by the Kalighat School of painting, which originated in 19th-century Bengal. This style of painting, characterised by its grand sweeping brushstrokes, would go on to provide fodder to his artistic vision.
Roy embraced locally found materials, preferring to paint on woven mats, lime-coated wood and cloth. Furthermore, he painted what he saw around him. The Santhals, a tribal community who lived in the Bengal, occupied the artist’s childhood memories and became deeply etched into his imagination. They provided the source of artistic inspiration for the artist, thus becoming an important subject matter. Roy depicted them as the objective observer, yet his rendering was reductivist, with a strong affinity for strong lines and clean forms.
Roy also harboured a deep penchant for depicting animals. His depictions showed animal figures in profile, confrontational, staring straight at the viewer. His figures were isolated, devoid of an environment and background. His concern seemed to be on the purity of the form itself, rather than given the figure a context, thus converting the animal into a motif within his work. The image of the traditional Bankura horse, a terracotta figurine, popularly created in the Panchmura village, would often manifest itself in his paintings. By appropriating the native folk painting tradition, Roy did not forget to add his own unique aesthetic; the striking brushwork of the Kalighat style would be fused with elements predominant in Bengali tribal art, combined with a visual simplicity imparted by the artist.
In a way, Roy became the first Indian artist to shepherd a uniquely Indian modernism into the country. He connected this modernism to the rural arts and thus enabled it to fit within the urban context. His art was the precursor in pre-independence India that reinterpreted folk art and facilitated it to be brought to the wider art-aware urban public. His harmonised visual identification, focus on subject centrality and repetitive use of motifs, enabled him to become an artist who created a new visual language within Indian art.
Jamini Roy’s works are especially rare to find outside of India. Roy is regarded as one of the nine artists whose works have been categorised as National Art Treasures by the Government of India. The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, passed in 1972, aims to protect and preserve works produced by these artists. As a result, works by the navratnas (nine jewels) artists can no longer be exported out of the country. Works that were exported prior to the passing of the Act are not subject to the export restriction. Due to the enactment of this law, very few works created by Roy remain outside India.
Most of the works from the Harn Museum collection were donated to the University of Florida by Thomas and Laurina Needham from Jacksonville, Florida. While posted in Calcutta in 1953, the couple met the artist, while Thomas worked as the head of the office of the United States Information Agency. The Needhams struck up a close bond with the artist that was strengthened over many years. Enamoured by his creations, the couple ardently collected his paintings, drawings and terracotta ceramics. The fascination for the East also lead them to collect a wide assortment of art and artefacts of Bengal folk and rural art.
Recounting the close friendship with Roy in the 1950s, Thomas Needham wrote: ‘The memory of Jamini in his studio during that period has a haunting quality. A man in his late sixties, and not in very robust health, he worked prodigiously, tirelessly experimenting with different techniques to find more meaningful ways of presenting themes that had long obsessed him. Both my wife and I were grateful for the privilege of being able to observe, and to become friends with, a fine artist at the height of his creativity.’
The art historian Roy C Craven Jr, who would go on later to become the first Director of the University Gallery, first came to India in 1943, while working as a photographer for the American Army Air Corps. So the love and fascination for the Indian sub-continent connected both Craven and the Needhams.
The Needham Collection was donated to the museum under the directorship of Craven. After curating an exhibition entitled Jamini Roy & Bengali Folk Art at the University Gallery in 1971, a lasting bond formed between Craven and the Needhams based on deep friendship and mutual appreciation for Indian art. In due course of time, the Needhams donated several works by Roy to the university, thereby enriching and enhancing the collection.
After the initial exhibition in 1971, the University collaborated on two other exhibitions presenting the works of Roy. In 1997, the museum presented Jamini Roy: Bengali Artist of Modern India, an exhibition curated by Larry D Perkins. In 1998, the Huntington Archive of Buddhist Art presented the museum’s collection of Jamini Roy works in an online exhibition. The exhibition can still be viewed today on the official website of Huntington Archive.
Thus, we find that the Harn Museum has had a deep affiliation and history with the works by Jamini Roy. This ambitious conservation project ensures that the association between the museum and the works by Roy continues. Rustin Levenson and her associates at ArtCare restored seven paintings, painted between 1935 and 1954.
Levenson is a senior conservator, founder and president of ArtCare. After graduating from Wellesley College, she did her conservation training at the Fogg Art Museum in Harvard University. She worked in conservation departments of leading institutions such as Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI), Ottawa; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Following this, she opened private studios in New York and Miami and has since been involved in conservation projects with prestigious private and public collections. ArtCare has acquired special expertise in conserving works of South Asian art.
The treatment of the paintings has been an arduous process that went on for the past six months. Roy used a variety of organic materials, using paint created from locally found rock-dust, tamarind seeds, and mercury powder. Apart from canvas on board, he would also paint on woven palm fibre mats, a traditional canvas used in Bengali folk art. Despite the transient nature of these materials, the restoration team was able to effectively conserve the painting by dry cleaning methods, consolidating lifting and peeling paint and reinforcing the canvas support.
One of the key tasks was identifying which of the paintings needed the most urgent restoration. Levenson was also aware of the difficulties involved in conservation such ephemeral paintings and the subsequent risks involved in the restoration process. She said, ‘I do not want people to think that because you are an artist, you can just pick up a paintbrush and fix art. It could go well, but it could go really badly’.
Despite the ambitious nature of the project, Levenson and her associates lived up to the challenge and successfully restored all seven works. She said, ‘We loved working on these paintings. He is such an exciting artist so it was a pleasure to be able to fix them’.
The following works were restored: Santal Boy with Drum (1935), opaque watercolour on canvas; Saint Francis, (1940), opaque watercolour on board; The World of Kantha (1950), opaque watercolour on canvas; The Annunciation (1950), opaque watercolour on canvas; Krishna and Balarama (1950), opaque watercolour on canvas; Bird with Two Fish (1954), gouache on board; Three Boatmen (date unknown), gouache on board.
The E Rhodes and Leona B Carpenter Foundation, which provided the grant that funded this project, was established in 1975 by E Rhodes Carpenter, the founder of Carpenter Co, a company based in Richmond, Virginia. The Foundation has played a monumental role in arts and culture by making substantial donations to museums. It is also specially committed to supporting cultural institutions that promote, preserve and exhibit Asian art. According to Jason Steuber, Harn Cofrin Curator of Asian Art, the grant by the foundation came at a crucial point, enabling the conservation and preservation of these valuable paintings for many more years to come. ‘This support will prevent further deterioration and allow the Harn to display and loan works which were previously too fragile to do so.’
Since 2009, the museum has been working on a conservation programme to restore the paintings by Roy. The grant has given the Harn Museum a new impetus to push further. The Cofrin Curator of Asian Art Endowment enabled them to restore an additional four paintings. The museum is determined to apply for further funding, in order to conserve the 12 remaining Roy paintings that are part of the treatment plan. This conservation effort made possible by the grant has ensured that Jamini Roy’s paintings continue to be enjoyed by future generations, thus aiding scholarship and art awareness.