Provenance: Collection of Mr and Mrs Ian Little. Acquired at The Bear Lane Gallery, Oxford in 1962.
Tyeb Mehta was one among the first generation of Indian artists to be influenced, at the time of Indias independence, by artistic developments in Western Europe. Modern European art held a fascination for Mehta and his contemporaries in Bombay; as young students, they resisted the academic realism of the classroom and studied Western art through books and periodicals. In 1954, Mehta travelled to Paris and London for four months, and here, at the galleries and museums, he considered Western art first hand.
Mehta held his first solo show in 1959, on his return to Bombay. He was fortunate to sell a few paintings, and this made his passage back to London possible; his wife and young son followed, and the family soon settled into London life for a period of time. Supporting himself through odd jobs, Mehta continued to paint, and it was during this period in England that he created Pink Figure, one of 21 paintings exhibited at his 1962 solo show at the Bear Lane Gallery in Oxford.
Before this seminal exhibition, Mehta participated in group exhibitions with other Indian artists in England. Three Indian artists were showing in London at the time: Tyeb Mehta, F.N. Souza, and Avinash Chandra. In 1961, he showed at Gallery One in London with fellow artist Paritosh Sen. Already, The Times in London noted that 'Mr. Tyeb Mehtas four glowing figure studies, especially his 'Blue Figure' are a lesson in the art of making a simple statement of a thought long pondered.'
Credit goes to the critic George Butcher for bringing Indian artists recognition abroad. Debating the national characteristics of these artists in the context of internationalism, he wrote: "With the exception of S.H. Raza in Paris, no considerable Indian painter is less seemingly 'Indian' than Mehta. He uses oil paint as though born to it a more radical accomplishment for an Indian artist that the Westerner may realize. He constructs the images with the intense pictorial logic of a de Stael, of a Cezanne. And he makes absolutely no gimmicky use of his own nationality. Indeed, if there were such a thing as an Ecole de Londres, Mehta would certainly be one of its foundation stones."
Through the 1960s, Mehta painted isolated figures in sombre colours, often applied with a palette knife. Densely painted and heavily textured, his brand of impasto-laden expressionism was aligned to the School of Paris and practised in London in the years after World War II. Melancholic men and women in a hostile environment, Mehtas protagonists are a visual interpretation of French existentialist literature (Sartre, Camus, Gide, and Malraux were popular among Indian painters of the period) and its concern with the human condition in a seemingly absurd world.
Nevertheless, Butcher recognised that Mehtas art was moored in India: "A trussed bull, a red shawl, the nayika these come directly from Mehtas familiarity with Indian attitudes. He is just as committed to these and to his knowledge of a tradition far older than our own, as he is his own personal biography . If Mehta's figures are those of a Greek nude, his language that of twentieth century Western painting, and his pride as restrained as the foreigner fondly imagines the English gentlemans to be, then it is equally true that his feeling for relationship is from the East, his static shapes derive their immobility from the Buddha, and his personality bears a generic resemblance to the Indian ideal of a short-circuit between emotion and spirit. To be even more precise, the physiognomies of his figures are related to the national peculiarities of his race as they are to his own features; and the devices he uses to treat the heads of these figures are precisely calculated to convey the 'inward look' of the Indian conception of reality, rather than the 'objective' mode so normal to ourselves."
More recent scholarship has sought to place Mehtas art in the context of his Muslim heritage, maintaining that it reflects the isolation of this minority community in post-independence India. Critic Ranjit Hoskote argues that Mehta's "art is inspired and sustained, at its deepest subliminal level, by the tragic shia vision of history that he inherits from his background."
Tyeb Mehta returned to India in 1964, and four years later, he travelled to New York with a Rockefeller Foundation grant. Here, he came in contact with late colour field abstraction, which he adapted to the human figure. Abandoning the earlier emphasis on texture, Mehta adopted large areas of flat, vibrant colour, minimal two-dimensional figures, and a conscious apportioning of space elements with which he is today intimately identified.
Please note that the picture is signed and dated upper left, 'Tyeb 62', and is framed.