The plan was to see the Wilfredo Lam exhibition but when I met Mark and Natalie in the Turbine Hall they'd noticed that the exhibition of Indian figurative artist Bhupen Khakhar was ending shortly and Lam still had two months to run. I surprised myself by being open to this change of plan and, in accordance with other recent life changes, I felt a little pleased about it.
It was rewarding too. A crash course into an artist I had no knowledge of. In fact before the Tate hosted this show I'd never even heard his name. Come to think of it I couldn't name you a single modern Indian artist. Quite a shocking oversight and one this exhibition has only gone a small way towards rectifying.
The Tate's 'You Can't Please All' is the first international retrospective of Khakhar's work since his death in 2003. Born in Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1934 he studied accountancy before moving to Baroda in Gujarat for a master's in art criticism. Freed from the shackles of familial conventions he started to mix it up with the artistic community around the Department of Fine Arts at Maharaja Siyajirao University and became affiliated with a bunch of Indian painters who moved away from abstraction towards narrative based, figurative works. Khakhar used his work to meld both the everyday and the extraordinary. A decade or so older than Salman Rushdie he was a magical realist of the canvas.
In keeping with such he recognised, and celebrated, the inherent duality. Being both Indian and an internationalist held no contradictions. He aped the camp, affected mannerisms of Hockney and Warhol and used his work to reflect his frank and correctly unabashed homosexuality. The time he'd spent in London had seen him witness both homophobia and an openness to sexuality that, while once prevalent in India, had been curtailed by British rule.
The room titles are great. Room one is "A Man Labelled Bhupen Khakhar Branded As Painter". As you'd expect it contains his early works and traces his journey from collage to oil. At the same time as making these works Khakhar was writing short stories and satire in Gujarati.
The Soldier With A Gun, above, from 1972, doesn't look particularly militaristic and, in fact, looks more like Khakhar, the gay artist himself. Death In The Family (1977), below, shows a burgeoning mastery of colour and an interesting take on perspective. You could look at it for hours and still find new, and nuanced, takes.
1970's Man Leaving (Going Abroad) reflects Khakhar's global approach and his interest in travel. The lotus bower and the palm trees reaching out into an ocean that suggests infinite choices.
Room two has been given the title 'The Insignificant Man' which sounds altogether less positive. There's a tv on in the corner of the room showing a documentary about the artist. It's hard to hear and there's not enough seats. It'd probably been better situated in a room of its own. A minor complaint in a room full of Khakhar's 'trade paintings' of everyday life in Baroda. Historically these had been made as a form of oriental exotica for curious colonial audiences. Khakhar reappropriated them, and with the obvious influence of Tuscan renaissance masters, set about depicting modern India.
Barber's Shop (1973), Janata Watch Repairing (1972), and Man Eating Jalebi (1975) are all fine examples. Again they show Khakhar's genius with colour and his taut angles. Matisse would be proud. El Greco too. In fact Man Eating Jalebi looks more like a Greek island than anywhere in India I've visited.
Royal Circus (above, 1974) looks even less like India. It could almost be the surface of the moon. A far cry from Man in Pub (1979) in which Khakhar, on a visit to the UK, reflects the alienation and sadness of solitary drinking. It's a picture that still resonates now though the gent in it is far better attired than those currently in the same predicament. If Khakhar was to come back now and visit a branch of Wetherspoons he'd have enough inspiration to fill the Tate. Even the carpets aren't so different to the wallpaper here.
No room has been granted a better title than the third:- 'Good Taste Can Be Very Killing'. It's the biggest room too and is fleshed out with sculpture, books and poetry pertinent to Khakhar's career and times. Rushdie and Tagore feature prominently.
The works here are bigger and see Khakhar getting braver. 1991's Pink City expands the premise of Death in the Family with multiple scenarios playing out across the canvas. It's as if Khakhar felt unsatisfied by width, height, and even depth and set out to capture the fourth dimension of time in his work.
Jatra (1997-199) sees the equivalent bravado applied to his sexuality although An Old Man From Vasad Who Had Five Penises Suffered From Running Nose (least of his problems you'd have thought) from 1995 seems to be taking things into the next dimension.
Three years later he was still taking pleasure from drawing actual men's cocks. The below portrait is titled Picture Taken On Their 30th Wedding Anniversary and who wouldn't, at the very least, expect to have their balls cupped to celebrate. Thirtieth wedding anniversaries are traditionally marked with pearl so I'll leave it to you to imagine what kind of necklace would be an appropriate gift here.
Khakhar's even managed to work nudity into his depiction of an Aesop fable. Two men struggled to convey a donkey. They rode it but people said they were cruel. It rode them but people said they were stupid. The moral was that you can't please everyone. With this in mind the chap in the foreground whipped his pants off and decided to please himself. Judging by the raised position of his hands, in a literal, rather than physical, way.
If you were disappointed that our hero had shied away from painting willies don't be. They're back, bigger and brighter than ever, in room four, 'My Dear Friend'. Two Men In Banaras witnesses a very warm embrace. Khakhar was interested in mystical Bhakti spiritual traditions which often expressed the idea of love between men, master and disciple, as a form of devotion. It sounds like a load of religious bullshit to justify grooming to me. But it's a nice painting.
Not as nice as 1996's Night though. There's something about its use of panels that make it my very favourite thing in the show. Maybe also the use of blue suggesting seasides and sunshine. I can't quite put my finger on why I like it so much but I wholeheartedly do.
There's more marvellous blue paint in Blind Man Looks In A Mirror And Has Relations With Wanton Woman, 1980. The Venetian blinds suggests similar forbidden fruit as that depicted in Eric Fischl's Bad Boy, the clothing looks so fine you want to stroke it, and, let's be honest, the norks on the 'wanton woman' are as impressive as any dangling dong Khakhar ever painted. Was he definitely gay?
Room five:At The End Of The Day Iron Ingots Came Out. After all the willies, boobs, sunshine, and positivity the last room sees Bhupen reaching the end of his life and reflecting, as we all must, on mortality and the failings of his body. He doesn't hold back either. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1998 and died of it in 2003. The works below show how he bore this with both honesty and gallows humour. Which is the best any of us can really hope for.
Bullet Shot in the Stomach (2011) reflects growing violence between India's Hindus and Muslims and owes more than a little to Bollywood cinema hoardings. 2002's Sri Lankan Caves is, possibly, Khakhar's most abstract, ethereal, work. It almost defies you not to look at it in the way a dying man may not wish to be seen by sympathetic friends.
In 1999 Khakhar made two paintings that spoke, brutally, of illness. At The End Of The Day Ingots Came Out and He Took Enema Five Times A Day may have comical elements but they're not very funny. They seem to be deadly serious contemplations of a life soon to end. As such they're incredibly powerful. They seem to be by a different painter than the vividly hued captain of colour we'd met earlier.
This compact, yet bijou, exhibition tells, in just five rooms, the life story of a clearly talented man and if it ends in his death well that's no spoiler. That's what we've all got to look forward to. We're not here long. Don't waste time.