Regarding the Drawings of

K. G. Subramanyan

  Book Release and Exhibition
  30 September - 25 October  2010


Regarding The Drawings of K. G. Subramanyan

R. Siva Kumar


A drawing begins from a mark or a line on paper or some other suitable surface; with more marks and lines coalescing a dialogue ensues between the drawn and the unmarked areas. Gradually the lines and the areas they enclose become forms or things – trees, foliage, faces, bodies, hair , bark, fur, hide, land, water and the many other things that make the world – and the residual surface becomes space. The final image is a summation of such dialogues between the world, the eye and the mind on the one hand and their transcription through exchanges between the mind, the hand and the eye of the artist on the other.


   Drawings, more than photographs and paintings, reveal to us both the origins and the ultimate truth of pictorial representation. Photographs do not, for instance, allow us to see the process; in them the images appear bound to real objects in the world. Paintings too, even when they do not seem to be unmediated representations of real objects, tend to cover up the traces of their coming into being and, except when they are close to drawing as in calligraphic art or in action painting, do not allow us to follow the exchange between the tools, the artist and the world in the way drawings do.


Compared to photographs and paintings that do not leave enough chinks for the viewer to prise open the shell of completeness and unravel the process, drawings are open structures. Even when drawings approach painting in complexity and completeness, with the white of the paper still visible, we get the feeling that we are looking over the shoulders of the artist or that it is possible to look at the finished drawing and imagine the artist beginning with the first mark and arriving at the final image. Drawing is experienced as a process, painting as a product.


   Although drawing is important to representational arts and a majority of early styles are patently linear in many of them drawing remains an unseen armature underpinning the painted image. In contrast to this drawing becomes an important and independent art form during certain periods and with certain artists. Thus while Indian and medieval European paintings were predominantly linear independent drawings from this period are almost non-existent, and conversely we have a rich haul of drawings from the Renaissance and the modern periods. Similarly drawings find an important place in the oeuvres of Leonardo, Rembrandt, Degas, Picasso, Matisse, Nandalal, Klee, and Hockney – to name a few who are relevant to the present discussion – but not in the work of many others. On the basis of this we can deduce that drawing gains in importance and independence when representational art practice moves beyond painting by convention and artists become engaged in a rethink.


During the Renaissance it was renewed interest in realism that guided the rethink and made drawing important. To paint stories and events as witnessed by a beholder made it necessary to observe and represent objects in greater detail and in consonance with the aspects visible from the beholder’s point of sight – which also in turn became the viewer’s point of sight. A prominent feature of such realism being endless variety – of points of sight and features – compositional innovation became a constant need even when the stories narrated did not change. Thus while a compositional schema that was found appropriate for a particular theme was standardized and repeated in medieval art, during the Renaissance artists felt it necessary to conjure a new arrangement each time a theme was revisited. This called for a constant study of figures and objects and experimentation with postures and points of sight, and the originality of an artist was judged at least partly by his ability to do this.


This not only made drawing an integral aspect of art practice but also paved the way for different kinds of drawing. Study of objects and object details called for one kind of drawing, the search for appropriate compositional solutions required drawing of a different kind. For the Renaissance artist representational realism being part of a broader and deeper empirical attitude he moved from the human figure, which was central to his kind of pictorial narration, to human anatomy; from the representation of appearance to the study of inner organs and structure and this necessitated a different inflection of his drawing skills. Some of them were architects as much as painters and sculptors, and a person like Leonardo was also in addition to these an engineer, empiricist experimenter, and designer. The designing of structures and contraptions, planning for their construction, and recording of scientific observations required other kinds of drawings. So during the Renaissance drawing became as diverse as the goals and means of its artists and as varifocal as their empirical quest.


Simultaneously spurred by the reduction of representational realism into a formula driven practice, the emergence of photography as the all purpose tool for visual recording, and the encounter with non-European arts drawing became even more varied under modernism. Central to this change was the recognition of the place of subjectivity in perception and representation. This did not mean turning away from the world, far from it the early modernists were deeply interested in knowing the world, though not as something out there but as something known through their sensibility, as something personally experienced. They realised that there was more than one way of knowing the world, the Renaissance approach was just one of them and not categorically advantageous than others.


With the moderns drawing became the record of a personal encounter with the world. While some like Van Gogh and the Expressionists foregrounded the personal and affective aspects of this encounter others like Cezanne and the Cubists while keeping the artist at the centre of perception tried to keep the affective facet under rein. Yet others like Klee, the world being for him not static but in flux, trained his eyes on the movement, growth and transformation of forms in nature rather than on their shape, mass or volume.


Without a common standard truth to govern their exploration of the world the moderns saw and drew the world in so many different ways. They experienced the world as expressing itself through a host of visual features such as shape and edge, colour and tone, surface and texture, inner armature and spatiality of outer features, or some combination of these, and sometimes as churned by a rhythm only the eyes and hands of an individual saw. Following their sensitivities and using various graphic devises that invoked some distinct visual experience of the world they built different idioms of graphic representation. A few like Klee and the Cubists amplified them into a system or a language. Some like Picasso and Matisse who were more versatile with their hands, or whose eyes and minds were restless and insatiable and were drawn to a lot of things around them used as many idioms as they could. And some – Picasso again, and Hockney – turned this freedom to be style-less into a freedom to cross-connect idioms and to be eclectic according to communicational requirements. Collectively they brought about an upsurge in our knowledge of the visible and in the means for representing or connecting with it.


For Subramanyan access to the modern came through his early years in Santiniketan where Nandalal addressed many of these aspects of modernist practice independently. As an educator who took upon himself the retrieval of a wealth of representational traditions lost through the cultural amnesia of the colonised, Nandalal almost single-handedly created a tradition of the modern. While he made himself aware of various approaches to representation through a close study of traditional antecedents he was not satisfied with merely exhuming fossilised conventions. To breathe new life into them he realised that they had to be tested against his own encounters with the world around. He made drawing central to this project and there was no end to his curiosity. Everything around him interested him – man and landscape, birds and animals, flowers and insects, coiffeurs and costumes, crafts and functional objects – and he drew them all. Impelled by this drawing became in his hands a tool for exploring the world, an instrument for documentation, and a language for communication, and each led to a different kind of drawing.


A veritable draftsman himself, Nandalal made drawing central to his teaching method. He urged his students to draw from nature, engaging with a motif until it revealed itself, and then to redraw it, in the studio, from memory. The first encouraged them to observe and know the world intimately, the second to recall and express their internalised image transformed through sensibility and language. Many artists trained at Santiniketan took his advice seriously and became compulsive and exemplary draftsmen. Drawing became for them much more than an art school exercise undertaken for acquiring representational skills, or a medium they continued to employ for preparatory work. It became for the best among them, including Subramanyan, a life long engagement and a part of their practice of art as a continual exploration of the world.


Looking at the vast body of drawings by Subramanyan what strikes us readily is that though he follows his Santiniketan mentors in his approach to drawing, he seldom draws from nature. There are of course early drawings done from nature and life. And drawings from the late 50s and early 60s undertaken to clarify to himself the joinery of the human figure, to learn its construction and to see how it can be dismantled and re-construed. These drawings point to an urge to analyse and internalise the observed. As a teacher he continued to occasionally draw from models to demonstrate to his students the form and functioning of the human figure, or to divert himself while he was obliged to sit through mind-numbing meetings or academic discussions that seemed to be going nowhere.


The paucity of drawings from nature or model in his oeuvre does not however point to a lack of interest in the sensory world, because this he knows only too well is the highway to art by formula, and a constant renewal of contact with the world alone keeps an artist alive and inventive. What it points to is that over the years Subramanyan has, like the traditional artists of the East who were keen observers of nature and yet never drew from nature, learned to supplant drawing from nature with astute looking, and to transform perception into a form of ocular reception that allows the world to inscribe itself onto the screen of his mind.


Like ancient Eastern artists he observes and then draws from recollection in his studio. But observation being very intense and involved drawing from memory often plays the same role as drawing from model plays in other artists. One feels this especially in some of his drawings of the human figure. They are not drawn from models; they are imagined bodies, and yet they awaken in us, as the drawings of Degas do, a strong sense of tactile materiality. Just as Subramanyan gets the world to write itself onto his mind in the course of perception he also fills the world with his body like an impersonator in the course of representation.


 The world inscribes itself onto his mind primarily as broad shapes and vivid gestures and his favourite medium for drawing from recollection is brush and ink. What he observes during his visits to distant places or sees in the everyday world around become inhabitants of his mind and models for his studio work. Some stay briefly and disappear; others stay on and keep reappearing in his work even after he has shifted home to a different location.


Most of these drawings are in the form of brush and ink images on cards. The motifs usually appear single and vivid against the whiteness of the paper. He does not attempt to render the atmosphere, but only to give a suggestion of space, invoked by the tone and movement of the brush strokes – which are always kept broad and few – and by the illusory volumes they create. Small, economical in rendering, the stillness of the image fused with the movement of the brush, and the starkness of the motif juxtaposed against the white void of the paper these are drawings as pithy as haikus.


 Looking at the motifs we discover that Subramanyan has a special love for birds and animals and certain landscapes. These are the motifs that have found a permanent place in his mind and keep cropping up again and again. And the dates show that they do not indicate physical proximity but a mental affinity. These are then drawings from recollection in more than one sense. And going over them becomes a kind of rehearsal that keeps his eye and mind alert, his language sharp and ready for innovative reconfiguration.


While there is one kind of reconfiguration or moving away from the familiar accomplished through change in language, there is another that is induced by the subliminal impulses. The mind where the subliminal springs from cannot be known by the artist like the world through observation and drawing, or through involved looking. It is not illuminated like the world of forms outside, but submerged in darkness. To know the contours of things in there the artist has to grope his way through it like a blind man. Though integral to the artist’s subjectivity he can know it only through its operations. To tap this inner resource that stimulates innovation or new visions Leonardo advised peering at clouds, flames, and stains on walls and reading images out of their nebulous shapes.1 Doodling is another way of doing the same.


Doodles exist in the twilight zone between representation and abstraction, between the legible and the obscure. It hovers on the threshold of intentionality and meaning, and its purpose is not communication but reaping through serendipity. In his doodles Subramanyan pursues things that are at best dimly visible, images that have no clear contours yet, and what emerges from the loose tangle of lines could surprise the artist himself. In relation to his oeuvre its role is transgressive and therefore the doodles are neither regulated by style nor dateable except with reference to works that may grow out of them.


There is another group of drawings in Subramanyan’s recent oeuvre that resembles the doodles. Like the doodles they are usually drawn with a ballpoint pen in smooth flowing lines and occasionally with freely handled brush or crayon. But these are not doodles but their opposite; they are scribbles or gesture drawings. Their free flowing lines do not give the impression of being regulated by the eye or of being riveted to objects. But this is only an impression; the artist here is like a cowboy who lassos a speeding steer with what looks like a casual throw of the rope. There is no tangle of lines in these and the image is usually a single figure or a bare juxtaposition of two, rendered without details and without hesitance, but with verve and, more importantly, with an underplayed audacity. It takes some prowess to capture the figure with a few swirls of the pen or brush – to turn a slit and a dot into an eye, a hook into a nose, or a sliding line into a limb or gesture. Such rendering however notational springs from knowledge and application of conventions rather than their suppression as in the doodles. These are images that he has already configured in his mind exteriorised as graphic memos primarily addressed to himself.


The quickly scrawled line that is characteristic of scribbles and sketches has a broader significance in Subramanyan’s work. Drawing is for him, as it was for Matisse, a gesture with the advantage of permanency.2  In other words gesture takes precedence over form in his drawings, and form becomes an aspect of gesture, especially where expression is involved. This is one of the fundamental choices artists have had to make in every tradition and period. And the choice they made had wider ramifications for their art practice. Gesture was important in most Eastern and medieval European traditions. And it was still central to expression in Giotto, but gradually physiognomy became more important with the ascent of form during the Renaissance and gesture became its handmaid. Rembrandt reversed it once again; in his hand gesture became suggestive and expressive, and more eloquent than facial expression. Modern artists went even further; Picasso and Matisse erased the line between posture and gesture and transformed the body into one large gesture. And animators like Walt Disney made it a common place experience of our times. But this modern tradition of figure as gesture actually goes back to Hokusai.


Subramanyan belongs to this tradition. By focusing on gesture and animation and making the whole body expressive he also acquires the ability to make animals, plants and objects volitional and sentient. This involves craft but it also implies an affinity with the non-human world. It is difficult to say which grew out of which, but behind them is his constant practice of drawing with the eyes, and his self-awareness of the body as a living, moving, actively interacting element in the world. His drawings give us the feel that he makes an internal enactment of the gestures before he transplants them onto other forms – men, beasts, and objects – through empathetic cross-projection or ‘projective inhabitation’ – to borrow the phrase Leo Steinberg uses to describe metaphorical overlaps in Picasso.3  This leads to a train of metaphors that efface the divisions between the seen and the imagined, representation and caricature, beauty and ugliness, and between art and its many opposites – life, kitsch, graffiti etc.


 Subramanyan’s drawings suggest that for him there are only tools, ideas and emotions, no permanent rules or fixed conventions, and everything is in the service of expression and communication under the broad ambit of a personal language. And the two, expression and communication, are not antithetical for him. Although there is more emotional resonance in his recent work, as an artist who refrained from overt self-expression when his contemporaries were flagrantly expressionist he continues to see expression as a special function or form of communication. In his early years he achieved this by turning the ordinary into the iconic. In his scribbles and sketches the tantalising single figure still appears to be waiting to be transformed into iconic images. But more gesturally animate they are also seeds waiting to germinate into stories. A gesture, a certain inflection or torsion of the body is also an invitation for other figures to come in and start a story. This happens specially when he mulls over an idea or an emotion, and the sketch book or drawing paper becomes a little stage where the mind plays out the different possibilities the plot offers. And sometimes this leads to a series of independent drawings.


During his early years such a series usually grew around an idea; in recent years, however, it often revolves around an emotion or memory. Story or narration may be not the right word for them because they suggest progression or sequential unfolding. The drawings themselves point to simultaneity rather than unfolding in time. Toying with an idea leads to playful inflections or reconfigurations. But lingering on an emotion or memory – like a bee hovering over a flower, or perhaps like a moth around a flame – is governed by an inescapable pull. It is undertaken not in playful elaboration but to plump a memory, to get to its depth, to unravel it fully and to, hopefully, free oneself from its spell. In some of his recent drawings of this kind, the lines are transformed into eloquent gestures and the figures into a keening chorus exorcising some painful memory.


Some of these drawings are in crayon with washes of bistre, others are partially coloured. But colour does not imply that they are closer to painting or more finished. Just as there are few studies from the model among Subramanyan’s drawings, there are also few finished drawings in his oeuvre. This is not because he does not consider drawing as an art form in itself or practices it only as an aid to painting. On the contrary he is partial to drawing and believes each form has its own completeness. A finished drawing is often an attempt to make drawing resemble painting, to get as close as possible to what is considered the completeness of a painted image. In many styles, as we have noted, this means rendering the process of image making opaque. Subramanyan does not subscribe to this approach. His effort is actually to bring painting closer to drawing, to do paintings that have the openness of drawings and leave the traces of their making visible.


His coloured drawings, big or small, exhibit a dynamic tension between form and movement, compositional coherence and gestural animation. Some of them are marked by an overall animation and composed of a flurry of stokes or marks. The seventeenth century Chinese manual on painting, The Mustard Seed Garden Book classified brush stokes used in calligraphic paintings according to their resemblance to things like hemp fibre, sesame seeds, axe cuts, veins of lotus leaves, and hair of cattle etc. Subramanyan uses marks or flecks of colour that are not codified and are more spontaneous but on the basis of the animation they invoke they can be described as imbued with the rhythms of floating feathers, scurrying squirrels, flying swallows, sprouting grass or shooting blades, quivering or falling leaves and so on. The sensation they summon is not one of weight but lightness, of a soft buzz or twitter.


His small gouache-on-paper sketches are a little different from these. With the paper almost entirely covered with pigment, they are the closest he gets to finished drawings and the furthest from doodles. Here the strokes or dabs (not flecks) of colour are heavier and the hues more strident than in the tinted drawings, and drawings in colour. These are done as prelude to paintings, the first jottings of an image. But with Subramanyan believing in making each work spontaneous, they are not strictly layouts. They are warm-up exercises undertaken before doing a group of paintings, more like the rehearsal of a raga before a concert rather than a printed score used to pre-arrange a performance. All of them do not lead to paintings either, and even when they do the elements of imagery and design are only partially carried into the larger work, what gets carried more fully is the broad gesture, the spirit of the gestalt.


Encompassing doodles, scribbles, sketches, studies, calligraphic and tinted drawings, and drawing with pigments; done using ballpoint pen, brush and ink, crayon, alone or in combination with colour or ink washes, and in gouache; and employing graphic devises ranging from marks, scrawls, calligraphic brush work, freehand flourishes, strokes and dabs Subramanyan’s repertoire of drawings is large. But cutting across these differences they are all undertaken to know the world and to think his way through it; to let the world into himself and to write himself onto the world. And looking at his drawings when we see aspects of the world reflected in them, and looking at the world we notice elements of his vision reflected in it, we know he has achieved what he had set out to do.


            When this happens, the viewer joins the artist and the world and their duologue turns in a colloquy of three.

1 See, The Note Books of Leonardo Da Vinci Selected and edited by Irma A. Ritcher, Oxford     University Press, Oxford, 1980, p. 182.

2   Jack Flam ed., Matisse on Art, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angels, 1995, p. 48.

3  Leo Steinberg, ‘Picasso’s Endgame’, October, vol. 74, Autumn 1995, p. 111.


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