“Charm, radicality, honesty”: The Press on Bhupen Khakhar at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle

Bhupen Khakhar, who died in 2003, is considered to be one of India’s most important painters. A major retrospective introducing the artist to a Western audience for the first time premiered at the Tate Modern and then traveled to the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. In London, the exhibition was the subject of media controversy, while in Berlin critics were enthusiastic across the board.
“A rich and absorbing exhibition”—this is how the Telegraph described the Deutsche-Bank-sponsored Bhupen Khakhar retrospective at the Tate Modern. The art magazine Apollo wrote of an “exhilarating and wide-ranging exhibition,” and in the Guardian, author Amit Chaudhuri raves over Khakhar’s “seductive” figurative paintings. Yet a biting critique was published in the same newspaper, written by Jonathan Jones. He described Khakhar as an “old-fashioned, second-rate artist!”, called his paintings “staid,” its figures “sloppily drawn,” and the overall exhibition a “waste of space.” Critics reacted in indignation to Jones’s criticism—prompting Geeta Kapur, the grande dame of Indian art criticism, to accuse the Briton of  “sneaky conservatism” in the online magazine The Wire.

Nicola Kuhn addresses this controversy in her Tagesspiegel review of the Khakhar exhibition in the KunstHalle: “It’s only now that the time seems right to show this pioneer of modern Indian painting in western European exhibition halls, even though British art criticism continues to heap scorn on him (…) This is exactly where the line of conflict in the reception could be drawn: to what extent are we prepared to understand the art of another, to subject our criteria to question? When will we be able to listen to master narratives other than those of the West? Bhupen Khakhar is perfect for the dispute between the old school and those that advocate an expansion of our aesthetic canon.” Alexander Scrimgeour addresses this theme in Spike: “The exhibition seems emblematic of a stand-off between the postcolonial difficulties of othering and condensation and the wish to compensate for them”

Harald Jähner of the Berliner Zeitung wrote: “Only a few steps away from the pavement of Unter den Linden, inside the KunstHalle, and already we’re on another continent, where an independent spirit embarks on his own path between European art and Indian mass culture. Bhupen Khakhar distills extraordinary magic from this combination of triviality and originality, of aberration and conformity (…) these kinds of creative experiences of the foreign are the salt in the soup of the present day.”

Already in the time leading up to the show, Art dedicated an extensive portrait to the artist in which Heinz Pietsch described him as an “artist of truth.” In his review of the exhibition for the magazine’s online issue, Raimar Stange underscores the “stylistic variety” and “thoughtful power of this art.” “Paintings between everyday comedy and tenderness”—this is how Jens Hinrichsen described Khakhar’s work in Monopol. And the BZ praised the “unique style” of this “painter of ordinary people.” Gabriela Walde (Berliner Morgenpost) is particularly impressed by the late works: “There are very few artists, one exception being Christoph Schlingensief, that have portrayed their illness this ruthlessly and excessively. There’s a lot of melancholy here, but just as much of the black humor that enabled Khakhar to somehow live.” The online magazine Queer emphasized his open approach to social taboos: “He addressed difficult themes, such as gay life in a rapidly changing India, with honesty, sensitivity, and humor.” For Gallery Talk, Eva Beck wrote: “He developed an extraordinary iconography for same-sex love that combined sexuality and spirituality.” And for Kulturradio rbb, “Khakhar brought much courage to bear in addressing provocative themes: class difference, desire, and homosexuality, as well as his own struggle with cancer.” 

Other critical reviews focus on the artist’s inimitable eye for everyday Indian life. “Bhupen Khakhar’s watercolors and paintings are born of an intense observation of the environment. They are poetic, sometimes ironic commentaries,” writes Kunstmarkt.com. “His interest in the everyday, in the banal, cheap souvenirs he collected, led to a unique pictorial language characterized by magnificent color and a somewhat clumsy figuration,” writes Brigitte Werneburg in the taz. “One seldom encounters so much charm, so much radicality and honesty, so much wise attention paid to everyday life, so much talent to capture its talmi gold and its true tragedies.”