IN focusing on the social purpose of Sarnath Banerjee’s work, the CCA perhaps undermines the idea that comics are a mainstream art form.
Sarnath Banerjee: History is Written by Garment Exporters
School of Art History / King James Library, University of St Andrews
Twelve Scottish Paintings
Bourne Fine Art, Edinburgh
We used to call any narrative strip cartoon a comic. Now we have graphic novels which are grown up and quite superior, or at least that seems to be the idea. Because we thought of comics as essentially for children – or perhaps, snobbily, for people who needed pictures to get them through a story, – we have been very slow to adopt grown-up comics that have flourished elsewhere for decades.
The Japanese have manga which everybody reads, rapid in style and truly graphic in character. In France and Italy the form has generated a huge body of slick, fast-moving, grown-up, sometimes very grown-up, comics (bandes desinées). The Italians who are very good at them call them fumetti, little puffs of smoke, from the word for speech bubbles. “Graphic novels”, in contrast, sounds very stuffy. Clearly we are still uneasy about the whole business. Fumetti wouldn’t do for us. To the extent that we have accepted the form, however, we are inclined to favour a certain piety of content that is really out of key with the nature of the genre.
Sarnath Banerjee, showing at the CCA, is an Indian graphic novelist. Indeed his book Corridor is regarded as the first Indian work in this genre. You can imagine how he might fit the stuffy, British idea of the graphic novel when you read in the blurb that he creates “graphic commentaries to understand post-liberalised India with a firm foot on Nehruvian Socialism. Highly layered, his work is akin to a forensic examination of the near past that attempts to resurrect, examine and catalogue cultural and material relics using text and images.” Wow! No need to look for sexy, grown-up stories here, then, but lots of higher social purpose to justify our interest instead. It sounds more like a commission from the Ministry of Information, “How to put on your gas mask,” perhaps, than any graphic adventure story. As so often, however, this earnestness is more in the commentary than in the art. The CCA wouldn’t want to be accused of devoting a show to an artist of mere comic strips.
Banerjee’s style is straightforward, a little academic, perhaps, but he can be amusing, even poetic. Location of the Lost Object, for instance, is a series of single drawings with accompanying stories of people who have lost things that were precious. One person relates how he lost faith in his grandfather’s role in the struggle for India’s independence, another lost a sum of money for her sister’s dowry just before the wedding. The accompanying drawings are no more than emblematic, but they do serve to give each story a separate identity and so lift the whole series from being a mere list to become a sequence of distinct and separate experiences.
There are also a couple of films in which Banarjee’s drawings are animated. Sophistication is Fragile, for instance, is a simple narrative to counter Western claims to monopoly in the origins of science and technology by putting the case for Arab science and civilisation. It is sound educational stuff and told in a clear and simple way, but hardly groundbreaking.
Indeed, here and elsewhere, he combines drawing with collaged photographs in a way that is distinctly reminiscent of Monty Python. His most recent published work is The Harrapa Files. It is more like a series of graphic short stories than novels – snapshots, often vivid, of the complexities of Indian life during its current rapid transformation. The title of the show, History is Written by Garment Exporters, is taken from one of these short stories. The garment industry has played a key part in India’s globalisation. As the rich congratulate themselves, the country’s success is really built on the back of the very poorest, those who work in the garment industry.
At the other side of the country, nothing could be further from the literary graphics and social commentary of Banerjee than the highly wrought, pure abstraction of Kenneth Dingwall’s paintings, prints and reliefs at the University of St Andrews. They are mostly shown in the lobby of the School of Art History, but a small group of three is also hanging in the historic King James Library. Given these somewhat cramped circumstances, how St Andrews must regret closing down the Crawford Art Centre some years ago. The short-sightedness of that move seems all the more marked if you consider the star status of two of the University’s recent history of art students.
The University is building up a collection of Scottish art, however. Called the Boswell Collection after the donor of the funds, it is not clear how it can be adequately housed without a gallery. Still, it is a commendable enterprise. Kenneth Dingwall’s show is prompted by the acquisition of three of his works by the University. In the History of Art Department his small and intimate works cope well with the confined space. Dingwall was a graduate of Edinburgh College of Art at a time when the painterly styles of the Edinburgh School were dominant. Quietly but with increasing determination, he rebelled against it. Seeking beauty in austerity, he became one of the most eloquent abstract artists Scotland has produced.
He creates surfaces that you would have to call grey, but which almost shimmer with the deep shine of polished graphite. He lets this stand on its own or edges it with black and then contrasts it with two narrow wedges of brilliant red. In a similar way, a surface of rubbed gold frames a narrow hexagon of black. The black and gold, he reckons, is an unconscious memory of the bible in whose margins he drew in church, just as the young Wilkie had done before him. In a set of tall, narrow, wall reliefs, he works a variation on the old challenge of the multiple viewpoint for sculpture by making four identical versions and displaying a different side of each. The plain exterior reveals openings to glimpses of an intensely coloured interior. Reticence can say so much more than loquacity. Dingwall’s work looks particularly good in the classical interior of the King James Library. You cannot often say that of contemporary art. Usually it clashes hideously with that kind of environment. Here Dingwall matches its classical order without limiting his own vocabulary.
The Boswell Collection is devoted to contemporary art, but at Bourne Fine Art it is good to see some top-class historical Scottish painting. There is in Twelve Scottish Paintings, for instance, a beautiful version of Jacob More’s Cora Linn. Domestic Life is an exquisite small painting by Wilkie of a mother, her child and a nurse. The mother is gorgeously dressed, apparently ready to go out and so it makes a charming, domestic variation on a popular subject in Wilkie’s youth, Hector’s Farewell to Andromache, where the child looks up to its father dressed for war. Less familiar is the work of Sir David Murray. The Moat Farm is a big painting of evening light. Farm buildings are seen across water beneath a rising moon. It is a wonderful study in stillness. Sam Bough’s Peeling Oak Bark, Cadzow Forest is a scene of workers among the mighty oaks of Cadzow, the forest which served Scottish painters as the Forest of Barbizon served the French and at just the same time. There is a beautiful Anne Redpath still life and also a tiny but perfect snow scene by McIntosh Patrick. A picture of Iona by Cadell is characteristically lovely. The work of Cadell’s friend Patrick William Adam is much less familiar, however. His big painting of Venice, The Salute and the Punta della Dogana, is an Impressionist masterpiece. Its quality would explain, if nothing else did, Cadell’s admiration for his older contemporary.
• Sarnath Banerjee runs until 28 July; Kenneth Dingwall until 10 July; Twelve Scottish Paintings until 21 July
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