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Calendar art gets edgy as creative photographer Rohit Chawla is inspired by the Austrian's paintings

MASTERS DEAD and gone are generally believed to turn in their graves, in grief and disbelief, whenever their classics are re-interpreted by the following generations. That's as true for filmmakers as it is for writers and artists. However, Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), the Austrian symbolist/ art nouveau artist best known for his brilliant portrayal of the female form, is most likely to send a nod of approval towards India if he were to know what Delhi-based photographer Rohit Chawla has been inspired to do by his paintings. Chawla has recreated some of the most well-known paintings by Klimt in a photographic tribute, with the help of models fitting into props and sets created by artist Manoranjan Mukherjee. Thirteen of these pictures, a celebration of the female body as well as the embellishments that Klimt was known for, open in an exhibition titled The Sequel, at the Visual Arts Gallery this evening. Klimt happened to Chawla purely by default.

Not too long ago, Chawla traced the steps to Neue Galerie in New York in the hope of tucking in some delights at its reputed Viennesse CafE[umlaut] and ended up being smitten by the painting Adele Bloch Bauer- I. That's one of the two famous portraits by Klimt of the Austrian society woman Adele Bloch Bauer, embellished in gold leaf and finished in 1907, that was bought by Ronald Lauder for his Neue Galerie in June 2006 at a whopping $135 million, making it the most expensive painting sold till then. In Chawla's photographic world, Adele is re-invented through actor Chitrangada Singh. "Klimt was the king of embellishment, a goldsmith. I couldn't use gold for my pictures so I used Swarovski crystals," says Chawla.

The painting Adele Bloch Bauer- I has a fascinating story -- this work and four others done by Klimt for the family, were appropriated by the Nazis when they took over Austria during the World War II. The paintings were the centre of a litigation between the state of Austria and their heirs for long. It would be unfair to both Klimt and Chawla to dwell any longer on Adele Bloch Bauer-I, for every other painting and its inspired photograph are no less enthralling. Thoroughly bewitched after his first encounter at Neue Galerie, Chawla followed Klimt's art back to his hometown Vienna. "Klimt's portraits, with their abundant sensuality, underlying eroticism, and decorative tracery created in me a yearning to relive his vision," he says. He got this opportunity when he was re-commissioned by the Bird Group for their annual calendar for their boutique Dusit hotels coming to India soon. Many would remember that Chawla had similarly created Raja Ravi Varma's women in an analogous calendar last year. Except for the socialite Ayesha Thapar (who features in the work inspired by Klimt's The Kiss), none of the women he dressed up for the last calendar figure in the new one. His wife, Saloni, is part of The Sequel, though. "I feel calendars are the democratisation of art. For instance, in this way, Klimt's art would be able to reach a wider audience," he says.

Even though Chawla has created a spectacular body of pictures out of an astounding idea, he feels miffed at the possibility of being labelled 'uncool'. "A top curator once told me, 'the problem with your art is that it is so eminently likeable'," says Chawla. "It's almost a curse to do something beautiful and non-disruptive in today's contemporary art world. The selfappointed gate-keepers of Indian art are busy putting a collective blindfold over a truly discerning buyer. Today, the more dissonant your art is, the better it is." Chawla also feels exasperated with the plethora of images flooding the world of art. "I'm quite fed up with the banality of documentation in most cases. I'm all for the classical and pristineness of art as it was," feels Chawla. He is also offended at the 'colonisation of Indian art.' "In art, today we are more colonised than ever before. When people ask me what India Art Summit 2012 is going to be like, I tell them it would be almost like Frieze 2010 or the Basel Art Fair 2010. Some of the work being done in India is completely derivative of the western art milieu," he feels.

However, Chawla feels he doesn't have 'to pay obeisance' to the guardians of contemporary art as "I continue to work in advertising and earn most of my living doing TV commercials." This freedom has positively generated a memorable tribute to Klimt.

-- The Sequel is on at the Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, from January 15 to 20, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.


Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), the Austrian symbolist painter whose art Chawla (left) has recreated in his pictures, was a member of the Vienna Secession movement that broke free from tradition. One of the most well-known phases of Klimt's career was the time when he liberally used gold leaf in his art. Chawla has recreated three wellknown paintings from this period -- Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901), Adele Bloch Bauer-I(1907) and The Kiss(1907-08)

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Publication:Mail Today (New Delhi, India)
Date:Jan 15, 2010
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