Lot Essay Later during the mid-1960s, he passed on to a freer handling from a painterly viewpoint; he seemed to conjure his figures from flame and cloud. - R. Hoskote, 2005
The human figure remained the central focus of Tyeb Mehta’s celebrated artistic practice across all six decades that it spanned. While the artist’s formal techniques and the stylistic elements he used in his paintings evolved over time, his penchant for depicting solitary figures placed squarely in the center of the canvas remained constant. As he noted, “The human figure has become part of my vocabulary [...] It is a sort of vehicle for me [...] The human figure is my source, what I primarily react to.” (Artist statement, N. T. Seth, Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges, New Delhi, 2005, p. 343)
One of early stylistic turns in Mehta’s work followed his exposure to the paintings of modern European artists during his stay in England from 1959 to 1964, and resulted in the emergence of a new Expressionist vocabulary on his own canvases. This brief transitional period in Mehta’s work bridged the time between the early somber portraits he executed with heavy impasto and muted palettes and his discovery of the diagonal and complete flattening of the painted surface to remove all traces of brushstroke and the artist’s hand following a trip to New York on a Rockefeller Fund Fellowship in 1968. In these Expressionist works from the mid-1960s, the artist relied on vibrant, animated brushstrokes in bright colors to portray his subjects. Additionally, all sense of narrative was eliminated, transforming the figure into a conceptual vehicle Mehta used to convey the emotional content of the painting – a device he would continue to use in his paintings till the end of his career.
The Falling Figure, a subject Mehta began to explore during this period, was born out of a traumatic childhood memory he carried of witnessing the violent death of a man during the bloody Partition riots of the Subcontinent in 1947. The ensuing communal conflicts had a lasting impact upon his life and oeuvre. Speaking about this incident, the artist’s friend and poet Dilip Chitre noted, “When Mehta lived on Mohammed Ali Road in South Mumbai, he watched a man being hacked and slaughtered by rioting people from his window. According to Mehta himself, the uncertainty of freedom, the uncertainty of communal relations, and everything about India that he was concerned with, is all rooted in this one violent image that he actually saw in real life.” (D. Chitre, ‘Tyeb Mehta: The Pure Artist’, Forbes India website, 24 July 2009, accessed June 2020)
This monumental painting from 1965 is possibly Mehta’s earliest exploration of the seminal trope of the Falling Figure in his work. Another version painted the same year and bought by fellow artist Krishen Khanna earned Mehta a Gold Medal at the inaugural Indian Triennale, New Delhi, in 1968. Mehta’s depictions of the Falling Figure soon became a cornerstone in his oeuvre as iconic representatives of fear and anxiety in the face of a violent and unavoidable cataclysm in society. This subject embodies the exceptional synergy between Mehta’s artistic, political and social concerns. As his biographer Ranjit Hoskote notes, the artist “started with images which haunted him, burning themselves deep into his mental circuitry [...] these obsessional images, autobiographical in import, gradually gained significance as Tyeb externalised them, reflecting on them, and allowed them to shimmer against the wider canvas of society [...] The falling figure was born from another struggle with the self: while Tyeb had decided to abjure narrative, he found that an accentuation of formal explication could attenuate the forcefulness of the experience [...] This reading also locates the falling figure in a genealogy that reaches back into Greek antiquity, as a descendent of Icarus or Phaethon, the hero punished for an unwitting transgression, an unintended display of pride or recklessness; thus, the evocation of a free fall is also a minatory reminder of the gravity of fate.” (R. Hoskote, Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 14, 17)
Painted in an aqueous palette dominated by shades of blue and green, this early Falling Figure represents both a loss of individual control as well as a collective fall from grace as atonement for mankind’s hubris, and is equally influenced by the artist’s personal experiences and his study of the writings of French Existentialist thinkers like Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and André Malraux. Here, Mehta directly contrasts the cool color scheme with the hurtling subject’s open mouth, flared nostrils and flailing limbs, heightening the moment of undisguised fear he has captured. While the frozen motion of the subject reminds us of a single frame clipped from a movie and of Mehta’s early work as a film editor, the grid-like format of the painting foreshadows the next transformation in his work, where prominent diagonals begin to divide the painted surface, and often the figure, into discrete planes of color.
If this image is indeed analogous to “the gravity of fate” that Hoskote describes above, Mehta has left his viewers with a figure trapped in that intense, critical moment before its destiny, either damnation and absolution, is made apparent.