Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde (1924-2001) is celebrated as a spiritual pioneer of Indian modernism, especially abstraction. Padma Shri V.S., one of India's most expensive artists with multiple record auctions, Gaitonde was born in 1924 to Goan parents in Nagpur, Maharashtra. After graduating from the prestigious Sir JJ School of Art in 1948, he was closely associated with the Bombay Progressive Artists' Group, formed in 1947 by FN Souza, SH Raza, MF Husain, KH Ara, HA Gade and SK baker. .
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In the 1950s, V. S. Gaitonde's work was featured in several national and international exhibitions. A child prodigy of the early days of Indian abstractionism, Gaitonde won first prize at the Young Asian Artists Exhibition in Tokyo in 1957, followed by the prestigious Rockefeller Fellowship in 1964. His international experiences and the climate of push towards globalization of post-independence India gave her art a complex transculturalism – a intersection of local narratives and international relevance. Interestingly, Gaitonde was opposed to the concept of abstractionism and considered himself more of a non-figurative painter.
Gaitonde at work in his studio at the Chelsea Hotel, New York, 1965; Photo by Bruce Fresh
experiments with color
Gaitonde built his canvas surfaces quite rigorously with rollers and spatulas. He covered the canvas with several layers of white to intensify the reflective index of the superimposed colors. After patiently drying the base, Gaitonde worked with opaque colours, then transparent or translucent ones. He put the colors into action by depositing drops of paint on the canvas which merged and separated into unique patterns. Gaitonde's paintings are very insightful in that one can see the color gradients before arriving at their final pattern. Gaitonde let colors be an exclusive occurrence for one painting and not record tones and repeat them in others – marking his approach to art as a powerful experience that could not bear repetition. With long drying times between stages of a painting, Gaitonde, who is known as a perfectionist, devoted himself to his patient process, even though he was only able to complete five to six paintings a year.
Left - Untitled, oil on canvas, 1958; Right - Untitled, oil on canvas, 1983 (Image source: Saffronart/Christie's)
A man of few words
Furthering his reputation as a recluse, his friends and contemporaries remembered V.S. Gaitonde constantly getting up to play Beethoven and Mozart records during their conversations. In paintings or conversations, Gaitonde said very little, interrupting the dialogue with long pauses that forced one to look within. Apparently, the reclusive artist's paintings are notoriously difficult to decipher. When you think about what he was trying to say with his paintings, you have to consider the possibility that in a sea of opinions and perspectives, he simply wanted to offer his viewers an island of absolute calm. Although his paintings are created with meticulous shading, Gaitonde masterfully created an atmosphere of nothingness to facilitate the search for meaning, so one must surrender to the pure experience of art.
Untitled (Bull Fight), Conte Pencil on paper, 1959 (Image source: Christie's)
Gaitonde's interest in Kandinsky's emotional art ideology and fondness for classical music seem to have produced a synesthetic effect, as he claimed to hear colors while painting. It also explains the evocative fields of color in his art, powerful enough to drown cerebral chaos in an all-encompassing jolt of calm. This meditative nature of his art seems to reflect his beliefs in Zen Buddhism. Likewise, Gaitonde's interest in calligraphy and ancient hieroglyphics (Egyptian writing system from the 32nd century BC) seeped into his work.
In the 1970s Gaitonde moved to New Delhi and established a terraced studio in Nizamuddin East. The 1970s were a much-celebrated decade in Gaitonde's career, during which he reached the pinnacle of his exploration of pure abstraction, mastering the transcendent possibilities of color and its painterly expression of stillness. Disabilities from an unfortunate accident in 1984 limited him to sketching on paper in his later years. In 1998, he announced his retirement
From its origins in India, abstractionism has long been notorious as a foreign, non-Indian style. Since the 2010s, with the phenomenal expansion of the South Asian art market, Gaitonde's art is suddenly in demand around the world. Early collectors of Gaitonde art enjoyed record sales that were long overdue for an artist of his caliber.
Untitled, ink and watercolor on cardboard, 1953 (Image source: Christie's)
In 2013, more than a decade after his death, Gaitonde's 1979 mustard-colored abstract sold for more than Rs. 20 crore ($3.28 million) at Christie's first auction. in India, setting a record for the best-selling Indian artwork in the modern era. and contemporary art. In 2015, another untitled work by Gaitonde from 1995 sold at Christie's third auction in India for a staggering price of Rs. 29.3 crores (US$4.4 million), breaking the record previous. At the Pundole auction in September 2020, Gaitonde's 1974 untitled oil on canvas painting fetched a hammer price of Rs. 32 crores (US$4.35 million), which making it the most expensive Indian artwork at the time.
Gaitonde's record summaries of 1995 and 1974 (Image source: BBC/Pundole's)
In March 2021, Gaitonde's 1961 oil on canvas again broke its own world record and that of Indian art, selling for Rs. 39.98 crores (US$5.55 million) at the live auction from Saffronart. The most expensive Indian artwork at the time, the abstract, showy, viscous blue was inspired by the Arabian ocean. It was one of the last horizontal paintings he created before switching completely to the vertical format.
Untitled, oil on canvas, 1961 (Image source: Saffronart)
Rare as Gaitonde's paintings are in number and value, what is even rarer is Gaitonde's stroke of genius in creating paintings that provoke new discoveries with every viewing!