With the sun-drenched colours of Indian streets, melancholic male figures, and weird, magical-realist dreamscapes, Bhupen Khakhar’s paintings are personal, political, masculine and erotic. Born in Mumbai in 1934, he trained as a chartered accountant before being persuaded by the painter Gulam Mohammed Sheikh to study art criticism in Baroda, Gujarat. He attended lectures on European painting, and when he became a painter himself he combined the broken perspective of Cézanne, the paintbox-bright colours of Matisse and the faux-naive figures of the primitivist Henri Rousseau.
A new exhibition at Tate Modern in London, “You Can’t Please All”, is the first retrospective of his work since his death in 2003, and spans his 50-year career. In the first room we see him developing his visual language. He began by experimenting in collage before moving on to large-scale canvases inspired by scenes of day-to-day life in Baroda, combining miniature details with grand, acid-bright backgrounds. In “Factory Strike (Voice of Freedom)”, from 1972, half-formed characters with hollow eyes wave flags, their factory plant cordoned off in hot pink. His fascination with India’s workers is the subject of a part of the show called “The Insignificant Man”, which includes pictures of a window cleaner, a barber, a watchmaker and a tailor.
In 1979, Khakar visited England as a guest of the painter Howard Hodgkin, to be an artist in residence at Bath Academy. It was during this visit that he first experienced the gay-rights movement, and began to feel more comfortable with his own sexuality. In 1981 he painted “You Can’t Please All”, which is widely regarded as his “coming out” work. From then on, homosexual desire and love was a key theme in his work, which he often mixed with religious and spiritual symbolism. In one painting, a man with five penises is reminiscent of Vishnu, the four-armed god of wrath. The final room of the show packs the biggest punch. These works were created in the final years of Khakhar’s life, when he was suffering from prostate cancer. He portrays the violence and pain of his treatment unflinchingly, with a mordant humour.
Man Leaving (Going Abroad) (1970)
One of Khakhar’s earliest paintings, this is an example of his depictions of everyday life in India. A ship sails in the background, like those in pictures by Alfred Wallis, and in the foreground we see Khakhar’s miniaturist portrayal of a group of men tenderly saying goodbye to one another. The thick-leafed trees behind them could have been lifted directly from a Henri Rousseau painting.
Janta Watch Repairing (1972)
A single man in profile, a cigarette clasped between his lips, stares down at his work bench. Isolated, introverted and alienated, he is surrounded by clocks set to different times. In the early 1970s, Khakhar was affiliated with the Baroda Group, a band of artists who wanted to renew classical South Asian visual influences – including the reintroduction of the figure into painting, in opposition to the empty post-modernism of the mainstream.
You Can’t Please All (1981)
This is a courageous painting. On the right, Khakhar leans over a balcony, naked, looking at the village scene before him. In the centre, an elderly man rides a donkey with a young man by his side. The same pair appear at the bottom of the picture, this time digging the donkey’s grave. This is a recreation of Aesop’s fable about a man and his son taking their donkey to market. As they pass people on the road, some laugh at them for not riding the donkey, others chastise them when they do. Eventually the donkey dies, and the father says to his son, “Please all, and you will please none.” Khakar used the fable as a metaphor for his coming out – the first artist to do so publicly in India. He realised he’d never please everyone, so he may as well please himself.
This is one of Bhupen’s more explicit depictions of homosexual desire. It is based on a myth from the Mahabharata, in which an old king asks his son to give him his youth. In Khakhar’s interpretation, the figure of the older man on the bed is a self-portrait, and the younger angel is coming to give him sexual vitality and virility – something Khakhar was scared he was losing in old age.
An amalgamation of disparate small-scale canvases, “Night” is a surreal dreamscape. Male faces stare out with eyes full of threatenting intensity. “Night” adopts a divided visual field, as in David Hockney’s Polaroid collages from the 1980s. Here it ramps up the feeling of unease.
The Injured Head of Raju (2001)
Khakar’s final large-scale watercolour, made with visceral reds, yellows and highlights of cold blue, comes at the end of the show. A series of self-portraits showing him undergoing treatment for the cancer that would eventually kill him is juxtaposed with images capturing the violence that erupted between Muslim and Hindu communities in Gujarat in 2001. The personal and the political collide, his own physical rupture echoed by the rupture in the society he saw before him.