One of the prime concerns of artists and writers during the 20th century — at least in the Western world — was to bring our understanding of the creative spirit into some sort of alignment with the ethos of individualism. An artist, we were told, stands apart from the crowd, by choice and of necessity. Some of the most lasting formal explorations of the previous hundred years, like abstract expressionism and surrealism, struck the same individualistic note — ranking subjective experience way above the common tropes of everyday reality.

But here’s a paradox: this Great Age of the Individual was also a time when artists tended to stick close to each other and were more powerfully driven by the herd instinct than ever before in history. Every new form —including surrealism and abstract expressionism — was championed by a collective of artists, and every individual talent happened to cast his lot with this group or the other. Becoming an official member of an artistic movement, and operating within some shared framework of an aesthetic worldview, was seen as perfectly kosher by the greatest figures of 20th-century art.

In the Germany of the 1900s — possibly the most fertile ground for the visual arts at the time, although soon to be dealt a death blow by two World Wars and rampaging Nazis — rival groups would lay claim to the country’s creative landscape much as street gangs go about marking their respective territories. There was the Dresden group of artists, called Die Brücke, or the Bridge, advocating a unique set of stylistic principles, including semi-abstraction and an emotive use of colour. Then, there was the famous Munich collective called Der Blaue Reiter (the Blue Rider), which, spearheaded by the Russian artist Vassily Kandisnky, started out as a splinter group of the old Dresden circle, and which later went on to become one of the most impactful art movements of all time, influencing artists as far afield as Britain, United States and India. 

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It’s possible to trace certain striking similarities between the Blue Rider collective and the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, even though both are separated by great historical and geographic divides. The founding members of both these groups were animated by utopian ideas of human progress, and by a belief in a “progressive” politics that laid as much emphasis social equality as on cultural education. But more important were the grievances they shared. The setting up of these groups was intended as a form of organised assault on academic art. The artist Franz Marc, who was central to the Blue Rider movement, wrote a short manifesto for his group’s almanac, published in 1912. “In this time of the great struggle for a new art,” he wrote, “we fight like disorganised savages against an old, established power.” 

It’s possible to trace certain striking similarities between the Blue Rider collective and the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, even though both are separated by great historical and geographic divides.

These artists — “The Savages of Germany”, as Marc’s essay was entitled — were involved in a pitched battle against a disproportionately strong and well-organised enemy. So putting together and popularising their own counter movement became more or less a matter of survival for them. And it is in this light that we must see many of the other art collectives of the 20th century. 

Had F.N. Souza not been expelled from the Sir J.J. School of Arts in 1945 — for his anti-British stance — the Bombay Progressives would never have come into existence. There was no aesthetic manifesto proposed by Souza as such for the Bombay artists, certainly not in the way Kandinsky tried to micromanage German expressionism with his treatise on abstract style, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Rather than agreeing upon what to do, the Bombay Progressives were united only on the question of what not to do. And what was not to be done was everything that was being done at art academies and being taught to art students.

Two Cats by FranzMarc.

Many years after the Bombay circle was disbanded — its members scattered across the globe and its ideas having more or less lost their appeal — M.F. Husain, a former Progressive, spoke of the fighting spirit that lay at the heart of this group. “We came out to fight against two prevalent schools of thought in those days,” Husain told Frontline magazine, “the Royal Academy, which was British-oriented, and the revivalist school in Mumbai, which was not a progressive movement… The group’s achievement has been to change the shape of Indian contemporary art.”

The extract cited above comes from an interview conducted in 1997, when Husain himself, along with several other giants of Indian modernism, cast an impressive, though receding, shadow on the world of contemporary art — a world that today seems much emptier and more barren than it has ever seemed in the last hundred years or so. This emptiness is reflected most of all in our age’s distrust of cultural movements. Today’s artists have no time for, and no faith in, manifestos of any kind. Except perhaps for the manifesto that bids you make money, cater to an audience, make a name for yourself, and so on.

An individualism of a predatory sort has come to dominate all spheres of life in our time — and the creative sphere is no exception. The artist is confronted from all sides by potential rivals, by competitors who must, at any cost, be outdone and outsold. There are no friends left in the business as such, no sharing of ideas or approaches, no credo on what to do and what not to do. The antagonisms of old have also become old-fashioned. The average contemporary artist stands for nothing and is against everything. Conversely, he makes the intellectual equivalent of an open-armed gesture at the world: everything is welcome, he declares, all forms, all subjects, all media. Sadly he has no friends left to teach him the value of discretion, just as he has no enemies to help him understand that sometimes, the road to creative freedom lies in the direction exactly opposite to where you’re headed.

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