Mohan Samant

Midnight Fishing Party

1978

In Tate Modern

Artist
Mohan Samant 1924–2004
Medium
Paper, oil paint, acrylic paint, gouache and ink on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 1775 × 2282 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with funds provided by the South Asia Acquisitions Committee 2020
Reference
T15430

Summary

Midnight Fishing Party 1978 is a large mixed media work, consisting of several assemblages of figures made of paper cut-outs and folded paper spread across a large canvas. Some bodies appear superimposed and interlocked, nestled together in dense groups of plentiful shapes, while other individual ones, shown on a slightly larger scale, stand out against the deep blue background. To the left-hand side of the canvas appears a tall, standing, puppet-like figure, seen in profile and casually holding a fishing rod. Another fisherman and woman, morphing into one another, are lying in lascivious poses at the bottom of the canvas. Two additional figures, at the top left of the canvas and on the right-hand side, also hold fishing rods.

The work is typical of Samant’s distinctive technique and invented visual language. The artist started to experiment with relief processes made of paper and wrought iron in the early 1970s. A heart attack in 1974 and the subsequent time spent in hospital drawing on paper, was a turning point in his artistic renewal; but a formal shift away from oil on canvas had already begun in the years that preceded. Samant would develop his technique, carving shallow recesses in the canvas and adding ever more complex wirework constructions, until the end of his career.

While his early canvases can be compared to those characteristic of the Progressive Artists’ Group – a defining group for post-independent Indian art founded in 1947 by the painter Francis Newton Souza (1924–2002) and with which Samant was associated in the 1950s – his playful near-sculptural compositions, such as Midnight Fishing Party, are representative of the singular path Samant charted for himself and combine his numerous inspirations. In addition to being an artist, he was a lifelong player of the sarangi, an Indian string instrument. Samant applied the agility and creative imagination that comes from musical improvisation to his paintings and wirework constructions. Musical themes, human processions and references to Indian mythology also recur in his work, among other inspirations. Having been awarded a fellowship to sojourn in New York at the end of the 1950s, he drew from plural sources and influences, as he later recalled:

Arriving in New York with a fellowship, I was able to develop the linear relief and hieroglyphic aspects of Egyptian art and the rough texture of the Lascaux caves into a contemporary synthesis, while retaining the colors [sic.] of Indian miniature paintings. In recent years, I have added to these textured surfaces an extra dimension with wire drawings, affixed to the canvas, that take the form of archetypal figures dramatically acting upon a backdrop of timelessness created by the mythological.
(‘Mohan Samant: Reflections, Highlights, Writings’, in Hoskote, Sirhandi and Wechsler 2013, p.419.)

Archetypal ciphers, as such, no longer featured prominently in Samant’s work from the 1970s onwards, but his paintings retained the depth and mystery that come from his densely layered references.

From the 1970s Samant’s iconography became more and more intriguing and wild. In this case, the somewhat surreal title of Midnight Fishing Party sets the tone of the work. Formally, Samant borrowed from a variety of sources, including Indonesian wayang shadow puppet theatres and leather puppets from the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. References to European twentieth-century art were sometimes also a feature of his work. Pablo Picasso’s (1881–1973) Night Fishing at Antibes 1939 in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, for example, may have inspired Samant, who was a frequent visitor to the Museum. This work was on display there in 1962, during Samant’s first stay in New York, and again in 1972. Yet, contrary to the intensity of Picasso’s canvas, centred on a fisherman seizing a fish with a harpoon, the action in Samant’s work is dispersed across the picture and the men and women holding fishing rods adopt casual, languid poses. Furthermore, the work is also rooted in Bombay’s port culture. Midnight Fishing Party is a precursor to later works, such as The Catch 1997, in which Samant, who hailed from the coastal city of Bombay known for its fish markets, revisited the theme of fishing. Though he was well versed in European and North American art history, it was first and foremost to Indian references that Samant continuously returned.

Midnight Fishing Party was exhibited in The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India at the Asia Society Museum in New York in 2018.

Further reading
Ranjit Hoskote, Marcella Sirhandi and Jeffrey Wechsler (eds.), Mohan Samant: Paintings, Ahmedabad 2013.
Shanay Jhaveri (ed.), Everything We Do is Music, exhibition catalogue, The Drawing Room, London 2017.
Zehra Jumabhoy and Boon Hui Tan (eds), The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India, exhibition catalogue, Asia Society Museum, New York 2018.

Devika Singh
April 2019

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