- Vivan Sundaram 1943 – 2023
- Oil paint on canvas
- Frame: 1874 × 1783 × 67 mm
- Purchased with funds provided by Evelyn, Lady Downshire's Trust Fund 2020
This large oil painting by the Indian artist Vivan Sundaram references the student protests and ensuing civil unrest that took place across France in May 1968. Beginning with a series of occupation protests by student populations on the streets of Paris, the revolt grew to involve striking factory workers across France. Produced in the following months, Sundaram’s picture incorporates imagery adopted from various media sources documenting the events within an abstracted multi-coloured composition. Forms that allude to a gendarme’s helmet and flame gun are depicted on the left side of the painting, pointing towards the outline of a figure behind a tree trunk that stretches the height of the canvas on the right side of the painting. At the base of the trunk is a pool of light blue with wavy blue lines suggesting a moving body of water. Bands of coloured stripes ascend vertically and at angles along the left side and top of the painting, partially framing the action and forms of the uprisings on the streets.
May 68 is characteristic of Sundaram’s early painting practice in which he employed pop art strategies, incorporating everyday elements and images from the media into his paintings. Sundaram first studied painting at the Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, India (1962–5) where he was introduced to the work of British pop artists, such as David Hockney (born 1937) and Richard Hamilton (1922–2011), by his friend Bhupen Khakhar (1934–2003) and the visiting British artist Jim Donovan. In 1965 he became a Commonwealth scholar at the Slade School of Fine Art, London, and was mentored by R.B. Kitaj (1932–2007), an established figure of the London School and British pop. While there, Sundaram also undertook a course in the history of experimental cinema led by Sir William Coldstream (1908–1987). Influenced by these encounters, Sundaram used montage to juxtapose elements from various sources and differing aesthetic registers to reflect the politically charged zeitgeist of the period. Curator Deepak Ananth has reflected on the artist’s use of abstracted forms to suggest broader associations, with specific reference to this painting:
The heraldic aspect of May 68 would appear to evoke the ebullient mood of the momentous events of that month; on closer scrutiny one intuits that the parallel coloured bands that appear as an abstract compositional device could allude to the barricades in the streets of Paris, and that the seemingly decorative flourish in red, partially outlined against the white cut out shape of a head and torso, describes the form of a sickle.
(Deepak Ananth, ‘Precarious Poetics’, in Haus der Kunst 2018, p.14.)
Although Sundaram was geographically distant from the Paris revolts, he engaged with student-led activism in London that aligned with the anti-apartheid movement and civil protests from across the world. Reflected in the energised atmosphere of the painting through the development of a geometric abstraction, the artist’s engagement with politics during these formative years has continually influenced his practice. Later works in which he combined drawing, sculpture, photography and film in conceptual installations of varying scales, meditate on moments of historic significance and injustice. His major installation Memorial 1993–2014 (Tate T15329) expands from a press photograph of a fallen victim to the riots that followed the destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque in Bombay, now Mumbai, in 1992.
Both Memorial and May 68 were included in Sundaram’s retrospective exhibitions held at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Delhi and Haus der Kunst, Munich in 2018.
Vivan Sundaram, ‘Outside the Cubicle’, talk given for Tate Research Centre: Asia conference ‘Transnational Cities: Tokyo and London’, Tate Britain, London, 30 September 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1p6DKaezpE, accessed 7 May 2019.
Vivan Sundaram: Distunctures, exhibition catalogue, Haus der Kunst, Munich 2018, reproduced p.51.
Natasha Ginwala, ‘In the Living Present: Vivan Sundaram’, Mousse Magazine, April-May 2018, http://moussemagazine.it/natasha-ginwala-vivan-sundaram-2018/, accessed 7 May 2019.
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