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Mon, Aug 28, 2023 10:54amGrey Clock 4 min

Christie’s will feature classical Indian art created from the third century through the beginning of the 20th century in a standalone sale for the first time this September.

The online auction is a break with the traditional approach of including Indian, Himalayan, and Southeast Asian art in one sale and responds to collectors of modern and contemporary Indian art who are “interested in following art history backwards,” finding links in the art of recent time to the faraway past, says Tristan Bruck, head of sale.

The previous model better suited “an old-fashioned collector who was buying works in all three sub-niches,” Bruck says. “A collector who bought Indian paintings, for instance, was likely to also go out and buy a Tibetan thangka (or tapestry).”

The Arts of India sale, open from 10 a.m. Sept. 13 to 9 a.m. Sept. 27, is paying particular attention to works that transition Indian art from the classical to the modern era, a period that until now hadn’t received close attention, he says.

Maqbool Fida Husain, Untitled (Naga), circa 1971
Christie’s Images Ltd. 2023

In the midst of the online offering, on the morning of Sept. 20, Christie’s also will hold a live sale in New York of mostly modern but also contemporary South Asian art, which is predominately from India in addition to Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.

Christie’s expectation is that collectors who attend, or dial into the modern and contemporary sale via phone or online, might be intrigued to also take a look at the online sale, where earlier Indian works provide inspiration for colours, style, and themes by 20th-and 21st-century artists. The auction house will also display the works together in its Rockefeller Center galleries in New York.

Collectors “realize that this art wasn’t created in a vacuum,” says Nishad Avari, Christie’s head of South Asian modern and contemporary art. “There’s thousands of years of tradition that modern and contemporary artists in the region drew on and continue to draw from.”

Consider Maqbook Fida Husain’s Untitled (Naga), a massive work of five female figures and a serpent (or naga) painted around 1971. The painting portrays four of the women with breaks at the neck, hips, and knees, alluding to physical forms expressed in temple sculpture of the Gupta Empire from the fourth- to early sixth century, Avari says.

The painting, expected to achieve between US$700,000 and US$1 million, likely was created to commemorate the launch of a monograph of Husain’s work that was published by Harry N. Abrams, who acquired the painting, Christie’s said in a catalog note. Abrams, a vast collector who also published art and illustrated books about Old Masters through artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, had displayed the work in his offices and later in his family’s home for more than 50 years.

A very large and important Pichvai of Vishvarupa Amidst A Lotus Pond, India, Rajasthan, 18th-19th Centuries
Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2023

Going further back in time within the Arts of India sale is a Pichvai painting of Vishvarupa—a form of the god Krishna—painted in the 18th to 19th century. The work, originally a temple banner, is a traditional Indian form and concept, “but by the 19th century you can see artists are working with different types of perspective,” Bruck says. They are also using a more modern color palette, with vibrant pinks and blues, and the canvas is large—about six by eight feet.

“This could go in a gallery with the modern works, which are on these large canvases,” Bruck says. The painting “tells a great story alongside 20th-century work, being able to see the origin of a lot of these concepts.”

The Pichvai—a term that refers to devotional folk art paintings—is estimated to achieve at least US$120,000.

Another popular category are so-called company-school paintings that came out of India’s princely courts beginning with the imperial Mughal around 1600 through to the 19th century, when they were commissioned by British administrators, Bruck says.

Each court had its own style that may have been influenced by other courts and changed over time, he says. The works, often called miniature paintings because of the small, precise figures and scenes they depicted, were typically created in albums, or series, making them highly collectible.

Until recently, a group of collectors had focused solely on this sector somewhat in isolation, but Bruck says, Christie’s is seeing an “explosion of interest” in court painting albums, such as an illustration from the “Bharany” Ramayan series that is being offered in the upcoming sale.

A collector “can see what the other pages from that album have sold for and sort of put them together as an album in [their] mind and ideally collect more than one or try to get a few from the set,” Bruck says. The fact they exist within series also gives collectors confidence in what to pay, he adds.

Sayed Haider Raza, Rajasthan, 1983
Christie’s Images Ltd. 2023

The Bharany Ramayan work in the sale, titled The Monkey Army Intruding Upon a Demon’s Cave, from “Punjab Hills, Kangra or Guler, first generation after Nainsukh or Manaku,” from 1775-1780, is being offered for a minimum of US$80,000. A Patna court painting of a marriage procession at night, from around 1810 and painted in a more European style, is being offered for a minimum of US$10,000.

For many collectors, those price points are more accessible than, for example, the estimated US$250,000 they would pay for a work by Sayed Haider Raza, whose Rajasthan, 1983, is included in the modern and contemporary sale. The structure and primary-colour palette of Rajasthan, in fact, is intentionally drawn from court paintings, Avari says.

“The way in which their discrete sections, cells, in which he paints and the way in which he surrounds it with the red border is a direct reference to Pahari or Rajasthani (court) painting,” he says.

When collectors can see the court paintings that inspired a modern work they own, and they can acquire them for far less, “why not hang them side-by-side?” Avari says.


What a quarter-million dollars gets you in the western capital.

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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”