Sangram Majumdar in Jerusalem

By Heddy Breuer Abramowitz

SANGRAM MAJUMDAR, A YOUNG PAINTER from the U.S., was the Jerusalem Studio School’s visiting artist for its eleventh Jerusalem Landscape Painting Marathon. He  brought with him 13 small paintings and several larger drawings for exhibition in the school’s Hall of Casts. His gallery talk drew an over-capacity audience. It was squatting-room only when Israel Hershberg, the school’s founder and director, introduced him.

Hershberg opened with an acknowledgment of the death of Avigdor Arikha. An ex-pat Israeli living in Paris, Arikha came to prominence by abandoning abstraction in its heyday and returning to depiction. His devotion to observation made him seem an anachronism in a fledgling Israeli milieu enamored of the international avant garde. It also made him a fitting model for the Jerusalem Studio School with its commitment to the traditions of representational painting.

Like Arikha, Sangram Majumdar spans more than one world. Indian-born, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and Indiana University, he currently divides his time between the Maryland Institute College of Art, in Baltimore, and his Brooklyn studio.

The subjects he brought with him, worked on 12-inch square panels, ranged from nudes to scenes of Montecastello, the Umbrian hill town where he has taught at the International School. His drawings are the result of many starts on the same page, each wiped out and culminating in a history of the drawing. The pentimenti underneath grows richer with each new start.

Sangram Majumdar, untitled drawing

His process, applied to paint,  yields a richly colored surface with a delicate range of touches. It is a way of working that is particularly suited to the visual complexity of detritus, shapeless piles of things on the floor. Not a crowd-pleaser, it is the sort of subject that defeats many painters because it is so hard to impose order on it.

Sangram Majumdar, “Eclipsed” (2009)

In his talk, he denied any particular affection for still life, and communicated a clear predilection for figurative painting. The work itself testifies to the primacy of color.  It was good to hear him tell about the rigor of his studio practice which can be brutal at times. He often finds himself painting at different times of day and night, working simultaneously on several large complicated multi-figured works.

His theme for the evening was Learning to See. It was a generous talk, revealing not only his studio practices but also relationships between one work and another. {Meant for the practitioner rather than for general audiences, his in-depth exploration of his development proved a bit lengthy and hard on the non-English speakers).

“Abstract qualities are the fundamentals of painting.  Painting makes me a better observer, helps me to slow down,” Majumdar opened.  For a young artist, the focus is on grasping essential tools. Then later, he stated, those same problems remain for the mature painter. “The problems stay the same,” he said. “What changes is the artist.”

Sangram Mujumdar, study for “Seated Woman”

Majumdar described the need for influences on art work as an insider’s short cut to condense the discussion, much as sports lovers get down to the nitty gritty by quickly comparing their favorite teams. Influence are revealing choices understood by the cognoscenti.  Majumdar galloped through his pantheon: Degas, Pontormo, Cezanne, Piero de le Francesca, Morandi, Diebenkorn, de Kooning, Edwin Dickinson, Freud, Uglow, Auerbach, Giacommetti, Garcia Lopez and more.  He panned Sargent as a one hit wonder.  One senses that he has inhaled the lessons of a vast number of artists in the Western canon.  Living in India until he was 13, his most of his education has been western- oriented.. Only recently has he turned to Indian culture as another potential source of inspiration.

“Influences are only a starting point,” Majumdar says, “then you have to make it [a painting] your way.” During Matisse’s time, he pointed out, it was believed that painters must either work exclusively from life or could follow their creative instincts.  Matisse found this to be an unhelpful division and said, “A distinction is made between artists who work directly from nature and those who work purely from imagination. Neither of these methods should be preferred to the exclusion of the other. Often both are used in turn by the same man . . . . “

Majumdar agreed that the same artist can work from both reality and his imagination. Far from a controversial thought in the contemporary art world, it is, perhaps, a novel idea to some of the students in the audience. Many of them are attached to the dogma of painting solely from observation.

Most often, he works directly from nature. He places models in set-ups that are part of his domestic life, displaying its chaos matter-of-factly. Occasionally, he makes additions that help create the space he wants, adding, for instance, wallpaper or even home-made tiles to complete the space.  “Use whatever you need to make a painting,” he says. Drawing practice is part of his daily routine. He sketches during the mundane parts of his day to keep his eye and hand moving together.

He was candid in discussing both successes and failures. He described his work with photography, computer set-ups, plastic dolls—whatever props helped in constructing his compressed urban street scenes. With three or more models scheduled in back to back sessions, he often works on paintings simultaneously. Each is exclusive to a specific times of day. He keeps his options open as he works, freely repositioning figures or deleting them entirely as the painting evolves. The same model can be turned or repeated in a given work

The Israeli art world, anxious not to appear parochial, too often applauds the unaccomplished. It embraces pedestrian trends, where “bad painting” wins awards and where concepts can produce visually bankrupt images, it is not often that one has a chance to see small painterly works as lovely as these and the drawing discipline that underpins them.

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Let me go back briefly to the beginning of the evening. I would like to end there, with something Israel Hershberg revealed in his introductory remarks: Avigdor Arikha had bequeathed him his painting easel. It was no empty gesture.