by Sukanya DebSep 23, 2022
It is said about Pablo Picasso that he took about nine months to finish his 1907 oil painting, (eventually) titled Les Demoiselles d'Avignon – his most ambitious work to that point. Between 1906 and 1907, he made hundreds of sketches and drawings. His ‘preparatory work’ was perhaps more comprehensive than that of any other artist in history for a single artwork and certainly more intensive than for any other artwork he produced. His preparatory sketches provide a window into the artists thought process in conceptualising 'the final work'. The initial frame included seven figures in the curtained room of a brothel, five women and two male figures. But in the final painting, Picasso shifted the composition only to that of the women confronting the viewer.
An artist’s sketch book contains doodles, half-baked ideas, and preliminary plots. Many of them often do not ever see the light of the day and several others significantly change by the time the final work is created. Of course, not all ‘drawings’ are meant to be ‘rough thoughts’.
I speak to Indian contemporary artist Jitish Kallat, who recently curated a show for South South project. I draw, therefore I think, which comprises works of 60 international artists, is Kallat’s curatorial project for an exhibition, the only previous one being a biennale format, the 2014 edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale. “My instinct was not so much to ‘curate the content’ but instead ‘curate the intent’, by letting the prompts and the ensuing dialogue with galleries and artists, produce a dynamic and self-generated organising principle; a kind of natural selection within the exhibition,” says Kallat.
Rahul Kumar (RK): The title of the show is derived from Darwin’s diary scribble and an attempt to interpret whether he wrote the words ‘I think’ after having completed the drawing or the words preceded the sketch. Why is it important to delve into this aspect of an artist’s journey?
Jitish Kallat (JK): I would say that the title came out of Descartes, while reflecting on Darwin’s drawing of the phylogenetic tree. The title plays with the Cartesian idea of I think, therefore I am. The exhibition is a reflection on how many creative individuals, consciously or unconsciously, often think via the process of drawing. A deeper reflection on their intellectual and artistic lives may reveal how drawing, or some form of mark making, has been a precursor to insight. While working on this project I had these questions in mind. Could one’s creative biography be read through the doodles one has made? Can drawing allow us to register patterns of mutations in our fast-transforming world in its many dimensions: social, political, ecological, technological, and aesthetic? These questions are important as they go to the very heart of the creative process and our ability to make sense of the world.
RK: There are several process-based practices where the material and its treatment define significant aspect of eventual form of the work. The act of drawing therefore is not a necessary step in an artistic process. What is the focus of I draw, therefore I think?
JK: The eventual material, form and shape of the work, is part of the materialisation of the work… the act of drawing, is part of the conception or origination of the work. Hence to discount the activity of drawing from the artistic process is to miss the very genesis of the creative act. One could say that I draw, therefore I think probes this vital question about creative process by holding the Darwinian sketch as both lens and prompt. Equally it looks at the phylogenetic tree to provoke a reflection on our common ancestry and shared heredity, going back not just to our earliest single cellular ancestors, but to the very origins of the universe.
RK: Extending this thought, why do the doodles or preparatory drawings become important study to analyse, or even fully understand an artistic process? Afterall, there are reasons why the artist chose to showcase the final work and not share the ‘map’ of his journey to it.
JK: Drawings are not just preparatory sketches. They are often fully autonomous artworks. I would say that drawings, and private notebooks are like fossil records of one’s reflections and inquiries. They are vital tools in any creative or intellectual process.
RK: You were recently in conversation with artist William Kentridge and oncologist Shiddhartha Mukherjee, speaking about that moment of enlightenment of creation right at the beginning of an idea. It must have been an enriching chat with Kendtirdge talking about drawing as his art and Mukherjee in relation to DNA. What was your key takeaway from this conversation?
JK: As a starting point to this conversation, I had a metaphoric juxtaposition of the gene as a functional ‘unit of heredity' and the drawing as a fundamental ‘unit of creativity’ to arrive at a trope to carry forward the inquiries in the curatorial impulse into this inaugural conversation with Siddhartha and William. The conversation went in many directions probing the artistic process and the inherent tensions in the act of taking creative leaps. There were also reflections on the artistic and scientific process, and the role of ambiguity and creative risks while following one’s intuitions.
RK: Finally, please take us through the curatorial process of selecting the works of 60 artists for this show? How did you narrow down the collection for the exhibition on a format so broad?
JK: I have said elsewhere that given the very structure of the South South project, my instinct was to not necessarily “curate the content” of this exhibition but in fact “curate the intent”. On being invited by the South South project, somehow through a series of free associations, my attention was drawn towards the Darwin’s drawing we discussed. This drawing has been of interest to me for many years and it felt like a rich and potent prompt to share with artist colleagues as well as for the audience to collectively reflect on the urgencies and potency of drawing today. In my letters to artists, I did reflect on whether Darwin could have written the words ‘I think’ first or did he make this remarkable drawing first and on observing the implications of what it means, when he writes, “I think”. This reflection on drawing, as well as other questions about our evolution and the present moment which emerge while looking at the drawing, form part of the collective prompts. There were also Zoom and phone calls with artists and galleries. The exhibition is the result of echoes that have returned from the ensuing conversations. The exhibition, I felt should produce itself in the same manner in which drawings produce themselves… wherein marks and gestures begin to appear and produce a direction for the drawing as if through a process of natural selection.
Click here to know more about “I draw, therefore I think, Online Whiteboard for Visual Collaboration”.