Monday, June 18, 2007

The Financial Express : The show-stopper catalogues

Glossy and expensive, they are today almost as much of a collectible as the painting they endorse

Posted online: Sunday, June 17, 2007 at 0000 hours IST

It used to be the size of a postcard. There would be a couple of pictures jostling for space, with a few hundred words on the artist thrown in. But that was many years ago. Now, the humble art catalogue has morphed into quite a show-stopper.

For one, art catalogues have become glossier than ever before and have many more pages. And, every new catalogue tries to outdo its predecessor in design, photography and printing. As far as the money spent on it — well, no one’s counting. The reason? It’s boom time in the Indian art market these days. Whether it is an artist spending from his own pocket or a gallery that is pulling out all stops to get that oh-so-sophisticated catalogue made, the fact is that all eyes are on the millions that are going to come from the exhibition/auction.

As artist Sanjay Bhattacharyya says: “Earlier, my catalogue used to be a folder with a maximum of three folds and may be two pictures. Now, cost is not such a big constraint as paintings sell, unlike earlier, when they didn’t.”

It is usually the galleries come out with truly high-end catalogues, which are often turned into books. This is simply because their budgets are bigger. Says Neville Tuli, Chairman, Osian’s: “We print about 2,000 catalogues for each auction and the budget is around Rs 12-15 lakh. Books with great passion aren’t made with just high production and design values. There has to be a generosity with knowledge and it’s a sharing process. This is still to emerge in India.”

So, what should a catalogue have? Ideally, good prints of some of the paintings that are on exhibit, the artist’s biodata, price lists and a write up on the artist’s work by an art historian. As former bureaucrat and writer Ashok Vajpeyi says: “Exhibitions come and go, but catalogues remain. It is actually a form of documentation.” Today, critical appraisal of an artist’s work is pretty much absent. Catch any writing that cites something negative about the artist. Gayatri Sinha, who has essayed many a piece on artists, defends it thus: “If you don’t endorse the artist’s work, you shouldn’t agree to do the writing.” So, posterity gets to read only the good about the artist. The bad gets covered in the haze of the past. How much documentation is that, then?

About the design and production of catalogues, Parthiv Shah, a graphic designer and photographer, says: “Because of better printing quality, we are now able to give glass effects, print black on black, give more breathing space between images instead of unnecessary layering. Colour correction for paintings is also far better today.” All this put together and catalogues are becoming collector’s items, as film posters have been for a while now. Consider this: Shah says the catalogue on painter Benode Behari Mukherjee that he designed was marked at Rs 6,000. Then there are those, like artist Subroto Kundu’s, which have an original work bound together with the other 100-odd pages… This being the trend, it’s not far-fetched to say that catalogues themselves could be on the auction block in the near future.

As of now, though, catalogues are published to give details of the exhibition/auction to collectors, the media, art critics and artists. According to Arun Vadehra of Vadehra Art Gallery, “Catalogues are normally given free. We have produced 14 books to date, and most of them are given free. This is a cost that we bear keeping in mind the huge volumes that exist in the art market.” But as someone on the art circuit says: “If you don’t disclose your credentials, chances are you have to pay for the catalogue.” And the price tag is usually Rs 200-300 for most of them today. In all of this, the artist is the one who’s never had it so good. He’s making a killing from the colours that he splashes on the canvas. He’s getting good mileage from the reams that are being written on him. The catalogue lives on, for art lovers and his grandchildren to pour over some day. Until then, some say, it makes a great calling card for the artist.

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