To honour the 75th anniversary of the first All India Test tour to England in 1932, MCC sent award-winning British portraitist Stuart Pearson Wright to Mumbai in 2008 to paint The Indian Triptych, which comprises portraits of three of India’s most talented players during the twentieth century: Kapil Dev, Bishan Bedi and Dilip Vengsarkar.
The sitters were chosen by MCC Arts & Library committee both for their cricketing skill and for their outstanding performances at Lord’s. On the hallowed turf Bedi took six wickets in a Test innings, Kapil Dev won the World Cup as captain and Vengsarkar achieved three consecutive Test centuries.
Cricket fields are so manicured that the grass sometimes looks fake
The London-based artist Wright has spent much of his career attempting to subvert traditional portrait painting. He is particularly inspired by strange Surrealist landscapes and theatrical backdrops, which he constructs around his figures to tell a story or comment on the painting processes. A common trend in his work is the incorporation of natural and man-made materials, such as hair and nylon, to add a layer of realism to the fabricated nature of painting.
I visited Pearson Wright in his studio in Bethnal Green to gain an insight into his picture-making process and to learn about his experiences in producing portraits of the four cricket superstars.
Your work has a strong Surrealist element. For example, in The Indian Triptych the grass is too perfect and the sky too blue to be believable. The unnaturally bright daylight and heavy shadows seem particularly reminiscent of Salvador Dalí’s work.
It’s funny you mention Dalí because the Surrealist painter Yves Tanguy, who was painting around the same time, is probably my favourite artist.
I painted the players under heavy spotlights in a hired studio space in Mumbai. The unnatural daylight points to the fact that these scenes are set-up – the pitch is a theatrical backdrop constructed after the sittings took place. I painted the Mumbai stadium from photographs back in London.
Initially I thought the grass was painted in such a flawless way, but as I went closer to the canvas I realised that it was actually a collage element. Flock has a grass-like texture, but were there any other reasons for using it?
That’s a good question. I think I was drawn to the kitsch quality of it. Cricket fields are so manicured that the grass sometimes looks fake. I like the contrast between the visual quality of the painted figures and the strange kind of industrial feel of the flock, which is nylon-based and applied to the canvas by static electricity.
The perspective in the paintings is distorted. The pitch is tilted forwards showing the crease lines at a conflicting angle to the rest of the composition. Why is this?
When you’re constructing a picture there’s always a tension between the two-dimensional surface of the canvas and the three-dimensional space you are trying to depict – like an area of field. As a painter you’re always trying to make it look as though it’s real space, but actually it’s very abstract and it does end up looking very flat.
To what extent did you rely on photographs when constructing these portraits?
I had maybe three or four sittings with each player, during which I concentrated on their faces and hands. I took Vengsarkar’s pads back to my studio and painted them from life, but the rest was painted from photographs.
I’m never interested in trying to create a picture that’s convincing in the way that a photograph is. Rather I enjoy playing with elements of photographic realism, but mixing them with something else, so you’re lured in by the realism and then something else in the image doesn’t quite look right. It becomes slightly unsettling and challenges your perception in one way or another.
Kapil Dev’s hand is painted to look like paint, rather than painted to look like flesh. Why is this?
It was quite interesting to paint his hand in movement with the ball, which was a strange thing to do in a picture that is so static. I always like to try and set one thing up, then jeopardise it. I have a sort of perverse sense of humour like that. I want the spectator to believe one thing, but not another. The whole experience can be a bit odd
Do you think you have got close to showing us who these cricketers are as people?
I’m obsessed with the idea that paintings are fictions. I like the idea that this looks not like a portrait of Kapil Dev, but a picture of a picture of him. I like the idea that someone may have done this incredibly lifelike picture of Kapil Dev and sort of stuck it in a field, and what I’m making is a picture of that rather than a picture of him, so there’s another remove from the real Kapil Dev – whoever that is. Because I don’t buy into all that business about how the portrait captures the soul of the sitter.
I think portraits say more about the circumstances of the sittings and the objectives of the person who agreed the commission, and the narcissism of the sitter and the ego of the painter. All these things, I think, are much more apparent than the soul of the sitter.
Tell us a bit about your experience painting these cricket superstars. Did you gain much of an insight into who they are as people and is this reflected in your work?
Bishan Bedi is one of the sweetest men I’ve ever met. He is very charming, very funny, very interesting – although he was obsessed with the air-conditioning unit, because it was about 40 degrees outside when I was there. He’s got a cheeky, little grin. I very rarely paint people smiling, but that was his personality so I thought it was important that it came across.
Kapil Dev was a sort of wheeler dealer – he was looking for an angle the whole time. He was trying to set things up, trying to see how money could be made out of the experience of being painted. He has a steely, determined expression in the picture. I didn’t really try hard to make him anything. I just allowed his face to do the talking, and his shoes. His shoes point to the fact that he is an ‘important man’ and he really believes that.
Same with Vengsarkar, who was a dark horse. I found him to be quite prickly and awkward. He is being bowled out in the picture and the stormy sky reflects the uneasiness of the sitting. Vengsarkar was unexpectedly accompanied by a friend and journalist; details of the commission were subsequently leaked before our scheduled press conference, which was very disappointing.
Many Members have inquired about why Vengsarkar and Kapil Dev are wearing shoes in their portraits.
Well, good. I want them to question. The reason Kapil Dev and Vengsarkar are wearing shoes is because I kept telling them to bring trainers along to their sittings and they never did.
So in end I thought, well, wear shoes in your picture then, it’s not my portrait. And it really is that simple.
I’m always intrigued by the historical processes that take place in order for portraits to be made, and that’s a prime example. I allow chance to dictate things.
When you’re making portraits you’re in the business of fiction making. It’s not like I’m a photo-journalist and this is a specific game where Kapil Dev was about to bowl. This is a contrived fiction. By including the fact that he didn’t bring trainers I am referencing the reality behind the set-up.
The reality was that this person came to a studio and was wearing shoes, and therefore I paint that. You have an element of reality creeping through a fiction, and of course it looks really weird because anyone who knows anything about cricket will look at that and say, ‘but why is he wearing shoes?’ I want them to ask questions.
Your drawing of Tendulkar was completed around the same time as The Indian Triptych. How did this experience compared with the other sittings?
It was quite a different experience because I drew him at home in his house. It was quite an enlightening experience. He’s a god in India. His level of fame deifies him and people speak of him in very hallowed terms.
I think it’s difficult for a European to understand what someone like him means out there to the average Indian on the street because in India the divide between the rich and poor is so much more exaggerated.
I was quite moved when talking to him because he has been a superstar since he was a child. His whole life has been designed by other people – he doesn’t really have any real liberty to do what he wants and go where he wants. On the streets of Mumbai he would be crushed. He said he loved going to London because he can walk in Regent’s Park with his son, and he said it so wistfully. It was such a tender thing to say.
There was nothing particularly interesting or compelling about him, just the circumstances. He is just a normal bloke, except he is trapped in his own life and there is nothing he can do to escape – a victim of his own talent.