LIKE INDIA AND China, more fast-growing countries in the 21st century are at the cusp of breaking out as hotbeds of fine art for collectors worldwide, according to Dan Herwitz, a professor of art history and comparative literature at the University of Michigan.
Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, South Africa and other nations boast artistic communities and political climates eager to break free from European modernism, to shape their own art movements. "It is a story that can be told in many places," said Herwitz, speaking recently at an "Eye on India" cultural event at Stanford University.
Herwitz's late parents, Chester and Davida Herwitz, were crusaders and collectors of Indian art since their first visits to India half-a-century ago. India's city streets, people, color, and sounds reminded them of New York's Lower East Side, where Jewish immigrants thrived in the early 20th century.
India's post-colonial artists, free of British rule, fought to create their own cultural language and aesthetic, seeking "a fusion" and "a melding" of the old and new. They aimed to "reclaim their cultural past while reaching out to the modernism of the West, to assimilate the idea of a global modern style," Herwitz said. For the most part, though, the art world pooh-poohed their work as second-rate imitations of European and American art.
The Herwitz family sought to introduce post-colonial and contemporary Indian art -- particularly the works of the late M.F. Husain, a leading modernist painter and filmmaker -- to the West. When a New York gallery owner told the street-savvy Husain that he should paint in the abstract like Picasso, Husain said, "There is nothing abstract about 800 million people."
The advocacy by the Herwitz family and a rising upper-class in India finally paid off. In the late 1980s, Christie's held a famous auction in Mumbai that gave global exposure to Indian artists. Overnight, prices skyrocketed ten-fold to 100-fold for the most prized paintings by Husain and others.
"Suddenly, everything changed," Herwitz said. "The Indian art market has become as robust as any in the world."