Culture Clash

A well-known figure within contemporary Indian art, Rekha Rodwittiya rose to prominence internationally through the Eighties and Nineties with her forceful, vibrantly colored and idiosyncratic depictions of female forms and rituals.


The product of a liberal, middle class, highly educated cross-cultural household – her father was a Parsi and her mother a Roman Catholic from South India – since the 1970s Rodwittiya has forged her own distinctive artistic language. This too is a radical mingling: of Mughal painting from Persia and India, of folk art from the Indian subcontinent and of western traditions absorbed from books, travels and her time as a student at London’s Royal College of Art in the early 1980s. The vital thread, however, linking her work, is its celebration of female strength, even in vulnerability.


This autumn a new show of her work opens at Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai. Sixty this year, Rodwittiya’s most recent works incorporate autobiographical photographs and printed images with watercolor and acrylic paint. For some pictures, Rodwittiya reconceives an image from earlier in her career, building up an interior hinterland of elusive symbols and photographic images within the original bounding line. As such, they take her back to her formative years, at the renowned Faculty of Fine Arts at Baroda University.


A solitary child, home-schooled until the age of seven, painting and drawing had offered a potent release for her vivid imagination. At art school, however, under the inspiring teacher KG Subramanyan, Rodwittiya was encouraged to experiment across media, including photography. She remembers: “I would wander around Baroda taking photographs of street life.” She was fortunate to be part of a great movement of proudly self-confident experimentation and renewal of figurative painting in India.


Rodwittiya rejects the term “feminist artist” but she is, she agrees, undoubtedly both a feminist and an artist. As she puts it, “I live and breathe as a feminist so therefore that is the prism through which I perceive everything around me, and so therefore it would patina my art as well.”


Rekha@Sixty: Transient Worlds of Belonging, an exhibition of new works by Rekha Rodwittiya, runs from October 31, 2018 at the Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai


Your address: The St. Regis Mumbai

Rekha Rodwittiya 3_V2


Rekha Rodwittiya (photo courtesy of the artist and Sakshi Gallery)

Mrs Astor Invites

For almost four decades, New York society – then the world’s most rigid and exclusive – was ruled by one woman, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, known throughout New York as the Mrs Astor. Her prestige was such that to be invited to Mrs Astor’s annual ball, invariably on the third Monday in January, was to be “in” society; not to be asked was to live in outer darkness. Or so it seemed to the many aspirants to her ballroom.


These were largely from the group known as the “Bouncers” or nouveaux riches. Huge fortunes had been made in the aftermath of the Civil War and those who had made them – or rather, their wives – wanted to display their new wealth in the most prestigious place of all, Caroline Astor’s social circle. But extreme wealth did not help towards social inclusion; the Vanderbilts, almost as rich as the Astors and frequently with grander houses, were firmly outside the pale. At least two, preferably more, generations were needed to disinfect a fortune from murky origins – and Commodore Vanderbilt, the combative, shrewd, poorly educated, foul-mouthed founder of the family’s wealth, was still very much alive. He would not have been permitted to cross the threshold of Caroline’s drawing room – nor indeed would he have wanted to.


The Astor family fortune was founded in the 1800s by German immigrant John Jacob Astor, and by the time of Caroline’s marriage had become a byword for wealth, magnificent houses and also hotels – with a reputation for superb hospitality which would ultimately reach its most lasting monument in the splendid St. Regis hotel built by her son John Jacob Astor IV in the early 1900s.


Caroline herself came from “old” New York society, an upper echelon formed of the descendants of the original English and Dutch settlers, known as the Knickerbockers (from the short trousers – we would call them culottes – worn by the early Dutch). The Knickerbocker world was one of social propriety, of sober, dignified people living in sober, dignified houses.


They were lawyers, businessmen, with wives who dressed expensively but discreetly: once married, they dressed in dark colors and no Knickerbocker wife would dream of immediately wearing one of the Worth dresses so regularly sent out to her from Paris. It would be left, layered in tissue paper and probably still slung in the trunk in which it had crossed the Atlantic, until the words “latest fashion” (subtext: as worn by the nouveaux riches) could no longer be applied to it. Knickerbocker families married into each other’s families, and dined – at a suitably early hour – in each other’s houses. They were a tribe, and a tribe that jealously guarded its exclusivity.


But where the custom of others in that circle was to use two names, often their husband’s, as in “Mrs John Jacob Astor” or “Mrs August Belmont”, Caroline had persuaded her husband to drop his middle name, Backhouse, perhaps because backhouse was an old name for an outdoor privy. Besides, being known simply as “Mrs Astor” underlined Caroline’s regal status.


Mrs Astor Greeting Guests at her Ball

Age of elegance

Mrs Astor (center) greets guests at one of her sumptuous Gilded Age balls

 (Getty Images)

She had achieved this unchallenged position partly through her own personality and ambition, and partly with the assistance of the man who became Grand Vizier to her Sultana. This was Ward McAllister, a socially ambitious southerner who had realized that unless steps were taken to mold society into an acceptable model, it would be overwhelmed by the flood of new money now pouring into New York.


McAllister had managed to blend the old and the new by the simple expedient of picking what he and a coterie of friends saw as the most socially desirable from both groups – half a dozen each of the Knickerbockers and the most presentable Bouncer men – with these 12 as “patriarchs” launching a series of exclusive dances, with tickets strictly limited. Their exclusiveness made them an immediate success and the struggle to acquire tickets to these events was intense and often bitter, as only those who passed stringent criteria made it. And in Caroline Astor he saw the only person fit to rule this new élite.


Caroline’s great asset was her dignity, closely followed by her discretion – she is never known to have made a controversial remark. She could be friendly, but never intimate, and she never confided. Another woman might have found it difficult to live down the behavior of a husband such as Caroline’s, for William Backhouse Astor was known to be a heavy drinker and an even more voracious womanizer.


Fortunately, both of these pursuits largely took place at sea, as he spent much of his time aboard his yacht, The Ambassadress (at that time the largest private yacht in the world). As rumors of boatloads of chorus girls and a hold full of whiskey swirled around New York, Mrs Astor would smile serenely and remark – if anyone dared ask about him – that the sea air was so good for dear William, while regretting that she could not accompany him as she was such a poor sailor herself. For what Mrs Astor did not want to see, she did not see.


In person, she was of medium height, plump, plain and olive-skinned, with black hair (later a black wig) and smallish gray eyes that missed nothing. She favored dark colors – usually black but often a regal purple – and wore her diamonds rather as an idol bedecked for worship. At one dance, for instance, a diamond stomacher glittered on her blue velvet dress, in her black hair was a diamond tiara with diamond stars, several diamond necklaces studded with immense collet diamonds hung round her neck, clusters of diamond bracelets wreathed the wrists of her long white kid gloves and from her ears hung long diamond drop earrings.


The years of Caroline’s reign were known as the Gilded Age, so immense were the fortunes made and spent. In the huge mansions along Fifth Avenue were marble mantelpieces, Gobelins tapestries, bronzes, sculptures and paintings swept up from Europe, oriental carpets, crystal chandeliers and French furniture. Between four and five of a summer afternoon, elegant carriages drawn by glossy horses carried women in silk dresses and elaborate hats, bowing as they passed each other; in the winter there was the same parade in horse-drawn sleighs in Central Park. At parties, the house smothered with flowers, the favors were antique ivory fans, gold snuff boxes or sapphire stock pins, with hundred-dollar notes stamped with the host’s name wrapped round the cigarettes by each place.


But the highlight of the entire social year was Caroline Astor’s ball. Its keynote was lavishness and ceremony – you did not go there to enjoy yourself, but to be seen there. The huge mansion, filled with flowers, blazed with light, and the specially favored were invited to sit with Caroline on the red velvet sofa from which she surveyed the ballroom.


At her parties there was often another lavish and unusual feature – a midnight supper. The dancing would be stopped, little tables would appear as if by magic (probably via an elevator in her son John Jacob “Jack” Astor’s house next door; the two houses could be interconnected when necessary) and a sumptuous supper would be served by servants in green plush coats and white breeches, their buttons sporting the motto the Astors had bestowed upon themselves: “Semper Fidelis”. After this, some guests would go home, others would continue dancing and the night would end with the more traditional early morning supper.


Bouncer women outside Mrs Astor’s sacred circle of acquaintance would go to any lengths to acquire an invitation, pleading through a third party, trying to persuade Ward McAllister they had a grandmother of impeccable lineage and, of course, giving dinners, musicales and dances themselves, which were duly written up in the social columns of the day.


Others, to avoid the stigma of not being asked, would get their doctors to prescribe a trip into the mountains for their health’s sake or go to the even greater length of leaving the country – after all, it sounded much more elegant to say: “I’m taking my daughters to be educated in France,” than “Mrs Astor hasn’t asked me to her ball.” They felt the Astor ban with double force when it came to launching their debutante daughters, for going to the same dancing class as the children of the Astor circle did not mean you got asked to the same balls later.


But the excluded wives of the nouveaux riches quickly discovered that in Europe these daughters could lead to a “back door” way into the Astor set. Beautiful, superbly dressed and hugely rich by European standards, such girls were sought-after brides among indigent aristocrats – in England, a succession of bad harvests, loss of labor to industrialized cities and the import of cheap grain had halved the income of most landowners. And even Mrs Astor would not refuse to receive the mother-in-law of a marquis. As I discovered when writing my book The Husband Hunters: Social Climbing in London and New York, in the period between 1870 and 1914, 454 American girls married titled Europeans, one hundred of them British aristocrats, with 60 of this hundred marrying eldest sons – a phenomenal amount by any standards.


Staying at or near the top was a constant struggle. Even in the Astor clan there was in-fighting. For years, Caroline’s nephew, William Waldorf Astor, fought a running battle with his aunt to try and position his wife Mamie as the Mrs Astor – after all, he, William Waldorf, was the eldest son’s eldest son, so his wife should hold this position by right. But nothing could dislodge Caroline, even when William Waldorf had his father’s house torn down and replaced by an enormous hotel, designed to overshadow his aunt’s mansion beside it. Her only comment was the icy put-down: “There’s a glorified tavern next door.<” Eventually, in disgust, William Waldorf left the US for England in 1891, saying that “America is no place for a gentleman”.


“I know of no art, profession or work for women more taxing on mental resources than being a leader of society,” said Alva Vanderbilt, who would become just that by dint of being one the few people to outwit Caroline Astor on her own ground. Her first step was building an enormous mansion on Fifth Avenue and filling it with treasures. Then she announced that she would give a housewarming costume ball, with the guest of honor her great friend Consuelo Yznaga, now married to the Duke of Manchester’s heir, Lord Mandeville. Society, avid to see inside the new house and meet a future duchess, eagerly accepted her invitations. It would be a splendid evening, with guests decked out as mandarins or 18th century courtiers – as shown in the photographs taken on the night, which are now in the collection of The Museum of the City of New York.


Suddenly Caroline Astor, accustomed to being asked to everything, realized she did not have an invitation – and her beloved daughter, who had been practicing her cotillion for months, would be unable to perform it. When she let this be known, Alva, like Mrs Astor educated in France and conscious of the niceties of etiquette, declared that she could not make such an approach to Mrs Astor because the rule was that the senior lady must first have called on the junior one.


At once, Mrs Astor dispatched her footman to leave a card on Alva and, almost by return, an invitation was sent down Fifth Avenue. Mrs Astor attended the ball, saying afterwards: “We have no right to exclude those whom the growth of this great country has brought forward, provided they are not vulgar in speech and appearance. The time has come for the Vanderbilts.” They were in.


It was not until 1902 that Caroline Astor was finally toppled. Her nemesis was 32-year-old Grace Vanderbilt, originally one of her protégées, who outflanked her in a ruthlessly cunning move that resulted in Grace, rather than Caroline, entertaining the Kaiser’s popular younger brother to dinner. It was the coup de grace and Caroline knew it. The shock wave traveled around New York and, like all those women who had tried and failed to receive an invitation to her ball, she left for Europe.


Or, as the gossip magazine of the day gleefully put it: “Mrs Astor will sail before the dinner takes place.”


The Husband Hunters: Social Climbing in London and New York is out now, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson


Your address: The St. Regis New York

[Art Gallery in the Astor Mansion, 34th Street and 5th Avenue.]

Room with a view

The vast ballroom of the Astor mansion on 34th Street and 5th Avenue

 (Museum of the City of New York)

Mrs.William B. Astor in Portrait

The best of times

A photograph of Mrs Astor taken in 1900

(Getty Images)

Rooms with a View

At first glance, an interior painting by Los Angeles-based artist Jonas Wood (right) feels as fresh as a midsummer garden after a rain shower. Look again, however, and the effect is more disorienting: the flattened perspective and distortions of space are more the stuff of dreams than reality. Other contrasts in Wood’s work are similarly compelling: the playful references to pop art, cubism and artists like Hockney and Matisse in works that are immediately, distinctively Wood’s own; the landscapes contained within the parameters of domestic vessels created by Wood’s wife, the ceramicist Shio Kusaka – the whole world in a pot.


Born in 1977 in Boston, Wood grew up surrounded by art – his grandfather collected works by Bacon, Calder and Frankenthaler – yet it was only after studying psychology at liberal arts college Hobart and William Smith Colleges that he began painting. He met his wife while completing a Fine Arts MA at the University of Washington, after which the couple moved to LA, where they now work side by side in a shared studio.


Wood’s work is autobiographical, refracting childhood memories and everyday life through his own particular sensibility. He uses collage as well as paint, starting with photographs he has taken or appropriated – of his family and from old magazines – and rearranging them. His still lifes, portraits, interiors and landscapes also often include pots, which he views as recurring characters. He cites Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Bonnard and Vuillard as influences, both for their work itself and the way it is interpreted by other contemporary artists. “I love David Hockney and Alex Katz,” he says, “who are looking at modern painting and riffing on it. I’m looking at what they’re looking at, but I also get to look at them.”


Artworks by Wood, which now sell for six figures at auction, are held in the permanent collections of the major contemporary art museums of New York, Chicago and LA, and last December he covered the 5,400 square foot facade of LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) with a vinyl version of his Still Life with Two Owls (2014). The image was “sourced in part from a photograph of a shelf with plants and pottery from a 1970s House & Garden-type magazine”, he says. “I use those and then replace about 70 per cent of the plants and objects with things I’m interested in.” It’s life – but not quite as we know it.


Jonas is the honoree of this year’s TWO x TWO for AIDS and Art auction held in Dallas on 28 October, 2017.


Portrait of Jonas Wood by Manfredi Gioacchini


Two Tables with Floral Pattern, 2013.
Oil and acrylic on canvas, 100 x 93 inches
Wood shares a studio with his wife, the ceramic artist Shio Kusaka, and her pots are “recurring characters” in his work. “Repeating elements appear in different paintings, and change shape,” he says. (Photo: Brian Forrest; Courtesy of the artist and Shane Campbell Gallery, Chicago, IL)



Kitchen with Jade and Aloe Plants, 2013
Oil and acrylic on linen, 88 x 76 inches
Cluttered domestic interiors are a favorite subject of Wood’s, refracted through the artist’s emotions: they look familiar and cheery enough, but sudden disconnections have a slightly disconcerting effect. (Photo: Brian Forrest; Courtesy of the artist and Anton Kern Gallery, New York, NY)

Master of the Universe

Nebulas burst before your eyes, galaxies mingling with divine light. Some are rose-gold like sunrise; others are inky and bruised like a rainy evening sky. In the large-scale paintings of Nepalese artist Govinda Sah “Azad” (b. 1974), the many faces of the sublime in nature can be found – from bursts of energy exploding like volcanic eruptions to swirling, smoky cloudscapes. “Nature is a force far bigger than us,” he says. “What I try to do is immerse myself in the elements, meditating, reflecting on the interconnection between clouds, the landscape and weather.”


As a boy growing up in southeast Nepal, Sah always knew drawing was in his blood. His refusal to give up his passion – much to his parents’ frustration – earned him the nickname “Azad” (or “Freedom”), and by the age of 15 he had made his way to Delhi, where he found work as a billboard painter, before returning home and enrolling at art school at Nepal’s Tribhuvan University. Daily sessions painting outdoors at dawn allowed him to experience the splendor of the sun rising over the majestic Himalayas, while his experience as a sign painter gave him the confidence to go big.


With exhibitions in countries from London and Krakow to Kathmandu, he has ample opportunity to travel and draw inspiration from the awe-inspiring scale of nature. What he sees there often goes beyond the physical. By painting clouds as repeated drops of water and light, he says he has come to understand “why the cloud is the visual symbol of spirituality in nature, that we can see transcendence against gravity”.


While his main palette is paint, it is not his only medium. The master also often adds sculptural interventions in the form of burnt holes in the canvas or small tears, as well as physical objects such as hair and pearls. He also sometimes paints with smoke, the blackened charred strokes creating a sense of delicacy, as if the marks were made from air itself.


Next, he hopes to create even bigger, oversized paintings that are contained yet burst forth from the frame. “Who knows?” he says. “I let art take me where it wants to go.”


Govinda Sah “Azad”’s work will be exhibited by the October Gallery at Abu Dhabi Art 2017. Your address: The St. Regis Abu DhabiThe St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, Abu Dhabi



Reflection, 2016

“In my early works, there was a sense of 3D and of illusion,” says Govinda Sah “Azad” (below). “You had to come up close, almost to touch it. I like this idea of touch, like connecting your eternal self to the universe. I’m still playing with the relationship between 2D and 3D, trying to see how we understand the notion of ‘infinity’ by connecting with the night sky.”






Wondering in Dark, 2015

“In Wondering in Dark (above), you can see the influence of the great British painter Turner, who I came across in my early studies. I love his paintings of seas, water and storms; they really move me. I love his use of light, how he creates reflections of light and color. I want to capture that energy in my own work, that energy of nature.”





Tactile Universe, 2016

“I use a special breathing technique while painting. That might come from my Eastern culture: making art and painting is like a meditation in everyday life. I’m trying to make the emotion I feel visible, tangible in the painting. Tactile Universe is a good example of that. The closer you get, the more you want to touch it – to make emotion tactile.”



Artistic Alchemy

In a visionary body of work, rich in symbolism and pathos, California-based artist Hung Liu connects history to the present, East to West, mundanity to beauty. Dripping with immediacy, as if the artist has just put down the brush, her paintings of anonymous figures adapted from historical photographs are timeless, yet paradoxically anchored to the past, infused with a nuanced narrative and layers of psychological insight.


Born in China in 1948, Liu came of age during the Cultural Revolution. After high school, she was sent to the countryside where she spent four years working in the fields. There, she photographed and drew workers and their families. This was a formative experience for the young artist, who went on to portray ordinary people as the subjects of much of her work.


Following her early studies as a mural painter at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, one of China’s leading art schools, in 1984 Liu emigrated to America to pursue a graduate program in visual arts at the University of California San Diego. Today, from her hometown of Oakland in California, she re-contextualizes snippets of history that may not be lost, but have perhaps been forgotten. “I’ve come to think of these subjects as ghosts I ‘summon’ from the grainy, chemical surfaces of the photographic past,” she says. “That’s kind of going backwards technologically, from a newer medium to an older one, but mineral pigments on canvas can be very physical, bringing the image forward into the present in a vivid, present-tense way. There’s some kind of alchemy here, although I think of myself less as an advocate or guardian, more as a witch.”


On a visit to China in 1991, Liu found a treasure trove of studio photographs of 19th-century Chinese prostitutes, which became references for a series of riveting multimedia works. A series called Dandelions, meanwhile, is based on photographs she took on a road trip, the flowers often blown up to the size of the human figure. And the subjects of American Exodus, on show this fall at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York City, are based on images of migrants from America’s Depression era that she found in the Dorothea Lange archive at the Oakland Museum of California.


In a Wall Street Journal review of her 2013 Oakland Museum of California retrospective, Summoning Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu, critic David Littlejohn referred to Hung Liu as “the greatest Chinese painter in the U.S.”. Her art, which is represented in the permanent collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, not only mirrors the unique duality of her extraordinary life experience, straddling two cultures, but transcends the boundaries of time.


Hung Liu: American Exodus is showing at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York City until October 22, 2016


Your address: The St. Regis New York



Crane Dance, 2011
The delicate cloud of circling cranes in this work has a profound underlying significance. “In China, cranes are considered auspicious, and are associated with the imperial palace and heaven,” says Hung Liu (below). “This woman is from a photo, circa 1865, by the American John Thompson. The juxtaposition of her hand with the cranes suggests the vast space between the imperial court and working peasants.”





Dandelion 11, 2015
“The woman and the flower are both ornamental, but the dandelion is mostly blown away. It suggests to me the unpredictable course of one’s life, no matter how ornamented one is,” says Liu.


Grit and Glitter

The Brooklyn-based artist Mickalene Thomas has every right to be frustrated when people only associate her work with hip-hop. “It’s so easy and lazy to do that,” she rails. “Just because it’s all black women and bling!” But this spring, visitors to Aspen’s Art Museum – housed since summer 2014 in an exceptional new building by the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban – will be left in no doubt that there’s rather more to it than that. Here’s a diptych Super 8 film of Eartha Kitt spliced with lesser known artists singing Paint Me Black Angels; elsewhere are stunning silk screen acrylic panels of stills from the film The Color Purple. “That book and the film, with Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg, are touchstones for women about breaking the silence around abuse, and how to be strong in spite of being a victim,” says the curator Courtenay Finn. The exhibition is called Mentors, Muses and Celebrities.


Mickalene’s work has never been short on content or visual drama. She’s known in the art world for her elaborate paintings – often of Afroed women who recall the heroines of the Blaxploitation movies of the 1970s – depicted in oils and acrylics and then bedazzled with copious quantities of glitter and rhinestones. “Those women, like Pam Grier and Foxy Brown, I’d grown up with them,” says Mickalene. “I loved their directness, their fierceness.”


In others, she delves into art history, stealing Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe from 1863 and reworking it with three modern muses, her friends Mnonja, Din and Qusuquzah. “When I use people as subjects, it’s important I know them,” she says. “I never want anyone to feel exploited or used or victimized.” Sometimes, she’s turned to the grids favored by the British artist David Hockney to create a work, and even included the tiles from Monet’s own house in the background décor in another. In 2011, she completed a three-month residency at Giverny, the property in France where Monet created, and painted, his famous garden between 1890 and 1926. “I’d never understood his sincerity as an artist until I spent time there,” she says. “It made me realize that when you’re sincere, it doesn’t matter what people think – it’ll work itself out.”


Now 44, Mickalene sold her first painting in 2004, at a group exhibition in New York – a self-portrait called Rumor Has It, showing the artist stripped down to her underwear in a super-size Afro wig, and stroking her cat She-La. “It was one of my last self-portraits,” she says. “And it felt great to sell it. It meant I could stop doing house-cleaning and I could stop being my own model.”


Nowadays Mickalene’s work is significantly sought after (Solange Knowles had her create the cover of her EP True in 2012) and costs rather more than the $8,500 which that early painting fetched. But it continues to be an exploration of black female beauty and sexuality, along with the underlying complexity of women’s lives. “Look at Eartha Kitt,” says Courtenay Finn. “An amazing performer with a strong presence but a difficult life, who went on to speak out against Vietnam.” A woman, then, who combined beauty and politics and was not averse to be covered in sequins – rather like a Mickalene Thomas work of art.


Mentors, Muses and Celebrities is at Aspen Art Museum from 10 March to 12 June. Your address: The St. Regis Aspen Resort



Untitled 15, 2015
Mickalene Thomas (below), creates explosive large-scale collages in rhinestones,
glitter, dry pastel, acrylic and oil paint on wood panel. “The conversation between
the patterns is what works, brings life,” she says





Portrait of Mnonja with Flower in her Hair 2, 2011
Mickalene’s friend brings to mind the singer Billie Holiday. The painting was
created using rhinestone, acrylic paint and oil enamel on wood, and the
background is a collage of found fabrics

Different Strokes

One of the world’s greatest living painters, Sir Howard Hodgkin, is sitting in his wheelchair in his vast London studio. “Forgive me if I don’t get up,” he says. At 83 years old he can be forgiven for needing a little help to get around these days, yet his compulsion to paint and to travel the world remains indefatigable. In the first three months of this year he painted six new works in Mumbai, the city he first visited in 1964 and which he calls home for several months of the year. Since his return to London he has continued with his painting, standing painfully at an easel, for a major new show of works at the Gagosian Gallery in New York in 2016.


India has been a recurring theme in Hodgkin’s work throughout his life. The most recent exhibition of his works, at the Gagosian Gallery in London, was of his Indian Waves series, created in 1990 and 1991 and rediscovered last year in an attic. Each of the 30 works was painted on handmade Indian khadi paper, a fluid wave of ultramarine at the bottom of each sheet representing water, an emerald arch above representing hills, and vivid impressions painted over the top reflecting places and events in India.


The colors he uses capture the light and vibrancy of the country in big bold strokes. In Mumbai Wedding, joyful explosions of crimson, orange and yellow implode like fireworks in the sky. In Storm in Goa yellow lightning flashes over an electric green sky with a sultry, inky dark sea surging below. At the time he painted the series, Hodgkin admits he wasn’t sure about it, but today he confesses to being pleasantly surprised – a reaction which his patrons clearly felt, too; each of the paintings sold on the opening night for $90,000.


Although knighted in 1992, the London-born painter – who was evacuated aged eight during the Second World War to Long Island, represented Britain at the Venice Biennal in 1984 and has exhibited in leading museums including the San Diego Museum of Art and the Metropolitan in New York – never uses the title ‘Sir’. “It’s not relevant,” he quips, “unless it’s to try to get an upgrade on an airplane.”


But then, not much about Hodgkin could be described as straightforward. He doesn’t like to talk about his paintings, insisting, “It’s not the way I work.” And he particularly dislikes the label “abstract artist”, preferring to use the term “representational painter”.


While there are clues in their titles as to what each painting might represent, knowing that gets the viewer only so far. Hodgkin’s paintings are not true to life, being rather pictorial equivalents of their subjects, or what the director of London’s Tate Modern, Sir Nicholas Serota, describes as artworks that capture “both the tangible and intangible sensations that we retain from a fleeting experience”.


Hodgkin’s visual recollection is so strong that he rarely uses sketchbooks, painting instead from memory. Describing a trip he made with his partner, Antony Peattie, in 2014 to a Sufi music festival in Rajasthan, hosted by the Maharajah of Jodhpur, Hodgkin recalls “breakfasting on the hotel terrace, a flautist improvising and posing with a peacock, dour Uzbekistani musicians the picture of grimness and, in the distance, a white marble bench”. There you have the scene, better than Instagram because you can read into his word picture what you see in your mind’s eye: a reminder that his paintings are not snapshots.


New York’s Gagosian Gallery will display a selection of Howard Hodgkin’s latest works between March 4 and April 30, 2016.


Your address: The St. Regis New York; The St. Regis Mumbai


Images by: All artworks © Howard Hodgkin. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery, except ‘Tea Party in America’. Portrait by Robin Friend; © Howard Hodgkin. Image courtesy Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford



Flying colors

Howard Hodgkin in front of his painting Border, 1990-91. Left: Hello, 2004-2008. As in so many of Hodgkin’s paintings, the brushstrokes spill over on to the frame, suggesting an exuberance without boundaries. Although this small work measures just 11½ inches x 13½ inches, it dominated the walls of the gallery in which it was first shown.



Tea Party in America, 1948

Hodgkin was just 16 years old when he painted this tea party on his first return visit to Long Island, where he had lived for three years during the Second World War with his mother and sister. Using a sable brush, he experimented with different techniques. The hand holding a jug is executed in a wash, the grey and white striped tablecloth appears combed, and white spotted beads on blouses and on wrists evoke pearls and diamonds. Enormous hands in the foreground place the painter (and spectator) at the head of the table, as a participant in the tea party, while the background recedes in a swirl of white and grey with mauve.

© Howard Hodgkin. Image courtesy Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford



Where Seldom Is Heard a Discouraging Word, 2007-2008

One of 20 works completed in 2007 and 2008 when Hodgkin explored themes of American freedom and erotic intimacy – “the facts of life as visual art”, as the art historian Robert Rosenblum once described them – this boldly vibrant landscape is one of the largest in the series, measuring 80 1/8 inches x 105 inches. Three horizontal fields are dominated by a polka-dotted sky with a single, smudged cloud on the horizon above a sunny yellow wave anchored upon a burnt orange ground. The viewer is drawn into a landscape that reaches out beyond the physical limits of the painting, surging with optimism for the future.



Letters from Bombay, 2014-2015

For more than 50 years Hodgkin has been inspired by India, its landscapes and its people. Even India’s monsoons sweep through his visceral canvases. Every year he escapes the British winter to spend three months in Mumbai with his partner, Antony Peattie. “I am a representational painter but not a painter of appearances,” Hodgkin explains. “I paint representational pictures of emotional situations.” Thus the viewer can be led by this missive from Bombay in whichever emotional direction it takes him or her. Emphatic dark brushstrokes, like slashes, rupture the painting; a crimson fringe surrounds the blue bay, while a golden sunrise offers new horizons.



Old Money, 1987-1989

Old Money appears to be a comment on the tyranny of money in the consumer society of the late Eighties: awash with coins, a lottery of numbers and expectations, fruit machines and even an ATM, it features a hand reaching out among the green wads of notes. In conversation with Antony Peattie, Howard Hodgkin says that nobody seems able to respond to art “without a gush of words… I am happy for people to talk about my pictures but I wish devoutly that I wasn’t expected to talk about them myself. The more an artist talks about his work, the more his words become attached to it. I want people to look at my pictures as pictures, as things.”

Great Walls of China

Peeking through a door into a warehouse in the ancient city of Wuxi on the coast of central China, the scene within could be one from the 19th century. In a large, light-filled room, dozens of artists are bent over rows of long white tables, each slowly and methodically dipping long, slender brushes into small porcelain dishes of gouache paint and then carefully applying it to a flat panel of silk.


The workers – some of the most accomplished painters in China – are creating hand-made silk wallpaper. Theirs is a highly skilled and painstaking craft, and with their heads bent and brows furrowed in concentration, they will employ as many as 100 brush strokes to create one leaf and spend up to an hour delicately shading the wings of a bird.


To create enough wallpaper to cover the walls of a single room will take them many hundreds of hours. But in a week they will have created something that is spectacular and utterly unique: a grand hand-painted mural, some 100ft wide, featuring the most dazzling backdrop of swooping birds, gnarled trees and vibrantly colored flowers.


In painting these eye-catching designs the artists are following an ancient tradition, for it is in Wuxi, and also the neighboring city of Suzhou, that the heart of China’s hand-painted silk industry has been based for the past 1,500 years. Once this artform meant scrolls and screens for China’s wealthy governing Mandarin class and its richer merchants, their designs symbolic displays of rank; a blazing dragon denoted power, a flowering peony wealth and beauty. But in the 18th century, these beautifully detailed designs of birds, flowers, trees and pastoral scenes were discovered by Western merchants, who ordered them to be painted on to silk to create wallpaper for export to Europe and America. In the midst of the craze in Europe for chinoiserie (from chinois, the French word for Chinese), the paper quickly became fashionable. It was transported on the ships of the East India Company and formed a significant part of China’s export trade to the West. Today, visit any number of historic stately homes in Europe or North America, and it’s likely that you will come across at least one wall in each that’s embellished with this fine Chinese art.


The Chinese company Griffin & Wong, established in 2007 as a collaboration with the descendants of the original Suzhou Silk-Workers Craftsman Guild, often refers back to homes of America’s Gilded Age for inspiration: mansions such as Marble House and Rough Point in Newport, Rhode Island, both owned by the Vanderbilts, Villa Vizcaya in Miami and the Winterthur Mansion in Delaware.


“The chinoiserie in these buildings is an interesting reflection of the stylish decades either side of the turn of the century,” says Douglas Bray, MD for Griffin & Wong in the Americas. “This was the Art Nouveau era when the wealthy lived in the grand hotels of New York and Florida for parts of the season, and then had the ambition and wealth to try to recreate the fantasy of a dramatic hotel lobby in their own homes. For the interior design world it was a golden time, and chinoiserie was a great part of the Gilded Age.”


Although in the latter part of the 20th century China’s Communist revolution, combined with the rise of Minimalism in the West, put a dampener on this exuberant form of decoration, it is now enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Chinoiserie is newly popular not only in fashionable circles, reflecting a trend in pattern and design, but in architectural practices, too, which appreciate the intrinsic value of historic artisanal craft and the bespoke element it contributes.



Left: Handsome pheasants inhabit an idyllic Chinese landscape on this
hand-painted mural. Right: Porcelain cachepots and ginger jars embellish
a classic chinoiserie garden (both by Paul Montgomery)

“While hand-painted wallpaper used to be very much a limited, high-society product for the Manhattan and London crowds, it is more widespread now,” says Bray. “The oligarchs in Russia love it, as do the upper echelons in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. Even in places like South and North Carolina it has become very popular.”


Ironically, although produced in China for the West, it was almost unknown across wider China until about a decade ago. That, though, says Bray, is also changing fast. “The arc has been first for the hotels and high-end restaurants to commission and show the wallpapers, and then recently for the ultra-wealthy – a class that’s growing – to install it in their own villas and residences.”


The corresponding increase in demand for the skills of hand-painting has revitalized a craft that had been in danger of dying in a rapidly industrialized China. “Studios are popping up all the time and this is making it harder to find good artists,” says Tim Butcher from Fromental, a wallpaper company which has a large atelier in Wuxi with about 50 artists working in it. “All Fromental staff are skilled before they begin, but they start as apprentices and work their way up.”


It can take years to reach the top of their profession. Hand-painted wallpaper is still produced in much the same way as it has been for centuries. Unlike printed paper, which usually features one pattern that is repeated, chinoiserie typically consists of a single mural on a series of panels, presenting a panorama of Chinese flora and fauna. Each element is chosen for its symbolic meaning in the relationship between the concepts of Harmony and Nature.


Manufacture is a time-consuming process. First, the silk is treated with a hardening glue before it is stretched on a frame, ready for the design to be sketched by hand with a fine pencil. Then the painting begins. “Four or five artists work on each set,” explains Butcher, whose clients include Chanel and the entrepreneur David Tang, and who for The St. Regis Jakarta, which opens in spring 2016, is creating chinoiserie panels for the bedrooms. “Within any team there is a lead artist and usually an apprentice. The junior artists will paint in the first flat layer of color. The more experienced ones will then start adding in more detail such as shading, the veins on leaves or the petals of a flower. Finally, the finer details of shading will be added on to the birds and the tips of the flowers.”


The supreme expression of the craft is “unconscious painting”, a more spontaneous style of artistry in which a tree trunk is created with a single brush stroke. “It requires speed so that the end result looks natural,” says Butcher. “It is a given that an artist can produce fine, controlled brushwork, but the ability to create balance and form with loose and free strokes of the brush is a skill that’s harder to achieve.”
It is the painstaking building up, layer by layer, of pattern and color that gives painted silk wallpaper its exceptional depth and texture. On close inspection, the artist’s skill is revealed in the play of light and shade against the lustre of the silk, and the intricacies of the individual elements, from the folds of a dress to a bird’s multicolored tailfeathers.


This precision and detail is reflected in the cost. According to Virginia-based Paul Montgomery, who has 35 artists in China creating finely painted backdrops for clients who range from Hollywood celebrities to Middle Eastern royalty, hand-painted wallpaper starts at about $500 for a square yard. And yet considering the paper is unique, it can be thought of as an investment, he says, because it is also surprisingly practical. Not only does silk wallpaper make a room warmer and more personal, it also softens the acoustics.


While painted panels are the most popular with clients, Fromental has recently pioneered the complex skill of embroidering on paper, to create a striking three-dimensional look. “If it takes 30 hours to paint one panel, to fully embroider the same panel takes 300 hours,” says Butcher. “It needs a remarkable level of skill because the tension has to be completely even.” This can be embellished further with the addition of gems, crystals and precious metals.


Although technology has enabled murals to be as lavishly decorative as any client might want, a trend is emerging for hand-painted wallpaper whereby texture, rather than elaborate pattern, is the key attraction. “People still value the hand-painted and artisanal, but they want something that is simpler,” says Butcher. “So we created papers that are done with layered brush strokes for a gradation of pattern and deep color.” Often resembling an abstract painting, these hand-painted wallpapers are a superb fusion of old and new, and work even in the sharpest of contemporary interiors – gratifying evidence that there is still a place for time-honored craft in today’s design universe.;;



Your address: The St. Regis Jakarta, opening spring 2016


Paul Montgomery’s Hemmerling design in porcelain blue on white
pearlized silk works to stunning effect in this elegant foyer



Layer upon layer of pattern and color give this
Fromental wallpaper exceptional depth and texture

The New Cultural Calendar

Sundance Film Festival



When it started in 1978, the Sundance Film Festival was given an almighty boost by the involvement of inaugural chairman Robert Redford. Not only did the name come from his most famous role as the Sundance Kid, but the Utah resident wanted to encourage U.S.-made independent movies. Now it’s the single most serious film festival in the world.


Who goes: directors, film buffs, the merely curious and the painfully serious.
Stand-out moment: the awards ceremony at the end of each festival – if you’re not there, you haven’t really Sundanced.


Your address: The St. Regis Deer Valley

Jaipur Literature Festival



There’s a certain grandeur to Jaipur Literature Festival. It’s been held in the glorious “Pink City” since 2006 at the city’s historic Diggi Palace Hotel, originally steered by writer William Dalrymple, and is now the biggest lit fest on the Asian continent. The five-day festival is a great ticket, partly because of its location in the capital of Rajasthan, and also because for its five days it is free.


Who goes: India’s see-and-be-seen crowd, drawn
from Delhi, Mumbai and Rajasthan, as well as literary greats from J. M. Coetzee and Donna Tartt to Salman Rushdie.
Stand-out moment: the biggest draw in recent years has been Chetan Bhagat, a former investment banker turned bestselling author of six blockbuster novels who is hated by critics, but revered by young India.


South by Southwest



As Texas’s alternative hub, Austin is special, and one of its biggest calling cards is the South by Southwest festival. With a name inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s film North by Northwest, and often known as SXSW, it started in 1987 and has since flourished, held each March as a concatenation of hipster events: films, music, talks and tech startups in several venues. You’ll watch a band one minute – SXSW Music is the largest music festival in the world – and attend a talk on education the next.


Who goes: dressed-down Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and alt-music fans, avant-garde artists, assorted geeks and visionaries.
Stand-out moment: Bruce Springsteen’s keynote
speech to launch 2012’s festival.





It’s Woodstock for Generation X: the biggest arts and music festival in California. The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival has taken place near the desert city of Indio since 1999, when acts included Beck and Morrissey. Since then it has moved from mosh pit to maturity, with a visual arts and lecture programme alongside the music. Pack sunscreen – and if it’s not quite out-there enough, then head to Burning Man in Nevada, which specializes in “radical self-expression.”


Who goes: music and new-media fans of all ages, plus Generation Ys with young children in tow.
Stand-out moment: in 2011, during their song Wake Up, Arcade Fire let loose thousands of beach balls on to the crowd, each one illuminated and synched with the music. 

Hay Festival



Hay-on-Wye is a market town on the England/Wales border and while quaint, it wouldn’t be famous if not for Hay Festival, held here each summer. Founded in 1987, the festival has grown into what former President Bill Clinton called “the Woodstock of the mind”. It hosts global luminaries ranging from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to Sir Paul McCartney and lures more than 200,000 visitors whom director Peter Florence describes as “argumentative, curious, skeptical and free-thinking”. Hay has also spawned numerous festivals worldwide, from Mexico to the Maldives.

Who goes: writers, readers, bohemians of a certain age and intellectual politicians seeking cultural heat.
Stand-out moment: last year’s talk between Carl Bernstein and Peter Florence about the journalist’s role in the downfall of Richard Nixon.


Venice Biennale

June - November


In recent years there’s been a surfeit of art festivals all over the world, but one name sticks out: Venice Biennale. Dating back to 1895, it started as an elegant showcase for decorative art, then became the world’s greatest platform for innovative visual arts after WW1, hosting national pavilions, mostly in the gorgeous Giardini park. Since then it has maintained its lead as the world’s premier showcase for artistic talent, helped by its extraordinarily beautiful location.


Who goes: the fashion world always tags along with the art world at Venice; the city is the perfect stage, after all.
Stand-out moment: a model of a museum called The Encyclopedic Palace of the World at last year’s festival, in which visitors could find all the world’s knowledge.
Also key: Riva boat rides.


Edinburgh International Festival



Each summer, the capital city of Scotland welcomes a seething crowd to the biggest arts festival in the world. It has theatre at its core, but you’ll also find everything else, including visual arts, music and comedy. Founded in 1947 to boost postwar morale, the festival expanded so quickly that it began to subdivide, with the main festival spawning the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Edinburgh’s claim to be “one of the most important cultural celebrations in the world” is, if anything, understated.


Who goes: the Festival attracts a seasoned crowd from around the world, but the Fringe has been catnip to generation after generation of fun-seeking students in search of cultural thrills.
Stand-out moment: a haunting performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth on tiny Inchcolm Island, off the Scottish coast, in 2012.


Frieze Art Fair



Such is Frieze Art Fair’s importance in London that a week in mid-October is now known as “Frieze Week.” When it started in 2003, Frieze was the missing ingredient that propelled the UK’s capital towards becoming a world art centre. So significant has it become that other art fairs have joined the October fray – most notably the Pavilion of Art and Design (PAD). Now the fair is in export mode, with Frieze New York, in May, now entering its third year.


Who goes: all the power players from the international art world, hedge-funders and oligarchs wearing dark clothes and dramatic spectacles.
Stand-out moment: in 2007 artists Jake and Dinos Chapman set up a table in front of the White Cube gallery’s stand and offered to draw on visitors’ £20 or £50 notes for no charge.


Your address: The St. Regis New York


Istanbul Biennial



Istanbul’s Biennial is one of the most challenging in the world. Since it began in 1987, it has mirrored the city’s development into a world hub. In the meantime the Turkish capital has welcomed the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art (2004) and a rash of gallery openings that have brought Istanbul into the big league. As well as a stunning setting, the Biennial also has a sense of political meaning: here, art reflects the transformation of Istanbul itself. Returns in 2015.


Who goes: a heady mix of radical artists, the glamorati, as well as urbanists and policy-makers who wish to see a city in flux.
Stand-out moment: in 2013 the Biennial took down its public artworks because of protests in Gezi Park. This gave the Biennial, already politically inquisitive, a real feeling of lived history.


Your address: The St. Regis Istanbul


Art Miami



Everyone wants an excuse to go to the Sunshine State, and Art Miami is a good one. Located in Miami’s gallery-rich Wynwood Arts District, it’s one of the most venerable U.S. art fairs, luring legions of art lovers in early December and kicking off what is now known as Art Week. Alongside Art Miami, you’ll find CONTEXT (up-and-coming artists), Aqua Art Miami (performance, new media, installations) and of course, Art Basel Miami Beach, the U.S. wing of huge-hitting art show Art Basel.


Who goes: the international art crowd and celebrities from the worlds of film and music.
Stand-out moment: last year an unauthenticated piece by street artist Banksy, depicting a heart-shaped balloon, went on sale – complete with the wall it was painted on.


Your address: The St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort


Images by: Hindustan Times via Getty Images, Gallery Stock, Getty Images, Dafydd Jones

Zen Diagrams

In his adopted homeland of Singapore, Tan Swie Hian is not just one of the most famous painters in the country, but one of Southeast Asia’s best-known poets. In 1993 a museum was built to house his masterpieces, and another – covering a square mile of wooded mountain range – is under construction in Qingdao, China. His works are carved into the rock faces of the Three Gorges on the Yangtse River, and painted onto sacred Buddhist sites. As a result, prices for his works have skyrocketed. When his 2013 Portrait of Bada Shanren was auctioned in Beijing last November, it fetched just over $3.3m – quite an achievement for a self-educated painter.


Yet it was for his poetry that the Indonesian-born artist first achieved recognition. Having completed a degree in English literature, he published a collection of poetry in 1968 entitled The Giant – today considered one of the region’s most important works of Modernist verse. His first brush with professional painting came when he took his first and only job, in the press office of the French embassy, where he was encouraged to contribute drawings to a Malaysian literary magazine. When the French ambassador officiated at his first exhibition in 1973, his second career
was launched.


It was at this time, too, that the artist had another awakening – of a spiritual kind. Tan had long been a practising Buddhist, and for a time considered giving up art in order to give himself fully to meditation. Thankfully, he didn’t, and he has subsequently won countless awards, from the Gold Medal at Salon des Artistes Français, Paris (1995) to the Crystal Award from the World Economic Forum (2003). In China, in particular, his work is collected avidly – hence the construction, begun in 2001, of The All-Wisdom Gardens in Qingdao, which is currently about one third complete, and where some 200 stonemasons are engaged in creating huge works of art under Tan’s direction.


What makes Tan different from other artists? What he’s trying to communicate, he says, is “love”. It is evident in whatever he does, whether calligraphy or paintings of trees, mountains, gardens and flowers, which he injects with a spiritual energy. “My aim is to create something that shows how a free mind functions,” he says. “It’s like a hummingbird flying forward, backward and sideways, soaring, swooping or hovering in midair.”


Tan Swie Hian Museum, 460 Sims Avenue, Singapore;


Your address: The St. Regis Singapore


A Smile, 2008

“I made this piece to show how misfortune and happiness walk hand in hand in life,” says Tan. The painting includes a two-line couplet which reads: “The red lava flows, and a hundred flowers bloom. The acid rain pours, and a thousand birds fly”


A Sea Change, 1986

Much of Tan’s work also reflects his fascination with the practice of meditation. “One can meditate on the sea until the sea boils, rises to love you and weaves a celestial web of interconnected beings,” he says


A Holy Mountain, 2007

Tan’s devout Buddhism is evident in his continual celebration of the natural world. This painting was inspired by one of his own fables, called A Holy Firefly, about a firefly determined to attract countless other fireflies to a holy mountain. “When night fell, the whole mountain and its heart phosphoresced, visible as well to the shore beyond”