V Vishwanathan, popularly known as Paris Vishwanathan or Velu Vishwanathan, is an artist and filmmaker known for his abstract paintings and films. A student of KCS Paniker, Vishwanathan is one of the founding artists of the Cholamandal Artists’ Village and a prominent artist of the Madras School.
Vishwanathan was born in 1940 in Kadavoor, Kerala, to a family of vishwakarmas (blacksmiths) and trained as a blacksmith and carpenter before enrolling at the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Madras, to study art in 1960. Here, he studied under Paniker and helped him establish the Cholamandal Artists’ Village in 1966. In 1968, at the height of the May 1968 student protests for civil rights in France, Vishwanathan moved to Paris.
His early paintings were ink on paper, deriving their formal influence from the works of artists such as Paul Gauguin, Amedeo Modigliani, Edvard Munch and Pablo Picasso. This early work consisted primarily of village scenes rendered in stamping ink overlaid with turpentine — a technique he continued to hone in his subsequent work. While his earlier works were largely figurative, his aesthetic vocabulary evolved to incorporate abstract and geometric forms inspired by Tantric art. His works from the 1960s and early 1970s show the predominance of red and green — a palette that continues to dominate most of his abstract paintings. Working with oil and acrylic paints, Vishwanathan’s visual style incorporated rectangular and horizontal blocks using casein made from milk protein. He also experimented with the geometric form through the incorporation of the Malayalam script in his work. His abstract works resemble printed blocks on the canvas and reflect his mediation on the abstract geometric form. Vishwanathan also often makes his own paper and pigment.
In 1976, following an injury suffered in a car accident, he collaborated with filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan on a film titled Sable/Sand, which documented his process of collecting sand from the coastal regions of India for a work by the same name, which consisted of seventeen panels made from the collected sand. He went on to make two more films in collaboration with Gopalakrishnan and two with cinematographer Vinod Raja, between 1985 and 2003 — Eau/Ganga (1985), Feu/Agni (1988), Air/Vayu (1994) and Ether/Aakaash (2002), respectively — which he collectively turned into a pentalogy titled The Five Elements. The films reflect Vishwanathan’s fascination with form and landscape, interspersed with visual representations of mechanical and ritual labour. He revisited the sites depicted in the pentalogy for an epilogue that he produced for the 2009 Kochi-Muziris Biennale.
He has exhibited his works at the Galerie Darthea Speyer, Paris (1982); the 15th International Art Exhibition, Tokyo (1984); Centre Pompidou, Paris (1985); Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai; Tao Art Gallery; Gallery Chemould, Mumbai; National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi; and Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi. He received the Lalit Kala Akademi Award for painting (1963, 1968) and the Chevalier des Arts et Letter award from the Government of France (2005). He also won the Grand Prize for Best Documentary at the Festival Dei Popoli, Florence (1986) and the Grand Prix de Cinema du Reel at Centre Pompidou, Paris.
As of writing, he lives and works in Paris.
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