The mid-19th century saw the shift from religious to secular arts, particularly with the rise of the Shahs and Ranas. Nepal’s political isolationism from 1846-1950 during the Rana autocracy resulted in the development of European-derived art, with grand scale oil portraiture and courtly life of the Ranas. Artists still belonged of the Chitrakar, or the painter caste group among the Newars, and among them Bhajuman Chitrakar and Dirghaman Chitrakar traveled to Europe with the Rana prime ministers to gain a first-hand understanding of European aesthetics, academic styles, and realism. The earliest documented artist in the 19th century is Rajaman Chitrakar, in the mid 19th century who was trained by Brian Hodson, the Orientalist British Resident to Nepal.
Two influential artists, Chandra Man Singh Maskey and Tej Bahadur Chitrakar in the mid-20th century art scene ushered the definitive beginnings of modernism. As Nepal did not have a formal art school, they were both trained in India in the Government College of Fine Arts in Calcutta in the 1920s. 1920s, as Nepal lacked any formal art school until 1934 when the Nepal Art School was established. Their modernist tendencies are most evident in their introduction of a new genre of subject: the urban life of the Nepali community as a self conscious articulation of their lived experiences that was separate from the ruling elite. This rare opportunity to live and study outside Nepal during the isolationist Rana profoundly influenced their vision and understanding of art production. Tej Bahadur left for Calcutta in 1922, and Chandraman in 1930, and through formal training, the artists gained technical mastery over new modes of modernist styles, techniques, and subjects. More significantly, it is important to note that these were critical formative years of Indian nationalism, with the Bengali writers, politicians, and artists such as Abanindranath Tagore, Jamini Roy, and Nandalal Bose, collectively spearheading the “Quit India” independence movement. The establishment of the Bengal school of Art in the 1920s emerged as a reaction again the European academic style of art, with new emphasis and appreciation of Indian national identity in which the rhetoric of Indian-ness had to be embedded in the art. Furthermore, this was also a period when anti-Rana movement and strong nationalist increasing among the expatriate Nepali communities in Banaras, Dehradun, Calcutta, and Darjeeling. With this growing consciousness of the protest movements, Maskey and Chitrakar returned back to Kathmandu, where they continued to work under the Rana patronage, depicting with renewed technical mastery the favored elitist subjects of grand portraiture, hunting scenes, landscape, and still-life. Their modernist tendencies, however, are most evident in their introduction of a new genre of subject: the urban life of the Nepali community as a self-conscious articulation of their lived experiences that was separate from the ruling elite. Modernity, in the context of Maskey and Chitrakar’s new artforms, therefore gave agency and a voice to the silent narratives of the common Nepali that were far removed from those of royal courts. Indeed, one of Chandraman Singh Maskey’s most significant contributions in the context of modernity is his watercolor illustrations of Chittadhar “Hridaya (1906-1982)’s epic of Newar literature, Sugat Saurav, (Life and Teachings of the Buddha), produced when both artist and author were jailed in 1941-47 for their political activism and fell in disfavor of the Ranas. As a signifier of Nepali, and more specifically, Newar identity, this period of Maskey’s work highlights the modernist concerns of national culture building.
With the fall of the Ranas in 1950, the second half of the 20th century finally ushered a new era of modernism, when the Shah government established formal academic institutions of art. In the late fifties, the government formed the Royal Nepal Academy (similar to an art academy in the European sense) to develop fine arts, literature, dance and music. A distinct modernist movement began with the arrival of Lain Singh Bangdel into the art scene in Nepal. Born in Darjeeling India, Bangdel was already a well-known novelist and was invited back to Nepal after his sojourn to France and London by the late King Mahendra in 1961. An independent arts institution, Nepal Arts Council was established 1961 with the specific aim of creating public gallery spaces for exhibitions. Lain Bangdel was asked to serve as a representative of the Royal Nepal Academy heading the faculty of Fine Arts. 1964, NAFA (Nepal Association of Fine Arts) under the auspices of the Royal Nepal Academy was formally established to create a platform for annual exhibitions of contemporary art, and the first contemporary art museum was also instituted. Several art schools were also established, among them Lalit Kala Academy and Sirjana Fine Arts School are the most prominent. Despite the initiatives of the government in these various institutions, contemporary art was still seen as an intellectual academic pursuit, focusing on aspects of technique, aesthetics, and experimentation by individual artists, rather than as a collective. Private institutions, primarily art galleries such as Siddhartha Art Gallery, Nepal Art Council, and Park Gallery provided spaces for exhibitions, and exposure to international shows.
Beginning in the 1980s, Nepali artists were invited to participate regionally in the Bangladesh Biennale and the Fukuoka Asian Art Exhibition. After the restoration of democracy in 2006, the independent National (Fine) Art Academy was finally formed as a distinct institution, with member artists nominated in various fine arts fields. Yet, many contemporary artists strongly feel that the institution has failed to serve the arts, and has suffered from the transitional political situation and mired in institutional political. Hence, since its establishment, the Academy has not implemented successful initiative to encourage the artists, or situate contemporary Nepali arts within the national or international contexts. Even after Nepal became a Republic in 2009, the contemporary artists collectively agree that the new Academy continues in the same conservative ways that it did two decades ago.
Individuals artists, rather than institutions, instead have made significant impact in the contemporary art scene beginning in the second half of the 20th century, and certainly continues with initiatives that are artist-led, including the disbanded SUTRA, Ashmina Ranjit’s Alternative space of LASANAA, and more recently Bikalpa Arts Center, MCube Space, Artudio etc. During the 1950s contemporary artists such as Kesav Duwadi, Kalidas Shrestha, and Gehendra Man Amatya were free to explore their individual creative expressions, without the burden of the elite mandate. The 1960s marks the turning point for modernism in Nepal, with Lain Singh Bangdel’s arrival from Europe in 1961 and his first exhibition the following year. The 1962 exhibition was the first large scale exhibition of sixty-five works, both figurative paintings as well as his recent experiments in abstraction, completed during his nine-year stay in Paris and London. Bangdel was the first Nepali artist to be trained in Europe, and to introduce the trends of modernism to Nepal, similar to many of his international compatriots in Europe who similarly returned back to their homelands to provide a radical departure from the established norms. For example, he was working at the same time in Paris Ecole Des Beaux Art with members of the Indian Progressive Artists included Raza, Souza, Padamsee, and Indonesian artist, Affandi. For Bangdel, abstraction became his signature style, which he continued to experiment with throughout his life and exemplifies Bangdel’s avant-garde conception of a modernist style. What Bangdel introduced to modern Nepali art was an artistic experimentation and innovation, specifically abstraction, but one that embodied a deeply personal expression of the artist’s inner self. For the next generation of artists, such as Manuj Babu Mishra, Uttam Nepali, Laxman Shrestha, the SKIB artist group (Shashi Shah, Krishna Manandhar, Indra Pradhan and Batsa Gopal Baidya) and Kiran Manandhar, Nepali modernism was definitively taking shape through multiple contexts and diverse expressions, yet always within a culturally located framework rather than as direct derivations of Western ideologies. Hence, their works express the negotiated burdens of tradition and modernity in order to define their contemporary idiom in the global context. The 1980s also witnessed the rise of several successful women artists, such as Pramila Giri, Shashi Kala Tiwari, and RaginiUpadhyay-Grelaand saw a collective engagement in the discourse of feminine experiences. Indeed, the art produced by contemporary Nepali women artists expressed forcefully a shift from simply the aesthetically derived works towards a perception of the world centering around their gendered identities: of self, body politics, gender, and sexuality. It is within this context of the third generation of contemporary Nepali artists that a new movement towards experimentation, social engagement, and a socially conscious art practice. Alternative art movement now mark contemporary Nepali art, shifting the landscape from the traditional white cube gallery to public and community engagement. While Nepal Fine Arts Academy is the government-led institution for the development of fine arts in Nepal, private for-profit and non-profit institutions like the Siddhartha Art Gallery, Kathmandu Contemporary Arts Center, and the Nepal Arts Council remain at the forefront of supporting artists and creating opportunities to showcase the arts of Nepal. More recently two editions of Kathmandu International Art Fair created significant synergies for national and global interactions. Similarly, the participation of contemporary Nepali artists in international art fairs, summits, biennales and triannales only reinforce contemporary Nepali arts presence in the global market. Within this broader context, Nepal Art Council continues its mission in the support of contemporary arts of Nepal through exhibitions, workshops, and outreach programs. In over fifty years of its establishment, Nepal Art Council remain a stalwart leader in supporting contemporary Nepali art.