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“Don’t buy a new car—buy a painting.”
Leonard Gordon '59, scholar at the South Asian Institute of Columbia University, made a generous gift of fine art to the College and the Mead Art Museum in 2011. In the following article, Dr. Gordon shares his personal story of how he came to be a collector and why he chose to make a gift of art. Perhaps Dr. Gordon's story will inspire you to consider making a gift of art. Samples of Dr. Gordon's gift follows the article. To view his entire donation, please click here.
Art class was a drag in my public high school and we played word games in the back of the room as the teacher droned on. But then during a group trip to Europe when I was nineteen, after my sophomore year at Amherst, I found myself amongst teachers and art enthusiasts who insisted that I accompany them to the art museums in every city we visited. From London and Paris to Bruges and Ghent and on to Amsterdam, we looked at paintings and sculpture and talked about art. I started to read more and then on my own visited Florence and Venice and Rome.
Upon returning to Amherst, I took the introductory art history course with Professor Frank Trapp and it was the most enjoyable course I took during my four years. And with some guidance I wrote an appendix to my honors thesis on social patterns and responses in eighteenth-century English novels about the engravings of William Hogarth.
Just before graduation, Professor Trapp gave a talk to a small group in the senior class and he said, “Don’t buy a new car every year…buy a painting.” I filed away his advice believing that the purchase of serious art was way beyond my reach.
A few years later, while a graduate student in sociology and then in history at Harvard University, I wandered into the study of imperialism and then British imperialism in India. I was farmed out to study Bengali at the University of Chicago and then found myself in Calcutta in the fall of 1963 working on my dissertation with help from the Ford Foundation Foreign Area Program.
My Bengali teacher from Chicago and thereafter a lifelong friend, Edward C. Dimock, introduced me to the Bengali painter Jamini Roy. He was a charming elderly man, then in his late seventies, and shortly we became friends and I would frequently visit him for tea. My Bengali was not great and his English was not great, but we got along well in “Banglish”, some mixture of the two. The front part of his house in Ballygunge was a gallery to display and sell his paintings. In the back he painted and we had our conversations. He told me how he made his own paints which he called “natural” or “earth” colors. He had started many years ago painting in European styles, but then discovered the arts and traditions of rural Bengal. He developed his own style, much more Indian than he had begun, but painted Christian as well as Indian mythological subjects and also ordinary men and women. His pictures seemed quite stylized, more linearly than painterly, but some seemed to me surpassingly beautiful. One--the heads of five women--I presented to a beloved aunt. She told me decades later that it was her favorite thing in the world.
I had asked how much certain paintings in his studio cost and found that they were well within my means. So I bought a few that I liked and he shipped them to my mother in the U.S. On the first of each year, he presented small design paintings he called “alpanas”(after the designs that village women made on the ground) to his chosen friends. They just arrived at one’s door. He gave me two of them in 1964 and 1965.
One day he asked, “Gordon, how old are you?” I answered that I was 25. He responded that I was very old and must be married and he would arrange it. He asked if there was a girl I liked and I mentioned a Punjabi girl whom I had met at a party and seen acting in a British Council production of “The Glass Menagerie”. He asked the girl, her sister-in-law and me to tea. But the two women never showed up and the whole matter fell through. It turned out that the sister-in-law’s baby was ill and the younger woman was afraid to come without her. When I called up their household the mother of the young woman asked, “Who is this Jamini Roy and what kind of arty crowd hangs around at his house?” I don’t know what would have happened if Jamini Roy had tried to arrange a marriage to a young woman I hardly knew. Through all this I probably stepped on a few toes of Indian marriage customs and it is good that nothing transpired. A few years later when Jamini Roy heard that I had married, he sent me a small alpana to New York.
I learned just before I returned to India a few years after my first trip that Jamini Roy had died and also that the Government of India had passed a law forbidding the export of his paintings. One had appeared on an Indian stamp, another on a card from the U.N. Many were in galleries in India and some abroad. I had bought them for their beauty and appeal to me and never thought that they had much commercial value. But in the 1990s suddenly Indian and Chinese paintings shot up in value and major auction houses in New York and London began holding auctions devoted to modern art from these rising Asian nations.
During my second extended stay in India during 1972 and 1973, a mutual friend introduced me to another Bengali painter, Sunil Das, a man about my own age. We became friends and had lunches and some drinks together. He became the director of the National Weavers’ Center in Calcutta and organized artists’ “camps” at which a dozen or so artists worked together while visitors could observe them. Sunil had first become known for his drawings of bulls and horses, French charcoal drawings of great power, which he had begun while a student in Europe. But then he went on to experiment with a variety of styles. His paintings and drawings, at first, were also within my price range and I began to buy a few. He lived quite modestly in a flat near Kalighat with his wife and painted in a room on the ground floor that may have once been a garage.
Whenever Sunil heard that I was about to return to India, he would ask me to bring him art supplies which he could not purchase in India. So I would go to art stores in New York and bring him brushes and paper or whatever he desired. His last request, perhaps in the mid-1980s, was for a staple gun that shot staples in open to help him to affix canvas to frame. And he wanted 10,000 staples. I carried it in my hand luggage. That was then and no one cared all that much what you carried in your luggage.
Then Sunil asked me to carry an entire exhibition of 25 drawings rolled up in a large package in my suitcase from Calcutta to New York and then to send it to Rochester. I was very worried about this but he told me that God was with me and it would arrive safely and it did.
Years later I wanted Sunil to do the cover for a book I was completing about two Bengali heroes, Subhas and Sarat Chandra Bose, and he was willing. But Penguin India wanted photographs and so this possibility was denied. Then some years later my precious stepdaughter was to marry a man she met while they both worked backstage on “The Lion King”. I asked Sunil to draw me a lion. He had had a serious infection while visiting China and had had part of the index finger on his right hand cut off and was worried that he could not draw as he had before. But a month later, he called me and said, “Your lion is ready.” What a wonderful drawing it is of a benign lion surrounded by all the other animals of the jungle and with a delightful snake—Sunil likes snakes—across the top.
I have met a few other artists in India but only two have become true friends with whom I have been fortunate enough to share part of my life. Bengal has long been a center of Indian cultural life—Rabindranath Tagore, Ravi Shankar, and Satyajit Ray—are among her offspring, but other parts of India as well have had and have flourishing centers of the arts. Year by year people outside India are discovering her cultural riches.
I have presented two works by Jamini Roy and four by Sunil Das and another by a painter named Manu Parikh as well as two scrolls by Sunil Madhav Sen to the Amherst College Art Gallery in memory of Frank Trapp. I hope that other Amherst students will be inspired to buy a painting instead of a new car. Their lives will be fuller for it.