It is a rare experience, this Husain retrospective mounted by the Art Heritage at the Lalit Kala Gallery where over 100 Husains fill the first floor as well as the foyer space. Indeed not an ordinary exhibition, this first retrospective New Delhi art lovers are exposed to. (Two other Husain retrospectives were held in Calcutta in 1969 and in Bombay in 1973.)
Most of the paintings on display are from private collections, a large number of them from the collection of Badri Vishal Pitti, an industrialist from Hyderabad.
And many of them are being exhibited for the first time in New Delhi. For putting up this impressive, well-structured retrospective of Husain we should be grateful to the Alkazis.
Since Husain has become part of Indian painting’s folklore and has been written about so much the importance of the retrospective has nothing to do with either the worth or the value of the exhibits. He has the same appeal as a film star has for the popular imagination. Indeed, he can very well be called the patriarch of the modernist sensibility in Indian art. As Shiv Kapur in his book on Husain says “Freed from the bitterness of political subjugation and of the nagging urge towards establishing a collective national identity, Husain is the harbinger of a new mood in Indian art.” Putting it another way, one might say that with Husain what is called modern art finally arrived in India.
The Husain retrospective brings home the truth that there is no progress in art: the essential Husain has not changed a bit-the Husain who discovered himself when he first encountered Mathura sculpture in 1948. And ever since he has been translating the language of sculptural form in his painting. The result of this media mix was a new composition-movement of forms in space. In painterly language one might say that modeling lines in a Husain painting achieve the same high degree of visibility we find in Indian relief sculpture. A close look at a Husain will, for instance, show that the contours modeling the interior forms are frequently broken and at different depths: they do not form a continuous outline. That is to say, the internal structure of Mathura sculpture is ever present in his work. Of course, the medium is two-dimensional and the way he uses a line, makes explicit the operation of these internal forces: the changes in the surface are connected through line which defines both volume as well as the surface. This, linear feature which in the language of sculpture is known as modeling lines is one single component of his painting that carries his signature.
The signature quality did not come easy; he continued playing variations on the tactile qualities of line until he painted his famous canvas, Between the Spider and the Lamp in 1956. Between 1947 (when he first won an award at the Bombay
Art Society annual) and 1956, he has been through many influences: reworking on Picassos, Rouaults, Beckmanus and Noldes from the visual discoveries he made in the big-breasted yaksinis of Mathura sculpture, particularly of the Kushan period. But Husain has never been “art history conscious” as his contemporaries are and for this reason alone he has never lost sight of his way when most of his contemporaries at one time or another were out on a limb of the current of art history. It is a measure of his faith, even energy that he never cut himself loose from his moorings, tradition. Tactile sensations, and not any devotion to an idea, is what has obsessed him ever interested as he is in a sensory mix.
The sensory mix in Husain images is heightened by the sense of discontinuity, which produces a feeling of self-alienation. And in the act of painting the object almost fades away as if it were a product of the successive ensemble of colour patches which most people have mistaken for a cubist methodology. But this is as much to clarify the movement of surfaces as to create the impression of depth.
The feeling of movement is central to Husain’s intention, it seems. This is not an easy task. Take for instance, the many self-portraits Husain has been doing since
1956. It would seem that he is not interested in the depiction of the being but the exterior time when each moment must have been felt as one of illumination and fullness. These are indeed records of the passage of time, his confrontation with the self and the moments: of detachment, of discontinuity, of self-doubt and self-alienation; as if to show that he has painted the self-portraits for the darker purpose of seizing himself in the act of painting. This linking device, these assemblages of one instant of time in concatenation with another is to assure us that the intention behind these self-portraits is to depict the passage and not the being.
TERROR OF FAILURE
Moreover, there is the terror of failure of not being able to seize the being in time, of not being able to provide a bridge between this instant and the following instant. One feels this terror of failure as also the anxiety to succeed in the portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru done in 1962. He has concentrated; it is obvious, on visual quantifications to recover the unified field of being in time. But in portraiture the method of pure spontaneity is indeed not the sure method: therefore the portrait of Nehru leaves much to be desired. But as an experience of segmental time, as a method of snap shooting moments the portrait is a unique creation: he has captured a kind of consciousness which is kingly, that is to say, getting hold of a centre without a margin.
This suggests a cinematic experience for us looking at these portraits where every touch of brush and line has been laid with a view to its effect, not at the instant of time-at the moment of applying paint that is-but with a view to its effect in futurity. About Husain’s colour application methods one is always in doubt: which deceives us most-sight or touch.
Husain has never played intellectual games in his painting perhaps because he is a born painter for whom the visual field (the world of light and space) is the mode of perceiving things. Putting it another way, the visual field is not the product of stimulus-response determinism; it is the condition of the mind, of seeing the world as a picture. For ordinary perception, it is difficult to see the world as a picture although it is not difficult for a person with ordinary eyes to see some flat pictures as looking like the world. Husain is a born painter because he never sees the world of appearances as it looks to the eye but as they can be represented.
Although Husain is obsessed with the creation of visual metaphors, interpreting the symbolic language of dance which frees his images from the logic of time and place, his paintings are indeed explorations into the realm of touch and sight; they educate, they modify our sensibility and consciousness.
Published in Link Magazine, New Delhi, December 17, 1978