The Husain painting is not for judging because judging implies comparison, which divides opinions. It is also because Husain has very little objective visual wisdom, although his painting looks concrete, well-drawn and sweetly-painted. It is glossy like the toy, the rocking-horse of childhood, and its gleaming surface, the brilliance of colours and the decisive outline are very nostalgic. (Incidentally, it is the most expensive toy also which Baudelaire as a child wanted to have but could not and so became an object of deep admiration.) The Husain hobbyhorse is then all the more sweet because it is so readily recognisable and very Indian in its make-up and yet subjective enough for anyone to ride. It has a magical effect on the senses and the eyes that cannot think fall in love with it and remain blind forever. That is why every Husain exhibition divides critical opinion with clearly drawn lines: either you like it or you don’t.
The current exhibition of his 13 paintings at Dhoomi Mal Gallery is no exception.
From the press notices it is clear that he is fast loosing his rather narrow “circle of admirers”. They are not to be blamed; no one can consume that much of Husain sugar. Enough is enough and they cannot have more of it. But the rocking-horse of childhood is all sweet and honey, a visual presence which can be enjoyed only through ruminative indulgence of images; and Husain has attempted to make them a part of the national nostalgia. Of course, this sounds ridiculous; but go and see the tourist who buys Husain blindly and believes that he is really buying not only art but ‘Indian art’. The tourist, of course, has no time to measure the sugar content in the Husain painting because he is having it for the first time.
MONARCH OF MARKET
In the art market Husain until recently reigned like a monarch keeping the market always in bullish fever because only his painting had that touch of national nostalgia which the tourist collects as an Indian souvenir for writing home about.
Husain, to be sure, never starves the market and paints as fast and in as much time as you will take in making a cup of instant coffee. Not even the current wave of Tantrism has affected his sales because he can always paint symbolic stuff with intricate dance mudras and this goes more with the new market trends than the obscure symbology of Tantrik bizarretie. So he manages to be always one-up on the latest avatars of art, whether Indian or foreign.
Why does Husain succeed and not the others? The question has been a subject of debate since Husain entered the market in the early fifties and so far no convincing answer has been found, and as is most often the case with all stable successes, the Husain success brought forth a host of national pastiches as well as pure jealousy and even some wickedness. But we are concerned with neither, for we do not believe that Husain is a case of stable success, nor do we think that jealousy can ever produce a healthy challenge, let alone art. Husain’s popularity can be understood only in the context of Indian art history because his painting demands less of judgment than identity. If one wants art to be a tradition-bound and locally produced commodity then purely formal premises of judging art are not enough. So we have first to define our sensibilities not in terms of formally satisfying aesthetics but in terms of national heritage and adjustments made accordingly. Unless this is agreed upon, no discussion on Husain will ever make sense. And here we face a genuine dilemma because sensibilities are rooted in the experience of one’s growth and cannot be discussed in abstract categories; they have to be understood in relation to other things than the categories of art-criticism. Most critics who stand outside the charmed circle make this mistake and judge him by pure art-critical terms as if there is some kind of a computer operating for them to predict the ratio of success or failure of a work of art. For the art market there may exist some such invisible computer which keeps the art goods in a constant grading system.
Now Husain’s genius in creating a native sensibility has been mistaken for the presence of an ethic and he has been eulogised for this reason. It is based on the mistaken notion that the sense of tradition governs Husain’s conception of form while we all know that there was no such tradition existing in India, at least a meaningful one in the context of easel painting. Husain built his forms not on any awareness of a local tradition, but arrived at them in much the same way as Matisse discovered the beauty of oriental art through the Japanese prints and schematic colours in Persian carpets. For Matisse, the experience of the
Islamic Art exhibition in 1910 was a turning point in his artistic career. So was the case with Husain; he was a different painter ever since he saw the exhibition of Mathura sculpture in 1948 in Delhi. Indeed, we might well extend the parallel between Matisse and Husain’s careers to know the range of influence of what they saw in the exhibitions which changed the whole conception of their art. Matisse, for example, before his encounter with the 1910 exhibition was obsessed with the problems of form simplification; the terms of this obsession were simple: it was a search to combine the geometrical forms (such as the oval, the ellipsoid and the sphere) and the feeling of sensuality which he associated with the female form. This he sought in the earlier phases of Greek tradition of which “La Danse” and “La Musique” are the better known exemplifications.
For completing the famous “Pink Nude”, it is said, he took some eighteen photographs; but neither the Greek tradition nor the help of photographic technology provided him with any significant insights. Similarly, Husain before the experience of the 1948 exhibition of Mathura sculpture was making and painting toys, but the toys did not give him the feel of sensuality, later to become the basis of his aesthetics.
There is yet another aspect to the Husain painting, and that is his being a poet before he became the famous painter. His ideal painting is closer to the lyrical tone of the Urdu Ghazal which he attempted to translate in the visual medium of painting. The implications of this are clear; more than form he is devoted to shape and colour and they make the line of beauty in his painting. Shapes like words have rich associative imagery and at times can suggest metaphoric meanings but on the whole malleable like photographic images. After a great many trial and error experiments, he evolved a system of form construction, which combined sex and geometry at the same level of feeling, which informs Mathura sculpture. Mathura sculpture had been a working model for Husain for a long time until he started to stuff his women with pseudo-symbology.
But there is more to it, because as much was achieved by Keyt who in fact had Indianised Matisse. Still he could not provide a lead to Indian painting. He actually missed in a way the hardcore of 20th century art or rather its starting point which is well represented by two paintings (incidentally both painted in 1907)-Matisse’s “Le Ne Bleu” and Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon”. Husain was indeed the first Indian painter who learnt the proper lesson of these two historically significant paintings. He got from Picasso’s painting of the prostitutes the cubistic method of building forms; and on the basis of Matisse’s painting of the blue nude he formed his painterly insights into what is called “significant form.” Now Husain must have seen these paintings much earlier, perhaps when he was a student at Indore school of art but the understanding of epistemology of modern art he got only after seeing the exhibition of Mathura sculpture. Now he was able to formulate the terms and conception of his art. Like Matisse, Husain enjoys continuous surfaces but unlike Matisse he does not believe in easy transitions and delicate modeling Like Picasso he is violent and aggressive and indulges in pictorial acrobatics and yet the total effect of his painting is closer to that of Matisse. His painting is indeed more like the Baudelaire rocking-horse fascinating for its “glossy purity, the brilliance of his colours, its violent movements and decisive outlines.”
All this detailed comparison of Husain with Matisse and Picasso is necessary because we tend to expect things from Husain which he is incapable of giving. For instance, it is wrong to expect more than a visual pattern from his painting and that is why his play with shapes and colours looks repetitive to us. In a painting based purely on the principle of pleasure, and aimed at providing an armchair as it were for us to relax, visual technology is everything. Actually such a painting mistakes the means for ends. What Husain does therefore is not new. The point is that when we view a master like Husain we should not counterpoint it with our false expectations; rather we should read a work by placing it in the total repertoire of Husain, for it is by knowing the whole range of expression of the artist that we can interpret a single work. And, to be sure, Husain’s range of expression is limited; nevertheless it is rich and unique. Perhaps he knows this well. Whenever he attempts a departure from the essential Husain (the pattern-making artist) and includes in his repertoire themes expressive of the human condition, he fails because it is not within his power to do so without changing his present style. Of course, he is capable of doing this and can choose any day a different way of doing things but he would not, perhaps out of deference to the tourist tastes of his patrons.
In the present exhibition his two paintings both called “Men Unidentified” are painted in a grand design, seldom seen in his painting; the range of his expressive intent is clearly blown up to giant proportions and the surprise is that his painting can accommodate such varied things. It is a landscape of images with clearly defined spatial movements; it has no illusionistic persuasions only psychological implications. Its expressiveness and pictorial power however should not be viewed in isolation or in the context of the works he exhibiting now but in totality talking with landscape implications. He has indeed painted many landscapes since his visit to Banaras in 1957 but none contains such diverse elements as are seen in the “Men Unidentified I.”
Husain undoubtedly is a master and a master is never dead. He may be for a while out of his elements or choose to lie low, but from this we should not infer that he is dead and that he can never regain his old strength. The present exhibition proves that Husain is in full command of his powers.
Published in Link Magazine, New Delhi, January 4, 1970