Artists: Notes on Art Making

M.F. Husain is the most talked about painter of India. After the much-published triptych depicting events leading to the proclamation of Emergency (June 26, 1975), Husain has returned to the acquarel (water-colour) which he had not used over the last twenty years.

A special feature on the artist’s 60th birthday.

In a purely visual way, Husain’s water-colours undoubtedly seem interesting and even effective. They have an air of self -sufficiency, like all true works of art. They speak their own language through the medium, in this case of line and colour, form and composition, tone and texture. And this language can be understood immediately without reference to the artist’s declared intentions.

A figure appears in each picture. It is treated more or less abstractly, which fits into the general style. To that extent, the figures are perfectly acceptable to the viewer (at least to me) and it is easy to appreciate the unity of each water colour. In addition, the artist maintains a certain unity in this entire group of pictures which he exhibited recently, the variations, some of them radical, are still within a broad controlling impulse. There is also a strong continuity of expression which runs through the worst as much as through the best of Husain’s work.

Husain’s signature is never blurred, though scores of paintings in the last several years fail to satisfy because of an overconfident and often vacuous productivity. Husain obviously believed that anything he dashed off would have the authority of the Master. It was certainly received with great deference by the public and sold well at high prices. Nevertheless, I don’t think I am revealing a secret when I say that many knowledgeable artists, art critics and others developed serious reservations about the authenticity of much of Husain’s later work.

It is felt, and I share this feeling, that Husain relied rather heavily on the incomplete element in his paintings, that he felt things left out spoke as eloquently in his picture-space as those he put in, with the qualification that hints and suggestions would do duty even for the things put in. A kind of shorthand notation, Husain appeared to believe, was enough.

The three water-colour reproduced on page 25 are described in the captions, which express the artist’s ideas. How far do the images we see do justice to those ideas? Is the cockroach in the first picture really an “emblem of survival”? Can we attach any importance in aesthetic terms to the “man and woman at the base” of The Fall, or accept the “masks” near the face of the falling figure as expressive of “Woman’s two-sided aspects”? Do we, in truth, experience the city in the third picture and believe that female figure casts its shadow across it?

The answer to all these questions is a resounding “No”. Much as I enjoy the freshness and the technical mastery of devices in these pictures, which please the eye, I cannot allow them that fullness of symbolic interpretation which the artist claims.

The two nudes on this page illustrate another aspect of Husain’s genius, his willingness to take experimental risks. The captions, which are not Husain’s describe “technique”. Serious comment is perhaps out of place. The elephant is snug enough between the lady’s bell and breasts, the tiger stretches with no sinister intuitions from shoulder blades to base lines.

Husain is as much at home these days with camera as with brush, and duplicate his artistic playfulness on the nudes by photographing quite professionally. If some trimming was needed for one photograph and retouching for the other, Husain cannot be blamed. He does not share our inhibitions. The critics need not be heavy-handed. An artist (or any man, for that matter) may amuse himself as he pleases. If he decides to do so with brush and colour on a nude female figure, that is his business. But when he offers the pictures for publication, I suppose one may ask if they have any specific interest other than that normally offered by the contemplation of female nudity.

I think there is a possibility in the “medium”, even if a limited one. Husain’s elephant and tiger, though slight, have a curiously informal naiveté. The lady’s heavy banality is in strong contrast.

Published in The Illustrated Weekly of India, October 5, 1975.
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