Thursday, May 02, 2002

Amrita Sher-Gill nude and makings of an artist

Mian Ijaz-ul-Hassan

Mr Gwyn had obviously cautioned himself against purchasing a Gauguin print in which Polynesian maidens were going about their daily chores with bare bosoms. I think for the same reason the best of Renoir was also not there

Mr Gwyn, the Principal of Aitchison College Lahore, during one of his vacations back home in England, had returned with a handful of prints of European Masters for the school art room. These were suitably framed and hung high up on the walls, beyond the reach of emerging masters who may have felt the urge to improve upon the works!

Surveying these paintings gave us immense pleasure. There were two Rembrandts, one portrayed a man with a gilt helmet and the other was a late evening landscape with a windmill on top of a hill. There were three Van Goghs. The first one displayed ripe yellow wheat with dark green cypresses and a low range of blue mountains, while the second one presented a vista of green fields with white fence running across in the foreground, a cart, some huts and a few plums in blossom. The third was the artist’s self-portrait with a pipe in his mouth and a bandage going around his head covering the freshly severed left ear. I still vividly recall the landscapes but how can I ever forget the calm steady gaze, expressing the artist’s submission to personal suffering, while the smoke from his smouldering heart curled out of the pipe.

Then of course there was the portly Mona Lisa, with her bewitching smile following you around the art room with her eyes. There was another one of Leonardo’s earlier paintings, a portrait of a woman against the foliage of a tree rendered in Gothic vein, without the dramatic contrasts that were so characteristic of his later work. What else was there? There was a Monet, his ‘Regatta at Argenteuil’, which was a source of considerable discussion among us. Mr Moyene Najmi, the art teacher, tried to explain but we insisted that it was too sloppy and formless. My appreciation of Monet came later. I fell for the Post-Impressionists much before I began to relish the subtleties of light and tone, which permeates the Impressionist landscape. My honeymoon with Van Gogh did not last very long because Gauguin had captivated my heart — in the same way perhaps that he had at one time captured the heart of Van Gogh.

Was there a Gauguin in the art room? If there was one it must have been quite innocuous — that is, if Gauguin can ever be innocuous. Mr Gwyn had obviously cautioned himself against purchasing a Gauguin print in which Polynesian maidens were going about their daily chores with bare bosoms. I think for the same reason the best of Renoir was also not there. A painting of a bare woman, which I first beheld, was probably an Amrita Sher-Gill nude. I must confess I had seen some dirty postcards from Paris through the indulgence of a cousin, whose uncle had brought them from Bombay, or was it Port Said, and kept them in a secret place which only his nephew knew. But those faded sepia picture postcards were not paintings. The models were awkwardly poised and in a disorderly state, though, I must confess, it was not easy to take one’s eyes off these warriors in close combat. Still, they could not be regarded as art.
The Sher-Gill nude was another matter. It was in a state of repose, though served with a bit of chutney. The painting had been reproduced in a booklet along with some other Sher-Gill paintings. How the book arrived in the art room, no one was ever able to tell. Mr Moyene Najami didn’t mind us paging through it. I pleasantly recall how we gloated over her slim brown body stretched dilatorily across the page with her face averted from us with one of her arms resting under her head. Her bosom defied gravity and resisted draping over the rib box. She seemed relaxed and quite unaware, allowing us to survey her at our leisure.

The sight baffled my artistic sensibility by exciting sensations that I considered resided outside the periphery of art. It was not easy to distinguish one from the other. At that age the difference between art and life was only marginal. One felt and lived. I believe that at the core of each artist’s heart is the desire to narrow the yawning chasm between reality and fiction that comes into existence with adolescence. Art aspiring to express the best of life, and life longing to capture the condition of art, and somewhere in the process each coalescing with the other.

On joining the Government College for my BA, I had to walk to Punjab University’s Fine Arts Department to attend classes in painting, which was one of my subjects. This brought me in contact with a large number of young and established artists of the period and, of course, Musarrat, who consented to marry me if her parents agreed, which they fortunately did two years later. Mr Khalid Iqbal, my former teacher from Aitchison, had returned from the Slade in England and was now ensconced at the Department.
The Fine Arts Department was quite a vibrant place in those days and people like Moyene Najmi, S Safdar, Habib Burki, Murtaza Bashir, and Raheel A Javed were regular visitors, but Shakir Ali was the most frequent of them all. In fact he was a daily visitor. The Natio nal College was a brown place in those days and not quite the art place it became later. I am sure Shakir Ali’s daily visits must have provided him a pleasant change from the tedium of teaching at the NCA, recently elevated from a crafts institution, for chit-chat over tea in Mr Khalid’s small office. I would occasionally join them and other visiting artists and men of letters. Occasionally, during the break, we would saunter across to the nearby Coffee House for a mid-morning snack, usually comprising of plates-full of french-fries or toasted sandwiches stuffed with chicken, eggs and pickles, called the flying saucer.

At the Fine Arts Department, Khalid Iqbal’s presence made all the
difference. Khalid hardly ever tried to enforce his views on anyone. He believed that ‘a mind which tries to impose itself on others is essentially an inferior one’. Khalid was a shy and quiet person but could be quite assertive when it came to defending his own beliefs, which haven’t changed much ever since. He was dispassionate and objective in whatever he painted. He would not allow his feelings to contaminate his expression. That is why his work of that period was a trifle cold. His later work became considerably more warm and expressive of the mood of the prospects that he painted as well as his own feelings. As a teacher he never allowed students to become complacent about what they believed. There was always an alternative point of view, a second option. He kept you on your toes, made you reconsider and rethink your position, refine your thoughts, and enabled you to enter into fresh areas of perception and knowledge.

It was in this spirit that Mr Khalid sat with me to prepare for my art-history paper. He would sit across a table in the library and page through volumes on art, discussing various artists and their paintings reproduced there. He had his favourites and I had mine. He didn’t like Tintoretto. In fact, he didn’t care much for the entire Baroque period. He enjoyed the deftness with which Watteau painted textures and surfaces but on the whole found Rococo a trifle shallow. He of course greatly appreciated Bouche’s sheer skill in manipulating paint in expressing surfaces. He liked, for instance, the conception and the admirable skill demonstrated by the artist in one of his paintings where a bare young lass is lying on her belly, and the fluffy sofa cushions are yielding to the weight of her sensuous flesh.

For me it was a sumptuous sight, for him a great feat of painting. He admired Chardin for his ‘pure painting’ and not for any episodic value. He could make a common candle look more imposing than a Doric column. We shared the same views about Velasquez’s incredible perception and magical rendering of tone. He found Franz Hals a bit slick, though he appreciated the strain of earthly realism in the early French painting and had great respect for artists who could draw well, as varied as Ingress, Degas and Matisse. He didn’t particularly care for the German Expressionists, though I was drawn to them for their strong colours and bold treatment of subject. Poussin was fabulous, we agreed. We also shared similar sentiments about Modigliani, Giacometti and Mondrian. Talking to Mr Khalid was and is always refreshing and thought-provoking. Isn’t that what teaching and learning is all about?

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is Pakistan’s leading painter. He is a teacher, art critic and political activist. He was awarded the “President’s Pride of Performance” in 1992. He is currently the president of the PPP Punjab’s Policy Planning Committee and Chairman of the party’s Manifesto Committee