THE WAY IT WAS: Book launch and a rare perspective —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Khalid Iqbal’s work reminds me of Mondrian, not because of any similarity of the subject matter, but because of their expression of belief in reason, restraint and virtue of simplicity. It is because of these attributes that Khalid Iqbal has been able to reach out to painters so diverse in their styles and intentions

Writing a book on a living artist should actually not be difficult because there are always fat files of reviews, articles and comments, along with dozens of catalogues available with the artist himself. Dr Mussarrat Hasan is to be applauded, however, for writing a book on Khalid Iqbal without any of these readily available assets. The book is titled, Khalid Iqbal - Pioneer of Modern Realism in Pakistan. It has been published jointly by the National College of Arts and Ferozesons.

As a subject, Khalid Iqbal must be a nightmare for an art historian. He has had only one exhibition. That, too, inaugurated after the book was launched. He rarely signs his paintings and those signed do not mention the date when they were done. Since there have been no exhibitions, there are no catalogues and reviews. It is almost impossible to interview him because he won’t talk if he is being recorded. He doesn’t remember dates and at the best of times mumbles his thoughts. Now you tell me how easy does Khalid Iqbal makes the task of a person who wishes to write about him or his work.

In these circumstances and given Khalid Iqbal’s misanthropic moods, I admit without hesitation that Dr Hasan has done a splendid job. The book is comprehensively illustrated, well researched and elegantly presented. It spans the artist’s journey from when he was a teacher at Aitchison College, Lahore, through the Department of Fine Arts of the Punjab University and the National College of Arts, to his retired but creatively most productive present. It is Dr Hasan’s fourth book on the subject of art and artists. One can safely presume therefore that there are more to come.

I have known Khalid Iqbal since the mid fifties when he joined Aitchison College as our art teacher. Later, when I was a student at the Fine Arts Department, he was again my teacher. At the National College it was an enriching experience being his colleague. Khalid Iqbal is a rare person who has excelled as a great teacher as well as a great painter.

Since his first solo exhibition has been inaugurated it is appropriate that I say a few words about his work and the impact it has had on painting and ideas. In the fifties when it was fashionable to be modern and some artists were going as far as to copy paintings straight out of English art magazines, Khalid resisted the trend or any temptation to adopt techniques and manners of modernism. He insisted on observing tones and facts and built his paintings on the basis of his empirical experience. His earlier paintings clearly illustrate how he observes and then analyses what he has observed, before translating it into a picture he paints.

In his later work, I see him going beyond observation and analysis and venturing ahead to take a third step by reflecting upon the subject. The dispassionate reflection in his later paintings is often imbued with restrained expression of his mood and abstract feelings. I am aware that Khalid Iqbal may not go along with me to this extent. In the ultimate analysis it is the paintings that matter. They will speak to the viewer for what they are or what a viewer likes to read into them. More often than not a person cannot get more from a work of art than what he feels, perceives, or deserves. All works of art have a complexity, layers of meaning and levels of ambiguity that are differently fathomed, measured or experienced by the viewer.

Dr Hasan has called Khalid Iqbal a pioneer of modern painting. How can that be true? Most of our art critics, art students and even artists believe that Realism and Modernism are contrary terms. It is true that this is precisely how the terms have been understood (or misunderstood). It is about time that we redefine the terms in the contemporary context. Allow me an attempt at briefly and in as simple terms as possible, to define the two terms. I proceed from the assumption that although Realism and Modernism have become associated with certain manners of painting, they are not styles but attitudes. A painter who has learnt to imitate the surface effects of ‘Realistic’ or ‘Modern’ painting is at best an imitator or a good craftsman, not an artist.

Realism is an attitude towards life that attempts to take into account tangible facts and events of life. Little does it matter how an artist proceeds to record or express them. In this sense artists who proceed to manufacture placid sceneries or flattering portraits are not realists but cosmeticians. Realism is not just a process of getting the perspective and the drawing right but also unravelling and interpreting the eternal nature, the changing seasons and social realities of the time.

Modernism as we are aware was a movement against traditional values of a civilisation that had led mankind to the two terrible World Wars. The artists rejected not merely the values but also the art that had become entirely descriptive and illustrative, shackled by the strict rules of the art academia. The form that was later adopted by the fascists for buttressing their propaganda machine. Modern art that was ignited by rebellious content slowly lost its original resolve after the second war. It was tempered by its corporate, commercial interests and surrendered into obedience.

However an artist who cannot benefit from what was achieved during this period, termed as Modernist, denies himself many great achievements of Modernism in the context of subject matter, use of materials and insight into the use of colour and methods of creating and fabricating artworks for an artist to make his intentions known. Modernism also encouraged an artist to descend into himself, rather than rebelliously engage the world that was its original intention. The artist today must restrain Realism from pandering to telling lies and valorising villains, and at the same time spurn the tendency of most Modern artists to investigate their personal dark corners while the living world awaits them. When this is done the Realism and Modernism coalesce and intermingle to provide us - the Third World artists - the firm and secure foundations to creatively and meaningfully engage our environment, and ourselves and provide endless aesthetic and social material for our creative expression.

Khalid Iqbal can be called Modern because he is a modern person who believes in reason, logic and power of persuasion. Can artists who are superstitious, who believe in ghosts and don’t believe in science and common good be called Modern? Whenever I look at Khalid Iqbal’s work it reminds me of Mondrian, not because of any similarity of the subject matter, but because of their expression of belief in reason, restraint and virtue of simplicity. It is because of these attributes that Khalid Iqbal has been able to reach out to painters as diverse in their styles and intentions as Shakir Ali, Zubeida Javed, Dr Khalid Mehmood, Zulqarnain, Ghulam Rasool, Colin David and myself and a host of younger painters as diverse in their pursuits as Ghulam Mustafa, Iqbal Hussain, Shahid Jalal, Kaleem Khan, Jamal Shah and dozens of others who I am sure will speak for themselves.

Let me end by quoting what Dr Hasan, the author, said in her brief speech at the book launching: “Have you ever realised that many of us have not even seen many of the paintings produced here. These works have been put in one or two public showings and have afterwards disappeared in private collections. Don’t you think our people need to see and relate to things that they can be proud of. Apart from poetry, literature and sports there have been few things that have given them any reason for pride. Painting in Pakistan is certainly one of them. But there is so little evidence of it in public view.

“In the end I would like to address the people of Lahore. In recent years Karachi has initiated a process through which the people of that city unite to acclaim and own what belongs to the city. Our artists are our pride. Let us together own them and honour them. Khalid Iqbal has devoted a lifetime to Lahore and its environment. Let not the ravages of time obscure the work that he has produced. Let us cherish and enjoy it and hope and pray that he keeps on painting the rugged fallow land, furrowed and potted, with clumps of dry hardy grass, sometimes endowed with stagnant, standing water with its moss-grown surface occasionally enriched with clusters of reeds or softened by mist on a cold winter morning.”

Prof Ijaz Ul Hassan is a painter, author and political activist