The way it was: Standing this side of the window


Indolence is not regarded a virtue but believe me it is not something which can be easily acquired either. I know many precious lives wasted in an effort at cultivating it. Indolence may lead to endearing private aberrations but it rarely leads to laudable public vice

How can an artist know a subject without having intermingled with it? Subjects from life and nature, that are part of everyday discourse often, provide the richest raw material for art and literature. Incidentally there are sights you may have crossed on your way for years but never looked their way, and then in a moment they enter the depth of your being.

Nature is a flirt, ever eager to reveal. An artist on his part should have a wandering eye, ever alert to these revelations. There are subjects, which can be painted over and over again. For instance there is this jaman with a vine clasped to its trunk, outside our bedroom window. I find them quite irresistible. I can’t help looking out at them and I suppose they can’t help looking in at me. It is quite amazing how a familiar subject can constantly change its appearance. The moment you feel you have captured them, they present themselves in another guise. It is an irresistible, constant provocation.

I must confess that painting is an astonishing activity. While painting the artist struggles to understand the world, simultaneously he strives to discover the means to express his feelings and ideas. This conflict, simultaneously to engage the outside and inner life is the very spirit and essence of painting and all other creative pursuits. Artists who go place to place hunting for aspects of nature are obviously unfamiliar with what painting is all about.

Venturing into a new territory can be delightful, but new places can also be terribly inhibiting. Sensitive artists like to think and reflect before entering into any form of correspondence. This provides them with a fair excuse to relax or to be just idle.

Indolence is not regarded a virtue but believe me it is not something which can be easily acquired either. I know many precious lives wasted in an effort at cultivating it. Indolence may lead to endearing private aberrations but it rarely leads to laudable public vice. Unfortunately in my case a pen drawing or a sketch nudges me out of lethargic stupor to action. Once you get started you may not even feel the need to move from the spot and can continue to paint one canvas after another by merely shifting the angle of vision or the easel a few paces from here to there. You would recall that every location has a prospect, which instantly arrests your attention and elusive aspects, which need to be unveiled through individual perception. More often than not these are the richer aspects. It is like going to a party where for a while you find a person extremely engaging but soon you feel a bit worn out and spend the rest of the evening with a person who has been sitting quietly sipping his orange juice in the corner.

Frequently a single small aspect of the whole is quintessentially more expressive than a sweeping survey of the entire prospect – a Himalayan oak sheathed with velvet moss, ferns dozing on a forest slope. A sprig, a spray, a frond can often be more expressive of the forest than the forest itself. Sometimes lower tones are more audible than the loud shrill notes. An understatement may cut deeper than an overstatement. In painting this is especially true of colour.

A few years ago I was in Washington. Autumn was on the wane, but some of the trees were still ablaze with colour. I find the American autumn one of the most over-painted subjects. Tons of red, orange and lemon must have been smeared on a million bolts of canvas and yet the vibrant colour and feeling of autumn escapes most paintings. The rich vibrancy of colour can be rarely imparted to a viewer by employing actual colours of the pigment. This is best done through suggestion, by rousing the imagination.

A Chinese master once aptly stated that colour was a matter of the imagination. You may look at Chinese paintings with their dark definitions and successive grades of grey and yet never notice the absence of colour because it is added to the painting from the palette of our imagination. The autumn must have different meaning for each painter. To me the American autumn was not just a matter of ravelling in colour but an opportunity to reflect on a season that represents ripening and maturity. It was an awakening to the memory of bygone days, of the time wasted and of distant faces. Happily the sense of loss was subdued with ambiguous feelings of satisfaction which sometime accompany self-realisation.

On my next visit to the US, I spent most of my time in Brooklyn. It was the heart of winter and bitter-sharp cold. Trees denuded of all life except that they solemnly stood their ground against a bleak sky. Soft green grass had turned lemon and lemon to rough brown. There were of course moments of glory when the sun would break through the cemented sky igniting the sombre prospect, which would glow with colour and luxuriant textures.

I was staying with my son Ahmed who was away most of the day for his medical studies. This would leave me alone endlessly. I used the opportunity to paint a number of views from the apartment windows.

These paintings express very simple private feelings. When you are alone and a little sad, you eagerly seek comfort from common familiar things. A façade flushed with sunlight, a maple ascending from the street below, an antenna, a view across a desolate common, a receding brick wall, a fence, a stump, acquire unusual significance. Staring out of a window at these common objects on the canvas, the viewer cannot help feeling that he stands alone on this side of the window.

But should the artist be standing alone on this side of the window? Should he not be on the street with fellow humans, instead of watching bushes grow in the backyard? But these are questions each artist must answer for himself. Often when conduct of men and society fails to inspire an artist, he withdraws unto himself. Art at its best is a joint venture. Some artists however have made a virtue of their estrangement and make profit of it. In the contemporary ethos a cerebral artist must inevitably look inwards because his thoughts are not burdened with larger human concerns but reflects his fragmented identity. Under the prevailing exigencies would you rather not passionately observe life and events with enlightened disinterest, rather than be on the street marketing artware which is prized for its obscurity.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is Pakistan’s leading painter. He is a teacher, art critic and political activist. He is currently the president of the PPP Punjab’s Policy Planning Committee and Chairman of the party’s Manifesto Committee