MF Husain and Modernist Painting

Traditional Indian Festivals (2008-2011) by MF Husain. Courtesy of Usha Mittal, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

MUQBOOL FIDA HUSAIN  (1915–2011) is frequently dubbed ‘the Picasso of India’. It is quite a title to live up to, but one that, when confronted with the myriad colours, textures, themes and ideas of MF Husain’s Indian Civilisation series currently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, is hard to refute.

Rippling with colour and with all the exoticism of Bollywood, this series of eight triptychs by MF Husain is rich with history, politics and emotion. The exhibition MF Husain: Master of Modern Indian Painting sees the works of the eminent painter brought back to London, the city where they were first commissioned and created. The series, also known as Vision of India through Mohenje Daro to Mahatma Gandhi is on display alongside a painting of the Hindu god Ganesha – patron of the arts and letters, traditionally worshipped at the beginning of any endeavour.

The exhibition was organised jointly by the V&A, Christie’s auction house and Mrs Usha Mittal who with her husband was responsible for the initial commission. Amin Jaffer, from Christie’s was one of the show’s key orchestrators, ‘MF Husain was artist in residence at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1990 and it seemed only fitting that this institution should show the painter’s final series… both Mrs. Mittal and I thought it a fitting tribute to Husain’.

MF Husain died in London in 2011 at the age of 95. Just like Picasso, he lived the last years of his life in self-imposed exile from his native country – in his case in Dubai. Both he and Picasso have left behind palpable legacies and extensive bodies of work, which provide huge scope for comparison. Guernica, painted in 1937 in response to the bombing of the Basque Country village during the Spanish Civil War, is arguably Picasso’s most famous work. It is certainly his most controversial. A monumental painting in black and white, it is irrefutably intertwined with its political, historical and cultural provenance. In many ways it is the pinnacle of Modernist painting, being both reactionary in its subject matter and revolutionary in its form. Husain’s Indian Civilisation series is similarly imbued with fertile anecdote and is challenging in its aesthetic articulation. Verily, the good, the bad and the ugly of Indian history are presented to us in Technicolor.

The 12 by 6 foot paintings are as wide as Picasso’s Guernica is tall, so we are not talking about a likeness of scale here. But nonetheless, the Indian Civilisation triptychs are imposing and authoritative. Freestanding and unframed, like Guernica, these pieces are laden with history and employ a language of modernism to relay this history to their audience. Abstract forms take centre stage, while MF Husain uses a palette more akin to Fauvism than to representational.

In the early 20th century, Picasso and Georges Braque sought a new way to present reality in painting through Cubism. These young, impassioned artists pioneered the dis- and reassembly of objects in order to create a number of different viewpoints simultaneously. Thus the two-dimensional became multi-dimensional. In an era increasingly defined by technological advances, the photograph came to usurp the painting as the primary and preferred means of representing a visual reality.  The abstract forms of works such as Le Poète (1911) by Picasso offered something entirely new to visual arts. Once representation was no longer the chief concern of painting, the medium was set free to explore new territory. There was a need for painting to react to film and photography and instead concern itself with areas that these new mediums could not access, namely colour and emotion.

MF Husain’s Indian Civilisation series embraces this idea. Truly these pieces capture the mood of mid-20th century painting as it moved away from the ideals of the salon towards the realm of conceptual art, to a place where the uniqueness of an artwork is no longer wholly invested in the physical object; to a place where the ‘art’ exists in a sphere outside of the frame, off the wall.

Part of what makes Guernica so modern is its revolutionary sensibilities and the potency and immediacy of its argument against oppression. In MF Husain’s Three Dynasties triptych the oppressive role of General Franco is assumed by the British Raj. We feel the pain of the elephant in the left-hand panel – an unmistakable symbol of India, as it is confronted by the domineering soldiers in the right-hand panel. In much the same way, we can track the suffering of the Spanish and Basque people through the motifs of the bull and the horse in Guernica. But MF Husain seems to be more accepting of the turbulent history of his native country, more embracing of the past in all its splendour and with all its flaws. He paints his protagonists with blank faces rather than depict their acute pains and emotions. And in his hand-written notes that accompany the panel he adopts a calm, matter of fact tone: ‘It took about two centuries for Mahatma Gandhi to lead the multitude of Indian people to fight for their freedom non-violently. By 1947, the columns of British power crumbled’. Although MF Husain highlights the violence of India’s struggle for independence historically, his words contain none of the vehemence of Picasso’s. But does forcefulness necessarily denote Modernity?

MF Husain’s paintings were forward thinking in style and content, but alongside his contemporaries in ‘The Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group’, he further diversified India’s art scene through his employment of new technologies and media. Formed just a few months after the United Kingdom granted India independence, the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group were an avant-garde collective, who strove to push the boundaries of Indian art on a global stage. From its naissance, film was and remains to this day an integral part of Indian culture and it played a massive role in shaping MF Husain’s artistic career. One of Husain’s earliest jobs was painting film posters. He was aware of the impact that cinema had on the art world, and the way that art could in turn shape cinema. He went on to create numerous short film works including Through the Eyes of a Painter (1967) which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and which is also shown at this exhibition. Through his travels around Europe, Husain brought new artistic ideas and styles back to India. Ultimately it was his blending of classical Indian tropes with the thoroughly un-classical artistic styles of the 20th-century Western world that marked MF Husain and his ‘Progressive’ partners out as true radicals.

Even in the 21st century, MF Husain’s work sparks controversy. On the 22 May 2012,  Asia House Gallery, in London, sadly had to close its exhibition of Husain’s work after two major paintings were vandalised. The exhibition had been due to run until the 5 August of that year. The incident was to become part of the apex of a campaign of hate against the artist and his oeuvre, which had been growing steadily since the mid-20th century. The vitriol stemmed from a number of dedicated Hindu groups, which found MF Husain’s portrayals of naked Hindu gods and goddesses deeply offensive. Raised as a Muslim, MF Husain maintained that he saw these deities as purely Indian motifs, independent from their religious derivations. Hopefully such heated events will not be repeated at the V&A, as expectations for the exhibition are high. The exhibition’s curator Divia Patel says that she hopes the show will, ‘encourage visitors and appreciators of fine art to see the V&A less as a museum and more as an institution who engages with contemporary art and ideas’.

Dating back to the 1890s, the V&A’s Indian Collection is one of the oldest in the museum and acquiring examples of contemporary Indian art has been an enduring priority. The collection already houses several works by the artist – a portrait of Mother Teresa, as well as two lithographs. Through its on-going Indian programme, the V&A continues to show parts of its vast collection. In 2002, it staged an exhibition of Indian film posters, and this autumn a huge display of Indian textiles from the 8th century through to the present day. In 2015, the museum will host an extensive survey of Captain Linneaus Tripe’s photographs of India – a travelling exhibition organised jointly with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

MF Husain: Master of Modern Indian Painting coincides with the release of an Indian-made biopic on the artist entitled My Friend Husain. The director Barkhaa Roy has received the Dada Sahib Phalke Award for the piece – the highest accolade in Indian cinema. So the influence of MF Husain’s work in India continues to resonate. Mrs Usha Mittal, who lent the Indian Civilisation series for the show, feels passionately about his legacy, ‘It is definitely influencing some young Indian artists, just as, say, Picasso influences young European artists today, even if their art is entirely different. In my opinion Husain’s work is an influence on Indian art today and will still be in 100 years time’.

But the painter’s influence is not just restricted to Asia. In 2008, MF Husain became the highest-paid painter in India when one of his works fetched US$1.6m at auction. Amin Jaffer of Christie’s, who sold the work says, ‘Husain’s art reflects his profound love and understanding of Indian tradition and culture, ranging from mythology and antiquities to film and popular culture… The appeal of Husain’s art rested too on the artist’s personality – he was admired around the world and never failed to make an impression on anyone whom he met.  His work has also helped expand India’s artistic exports more generally, as illustrated by our inaugural auction in India, held in Mumbai in December 2013, the market for Indian art is a strong one, with high demand for works by the country’s modern masters. The works are collected not only by Indians in the subcontinent, but by communities in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Middle East and East Asia. Institutions such as the Guggenheim, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Victoria & Albert Museum and Art Institute of Chicago have staged of works by Indian artists, illustrating that interest is both global and at the highest level’.

The nine works on display were originally intended to be part of a 30-strong series. Sadly MF Husain died before being able to complete the project. The unfinished series is perhaps indicative of India’s continually evolving cultural landscape; India is a nation truly in flux. Set against the backdrop of this month’s Indian parliamentary elections, the V&A’s exhibition embraces the country’s historical and political tumult and brings the artist’s work to a new generation of art-lovers in an engaging way. ‘I hope very much that visitors to the exhibition will appreciate two things which I think are remarkable attributes of the paintings,’ says Mrs. Mittal. ‘First, the artist’s genuine love and respect for the traditions and history of India that are depicted in the paintings, and second, his distinctive style, influenced by but not slavishly adhering to Cubism’. Whilst MF Husain embraced a plethora of ideas, themes, styles and cultures in his work, his is a unique contribution to the canon of Indian art and indeed Modern art in a wider international sphere. ‘He had a singular, authentic vision and a truly creative spirit’.

SARAH BOLWELL

Until 27 July, MF Husain: Master of Modern Indian Painting is at Victoria & Albert Museum, London, www.vam.ac.uk. Entry to the exhibition is free. Asian Art Newspaper carried an interview with MF Husain in April 2009.