Remembering the Master

M.F. Husain, one of the great artists that came from India, was born on September 17, 1915. Known as the painter of the people, he is celebrated for his exceptional yet sometimes controversial works that deeply embody the Indian aesthetics and made him popular and relatable to people from all walks of life. His themes too are Indian; from the great epics (the Mahabharata and the Ramayana) to Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the British Raj, to the motifs of Indian urban and rural life. His memorable works reflected the life of an artist that is as vibrant and spirited as his canvases.

Through his career, he enjoyed great popularity and reverence that earned him the moniker ‘The Barefoot Picasso of Indian Art’ attributed to his style which reflected influence from Pablo Picasso and his atypical characteristic of foregoing footwear no matter the occasion or the establishment.

As a tribute to the master on his birthday, here are 10 things to know more about M.F. Husain:

1. His exact birthday is unknown but as a general belief, he was born on the 17th of September 1915; a date that he thought of when he applied for a passport on 1950 for the first time without having proof of his birth date.

2. He started his art career painting cinema hoardings for six annas (1/16th of a rupee) each in 1930. Working on these huge hoardings helped him use space effectively and to paint quickly and boldly on large surfaces. He also took up designing and painting nursery furniture and toys to make a living before becoming a full-time artist.

3. He sold his first painting for Rs 10 in his first show in 1934. To date, his works fetch top dollars; his most priced work sold for USD 1.6 million at an auction in 2008.

4. An extremely prolific artist, his works are estimated to be in the thousands nearing to 40,000. It is said that at one point in his career, he was producing as much as 6 artworks per day.

5. He executed a mural painting titled ‘Mahabali’ (The Great Sacrifice) on the walls of the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations in New York freehand. The 21-meter by 6-meter ‘floor to wall’ mural speaks of human suffering and the environment.

6. He walked around everywhere carrying a long oversized paintbrush that had become a part of his legend.

7. One of his favorite muses was Bollywood superstar Madhuri Dixit; his adoration of the actress resulted in many works inspired by her and her films. He would later direct the film ‘Gaja Gamini’ featuring the actress in 2000. Rumor has it that he watched one of her film a total of 67 times!

8. Husain’s diverse influences both in inspiration and style acknowledged his respect and openness to ancient and new styles of painting. He used symbolization to pay homage to some of the western masters by incorporating Salvador Dali’s signature mustache, Cezanne’s apple, and Van Gogh’s chair among others in his works.

9. Aside from being well-respected and sought after, he was also multi-awarded. He was conferred the Padma Shri (1966), Padma Bhushan (1973), and Padma Vibhushan (1991) by the Government of India along with several honorary doctorates from several distinguished universities.

10. Although considered one of the greatest artists in the history of Indian art, he remained in a self-imposed exile from 2006 until his death on June 2011. He accepted Qatari citizenship in 2010.

To know more about this great artist; visit http://mf-husain.com/

Text Reference: 

2 3 4 Sudha Tilak, The Private Life of a people’s painter, The Hindu – Business Line, December 15, 2017

5 8 9 Najma Husain, Husain’s Art, Pragati Offset Ltd., Hyderabad, 2016

ARTIANA – Highlights – Lot 37 – Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art – Online Auction – No Buyer’s Premium – 13-17 June 2019

Establishing his practice along with the Partition in the 1950s, M.F. Husain participated and played a big part in the creation of the modern Indian pictorial tradition. “For Husain, modern Indian pictorial language needed to be recognizable to the people on the street and in the village. After the Partition, a modern India needs an artist for its people. For Husain, as shared Indian identity and humanity was the entrance to creating a universal pictorial language that Indians could understand and use.[…]”(Thaara Shankar, M.F. Husain’s Modern India, Bowdoin Journal of Art, John Hopkins University, 2018, p. 12)

As the country was struggling to regain identity post-independence, there was a great desire to document and promote the nation’s rich and varied heritage of art. Believing that modern Indian picture has a firm place within India’s long history, Husain plied various sources and presented a range of images depicting the nation; from dancers, sculptures, to images of the great epics – subjects that Husain considered readily available and deemed representative of the Indian culture and heritage. 

M.F. Husain (1915-2011) – Untitled – 34.5 x 18 in. (87.6 x 45.7 cm.) – oil on canvas – Lot 37

Imbibing the creative interaction between different art forms, Husain initiated his series on musicians in 1959, a theme that he revisited throughout the following decades. He adopted traditional postures from sculptures to convey a sense of movement in his figures and depicted traditional instruments to express a sense of music and dance on his canvases.

In the current lot featuring the junction between artistic interpretation and content, Husain used his own pictorial language by straying from any defined qualities and adapting symbols as visual stimuli. The featureless face of the woman is adorned with ‘kumkuma’ and jewelry while the veena seen here is typical of Husain’s iconography, and a recurring motif in his paintings of musicians. The blue outlining the figure in contrast to the otherwise earthy swatch of ochre and brown creates a sense of depth and movement in the composition. Husain stretched icons and played with the blurriness by employing a simplified composition in an undefined setting and focusing on the representational more than individualizing details.

Auction Catalogue – South Asian Art – ‘Modern and Contemporary – 13-17 June 2019

ARTIANA – Highlights – Lot 15 – Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art – Online Auction – No Buyer’s Premium – 13-17 June 2019

M.F. Husain (1915-2011) – Untitled – 2005 – 36 x 24 in. (91.4 x 61 cm.) – acrylic on canvas – Lot 15

“My subject is woman”, M.F. Husain once stated. Women of all sort – rural and urban, anonymous and famous, mortal and divine– have been his subject from the very start of his career as an artist. 

Husain’s interest in the female figure and posture led to his involvement with the subject and a personal idiom that emphasized on the form and not on the emotions evoked. In order to do this, he depersonalized his women and rendered them faceless; with few exceptions including the current image. Here, the titular woman appears with a clearly delineated face; although half of it is partially covered with the canopy of hair. She is placed in an undefined setting completely liberated from the confinement of any social or ethnic references. The shadows around her play an important role in defining and outlining her figure. 

As an artist, Husain had a keen interest in the erotic but usually avoided frontal nudity in his work. He deliberately emphasized the erotic aspect of the female form as an epitome of sensuality and beauty, yet none of this was explicitly and directly explored. Instead, he juxtaposed the female figure with folk elements and symbols –of which India has an abundance of– such as lamps, spokes, and spiders. In this case, a snake around the woman’s neck alludes to male energy and virility.

Auction Catalogue – South Asian Art – ‘Modern and Contemporary – 13-17 June 2019

ARTIANA – Highlights – Lot 6 – Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art – Online Auction – No Buyer’s Premium – 13-17 June 2019

S.H. Raza (1922 – 2016) – Composition – 1974 – 16 x 10.5 in. (40.6 x 26.7 cm.) – Oil on canvas – Lot 6

Sayed Haider Raza had grown increasingly unhappy and restless with his own work by the start of the 1970s. The desire for a new direction and deeper authenticity in his work urged him to move away from plastic arts and study his Indian heritage in an in-depth manner. Starting from this period, he underwent a gradual transformation from an expressionist to a master of abstraction and profundity before arriving at the Bindu. 

Painted in 1974, a decade after Raza’s shift in style to find a purer form of abstraction, the current work is part of the culmination of this period of experimentation. He was no longer concern with the representational and began to communicate mood rather than images through his canvases. He skillfully used colors and gestural brushstrokes to convey warmth and lyrical messages rather than use direct representation to express emotions in the piece. Here, the composition is executed in loose brushstrokes, a departure from his previous style of semi-abstraction, and a precursor to his heavily structured geometric canvases. Albeit the change in stylistic and technical concerns, nature and its elements had remained the basis and inspiration to his art.

Auction Catalogue – South Asian Art – ‘Modern and Contemporary – 13-17 June 2019

ARTIANA – Highlights – Lot 10 – Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art – Online Auction – No Buyer’s Premium – 13-17 June 2019

M.F. Husain (1915-2011) – ‘Mera Piya Ghar Aaya Ho Ramji’ – 1996 – 32 x 43 in. (81.3 x 109.2 cm.) – acrylic on canvas – Lot 10

Films had long been a part of M.F. Husain’s preoccupation as an artist and one of the main sources of material and inspiration for his works. His exposure to cinema had started early in his career after getting his start in painting cinema hoardings. This has influenced his art in the same manner as his experiences with literature and mythology did. Even the technique of depicting different scenes and symbology or juxtaposing apparently unconnected or even contrary elements in a single frame can be attributed to this influence to some extent. 

The current lot titled ‘Mera Piya Ghar Aaya Ho Ramji’ was painted in 1996, based on scenes from the hit song ‘Mera Piya Ghar Aaya’ in the Bollywood film ‘Yaraana,’ released in 1995. The film starring actress Madhuri Dixit became popular for this hit song, which was inspired by a Punjabi song of the same title written by 18-century poet Baba Bulleh Shah. In this painting, Husain presumably depicts Madhuri and another woman dancing to the same song, while Lord Ganesha, patron of arts joins them.

Madhuri is one of Husain’s muses; his fascination with the actress started after watching her performance in the film, ‘Hum Aapke Hain Koun!’ (1994) which the artist watched for a total of 67 times. His fondness for Madhuri led him to create a series of painting based on her and her films, including the present lot. In 2000, Husain debuted ‘Gaja Gamini’ starring the actress which was intended as a tribute to womanhood and to Dixit herself.  

Husain’s gift of celebrating both the profound and the banal encompassed varied art forms including popular cinema. Aside from ‘Gaja Gamini’, Husain also directed the experimental film ‘Through the Eyes of a Painter’ (1967) and ‘Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities’ (2004). His obsession with cinema was palpable and continued until his death in 2011.

Auction Catalogue – South Asian Art – ‘Modern and Contemporary – 13-17 June 2019

ARTIANA – Highlights – Lot 40 – Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art – Online Auction – No Buyer’s Premium – 13-17 June 2019

Throughout his long artistic career, M.F. Husain exposed the moral dilemmas of his nation using imaginative structures and images steeped in awareness of art history. Part of this prolific journey was the exploration of themes and subjects reflecting on the changing society and cultural landscape.

M.F. Husain (1915 – 2011) – ‘Andy Warhol versus Marilyn Monroe’ – 2005 – 72 x 90 in. ( 182.9 x 228.6 cm.) – oil on canvas – Lot 40

From 1991 onwards, the narrative elements in Husain’s work became prominent. He started digressing from his old repertoire of symbols after recognizing that it was no longer adequate to express his artistic concerns as he became a citizen and artist of the world. Husain accommodated trends and turned his gaze towards the contemporary image-dominated scene of America.

Coming from a period of time when a lot of famous artists have indulged in acquiring muses from the world of cinema, like Marilyn Monroe, who became Andy Warhol’s muse and a global favorite to be featured in various forms and mediums of art. Husain made public his obsession with his muse, Bollywood star Madhuri Dixit, and created a string of works on her which was akin to what Andy Warhol did with the image of Marilyn Monroe. But more than the similarities and the perceived effect of bridging art and cinema, Husain also delved into Warhol’s depiction of celebrity culture. Warhol who is almost synonymous with American pop culture focused his artistic concerns to brands and products that were part of the mass consumerism phenomena. 

In Andy Warhol versus Marilyn Monroe (2005), Warhol’s figure was depicted in a dominant stance yet at the same time clinging on to the image of Marilyn Monroe fading into the background and out of the frame. Husain’s brilliant colors envelop the space with symbolic and expressive values, and his distinct human forms transform the narrative on the painting surface into an intimate experience fusing contemporary imagery and poetic use of allegory and metaphor which serves as the core of this work. His lines depict motion, energizing his pictorial space in a whopping 6 x 7.5 ft. canvas, part of a 21-part series titled “The Lost Continent” reflecting Husain’s thought about lost human values.

Husain made use of Andy Warhol’s fascination on Marilyn Monroe in his explorations on the relationships between consumer society, fame, and sensationalism. Reflecting on the multiple images of Marilyn Monroe done by the artist, he breathes life to an icon and at the same time made a poignant allegory against consumerism. Through Warhol’s lens and in turn the popular culture, he referred to a society in which individuals were seen as mere products rather than human beings.

Auction Catalogue – South Asian Art – ‘Modern and Contemporary – 13-17 June 2019

ARTIANA – Highlights – Lot 20 – Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art – Online Auction – No Buyer’s Premium – 13-17 June 2019

M.F. Husain (1915-2011)- Untitled – painted circa mid 1960s – 17 x 37.25 in. (43.2 x 94.9 cm.) – oil on canvas – Lot 20

M.F. Husain’s endless quest for his cultural roots and his open-minded willingness to absorb diverse influences has made him almost synonymous with modern Indian art. He began his career by painting billboards for feature films and making furniture designs and toys, to earn a living à partir de ce site. When he took up painting as an art form, however, he returned time and again to themes of blended folk, tribal and mythological art to create vibrantly contemporary, living art forms. Husain’s paintings reflect his love of India and his knowledge of rural life. He depicted the icons of Indian culture, through the ages, seeking to capture the quintessence of his subject. 

He employed an impasto technique to create texture in the present lot. The faces are monumental, simplified in a modernist manner and depicted in a roughly-hewn way. “Husain’s men and women, outwardly simple and unsophisticated, are highly conscious beings. They are conscious of being channels through which life runs its course. Very often they are caught listening and intent upon that flood within them, tense because of what they hear, with eyes of solemn curiosity and a mantle of silence around them. Even in groups, sitting or standing together, these men and women are supremely solitary. They do not communicate with each other. They remain locked in binding compassion, in a unity of color and composition divided by a wondrously understanding line.” (S. S. Kapur, Husain, Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi 1961, p. v.)

Auction Catalogue – South Asian Art – ‘Modern and Contemporary – 13-17 June 2019

ARTIANA – Highlights – Lot 35 – Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art – Online Auction – No Buyer’s Premium – 13-17 June 2019

F.N. Souza (1924 -2002 ) – ‘La Place Town Square’ – 1955 – 24 x 30 in. (61 x 76.2 cm.) – oil on board – Lot 35

One of India’s greatest modernists, Francis Newton Souza catapulted to fame in post-war London in the 1950s. The present lot, painted in 1955, belongs to this iconic period of the artist’s career expressing his feelings and anxieties of the postwar era and reflecting on his own personal anguish.

The subject matter of La Place Town Square, is rather traditional compared to Souza’s other works, it is a typical French town with rustic buildings and a well depicted in an earthy palette. With hints of cubism and thick dark outlines, the hallmark of his work in this period, the houses appeared boxy while the well in the forefront gives the picture a sense of depth. The barren tree with spines for leaves depicted alongside uninviting windowless houses creates an atmosphere that is desolate, cold and unwelcoming reflecting perhaps the initial reaction to his works when he arrived in London a few years before. Looming above the townscape is Souza’s signature rendering of the sky, brooding and stormy conveying a sense of gloom. 

“The graphic power of Souza’s lines produces simplified and bold images, while the thick oil paints applied liberally to the board or canvas, with swift strokes, give his work a sense of vitality and movement…Cityscapes, constructed from fragmented images and memories, are also important subjects and perhaps suggestive of Souza’s cosmopolitan life and frequent traveling.” (FN Souza: Icons of a Modern World, All Too Human, Tate London, 28 February – 27 August 2018, Exhibition Catalogue, p. 20)

Auction Catalogue – South Asian Art – ‘Modern and Contemporary – 13-17 June 2019

ARTIANA – Highlights – Lot 24 – Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art – Online Auction – No Buyer’s Premium – 13-17 June 2019

S.H. Raza is considered one of the best colorist of his time. He made use of western plastic techniques and combined it with an aesthetic that is truly Indian to come up with a visual language that truly was his own.

S. H. Raza ( 1922-2016) – ‘Kundalini’ – 2002 – 15.75 x 15.75 in. (40 x 40 cm.) – acrylic on canvas – Lot 24

Sayed Haider Raza began to conceive and express nature and its elements in terms of geometric patterns and primary colors rooted from deep spiritual motif by the 1970s. Since then, the elements and symbols associated with ancient Indic iconography frequently appeared in his paintings.

In the present work, Raza depicts the ‘Kundalini’ which roughly translates to coiled one in Sanskrit. It is represented as a curled serpent and believed to be the primal force of energy both in the body and the universe. This principle is manifested in this painting by the snake-like coil of painted circles that intersperse and radiates outwards.

In the center is a white bindu enclosed by intertwined nagas, while black and red concentric rings radiate around it. These interlocking forms recall the opposing though balancing forces of yin and yang and reflect on the duality present in the universe –male and female, day and night, light and dark– that sustains the cosmic cycle of life. In the background, he used colors that constitute the visible world; white, red, blue, yellow, and black that also represents the fundamental elements of creation.

Note: This painting will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonne of the artist currently being prepared by A. Macklin.

Auction Catalogue – South Asian Art – ‘Modern and Contemporary’ – 13-17 June 2019

ARTIANA – Highlights – Lot 30 – Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art – Online Auction – No Buyer’s Premium – 13-17 June 2019

Leading ARTIANA’s upcoming South Asian sale is this exquisite work from M.F. Husain’s Raj Series – ‘Kathak Dance Performance at the Maharaja Darbar’ painted in 1989 with impeccable provenance.

M.F. Husain – ‘Kathak Dance Performance at the Maharaja Darbar’ – 1989 – 40 x 60 in. (101 x 152.4 cm.) – acrylic on canvas – Lot 30

“In the mid-1980s, at the height of his celebrity as India’s most famous and flamboyant modernist and living artist, Maqbool Fida Husain cast his painterly eye back half a century and more, to a time when much of the subcontinent was still under British rule. This sharp – and surprising – (re)turn to India’s recent colonial past resulted in some among the most insightful, and also most playful, of works in different media to emerge from the brush of this prolific and imaginative artist.”1

With regards to his treatment of the British Raj subject, Husain simultaneously mimics two separate styles of British-Indian painting: formal portraiture using prominent imperial emblems and icons, and picturesque that exaggerated exotic elements.2 Husain satirized the confluence of cultures yet he does not historize his subjects; references to historical figures are intentionally oblique and were often fictionalized. 

In a large scale tableau, the Maharaja’s darbar is complexly marked with Husain’s iconography —the dancer and the musicians with their traditional instruments. The titular Maharaja holds court and sits comfortably on his home ground. Sitting beside him is the English governor who is stiffly dressed in a formal military suit, decorated and bearing the symbol of the crown; with him is his Lady seated a little to the back. Historically, a darbar refers to a ruler’s court and later to ceremonial gatherings characterized by pomp and glamor during the British colonial era. It signifies the ruling Maharaja’s demonstrations of loyalty to the crown. Instead of a dismissive attitude towards this practice of paying homage to the colonizer, Husain presented both English Lord and Maharaja side by side, in equal prominence. “His India has much authority and it forms a rather bemused backdrop for the historic mutual incomprehension that the Raj embodied, He situates his presentation of the drama of the colonizer and the colonized within a discourse of equivalence.”3 Interestingly, the tiger motif that is reminiscent of Tipu’s tiger is present. 

Aside from the principal subjects, the entire composition is almost devoid of colors. The kathak performer is the most colorful and dominating feature, highlighting Husain’s choice to portray India’s long artistic tradition as a continuum. Dance, particularly Indian classical dance, was heavily censored during the colonial period. The accumulation of Indian classical dancers into his pictorial tradition juxtaposed with the subject of the British Raj marked Husain’s interest in merging dance, visual art, and history by turning back to earlier indigenous forms of presenting the female body.

Husain’s work on the British Raj “provides both the political and ethical charge that runs through his works and it also distinguishes Husain’s attempts to laugh at the empire from other artistic attempts to do so that had preceded him. He really is the only major artist of his generation to deliver this message (offering) a playful but nonetheless edgy postcolonial lesson in how one might hate and disavow empire in the right way, even while learning how to live with it, mock it and laugh at it properly.”4

Text References: 
1 S. Ramaswamy, Husain’s Raj, Visions of Empire and Nation, Mumbai, 2016, p. 12
2 S. Bagchee, “Augmented Nationalism: The Nomadic Eye of Painter M.F. Husain”, Asianart Online, 1998, accessed April 2019
3 Ibid. 
4 S. Ramaswamy, Op. cit., p. 133,139

Auction Catalogue – South Asian Art – Modern and Contemporary – June 13-17, 2019