Saturday, March 06, 2010

M.F.Husain -- a genuine fake with the potential of a genius

Those who support the cause of M.F.Husain are not discerning art-viewers. They are standing up for their belief -- secularism. Of course, they do not know what secularism is all about except to say Shiv Sena, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal are bad. Of course, Sena, VHP and Bajrang Dal are bad, and much worse. They are plain hoodlums, who cannot speak for two minutes and explain their opposition to Husain's work. That is the irony. On the other hand, Husain's supporters cannot explain his art, and his self-proclaimed critics cannot really argue the case of obscenity against Husain.

Perhaps there is need to have a sane discussion over Husain's art in general, and about his concept of the nude as well. This should not be with the intention of finding fault with him, but it should be to try to understand what his concept of art in general is, and what nudity is or nude is. What is necessary is to be critical about it, which is not the same as denouncing him.

First about nudes. It seems that Husain uses the nude for mythical figures. And not for others. For example, Mother Teresa and Madhuri Dixit are not painted nude. But he uses the nude either to portray the goddesses or Mother India. Is this a right thing to do? In his view, Husain is looking at the nude as a bare outline, the best that could be done in the case of a woman perceived as distant and divine. In a way, for Husain it would seem distant is divine. Husain does not use the nude to highlight sensuality, the particularity of a woman's body. In the European nude, whether it is in Titian or in Renoir, it is the sensuality of the woman's body that holds the picture. In the case of Husain's nudes, it is almost like the outlines of Cro-Magnon cave drawings. In the Indian sculptures, even those depicting the goddesses, there is a wonderful sensuousness. It is this sensuality that is missing from Husain's nudes. And it is not there even in his series of paintings of Madhuri Dixit. The human figure, male or female, is not pronounced in Husain's paintings.

Husain is a master draftsman, and there is tremendous control over the lines. But he uses them to draw and paint a gallery of faces and figures where he does not have to focus on any one of them. Particulars do not seem to interest Husain. This is both a strength and a weakness. A strength because he can execute large murals, which would generally frighten many of the contemporary painters.

But this becomes a weakness because he is incapable of showing individual emotions or expressions. Even in his early paintings of the 1950s, especially that of his mother, the view of her face is from a distance. The outline of the face is clear and there is a hint of an expression on it. But the focus is not so much on the face as it is on the scene -- the cot, the bare room and the lantern and the woman in prayer.

Husain seems to have derived his fascination for lines and figures rather than portrayal of bodies and faces partly from Matisse and Picasso. But the two great European artists in their earlier paintings did show an ability to catch the expression in the eye or the fleeting smile of the lips. But Husain took from them what he wanted.

So, when you are looking at a Husain painting, the pleasure you derive is not because of the beautiful face, or the soulful expression or the grace of bodily posture. The human figure is transformed into mere lines, almost Mondrian-like.

Husain is not a thinker but he is an enthusiast of ideas. But he does not seem to grasp the significance of ideas. There is nothing wrong in this. As T.S.Eliot had pointed out long ago, artists, including writers, should not be intellectuals or thinkers. Then they would not be able to muster the emotional intensity needed to construct a work of art. Perhaps Eliot had in mind the example of British Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who could not get back to writing good poetry once he engaged in philosophical thinking. It is right that Husain should not get entangled in ideas themselves.

But this raises problems of its own kind. When he had recently done a series of paintings on Mughal India, all he did was to recreate scenes from K.Asif's film, 'Mughal-E-Azam'. Now, 'Mughal-E-Azam' is as far removed from Mughal India as were the medieval European and Renaissance depictions of Jesus and Mary from the Palestine at the turn of the first millennium of the Common or the Christian Era. Could Husain have taken clues from the Mughal and Rajput miniatures of the period and transformed them for his own use when he did the Mughal India series? This would have been a more interesting experiment rather than copying scenes from 'Mughal-E-Azam" But Husain can turn around and argue that he took the film as a base because then he would have the freedom to imagine the colours for himself. But it would not be too much of a convincing reply.

That is why, when he says with boyish enthusiasm that he wants to do a series on Islamic civilisation, Indian civilisation and 100 years of Indian cinema, it is very clear that he does not mean to construct a narrative of his own. Nor is he going to give his pictorial depiction of events in the manner of Picasso's 'Guernica'. But what seems to excite him and inspire him is the procession of crowds and events. He just wants to fill up the tableau with figures of all shapes and colours. There is no idea or concept behind the scenes. What is evident is Husain's energy and his love of lines and colours. He is not even like the 15th century CE Italian painter Lippo Lippi, who is celebrated in Robert Browning's famous poem, 'Fra Lippo Lippi' written in 1855 which depicts the conflict between the asceticism of a monastic life and the energies of a teeming life of the artist. Lippo Lippi's paintings are full of religious figures but they are very human. One can relate to them. There is no way of relating to Husain's canvases because they are teeming with figures which reflect energy but they do not possess anything human in them. The eye of the viewer is held by a Husain painting but there is no emotional connect.

Husain would not be able to explain that he is a modern artist who, in the words of Eliot, is trying to escape from his own personality into the autonomous, intellectual universe of art.

Husain stands dangerously on the edge, who could be as much a fake as a lonely genius. But even if we were to settle for the fact that he is a fake, his is a difficult act. He is a fake who believes intensely in what he does and there is even terrible intellectual honesty about it. But what he does does not do is to touch the hearts. That is the great tragedy.

Husain's talent has been lost in the desert of pretentious modernism.


Jugu Abraham said...

Excellent piece, Venkat! I agree with most of your statements in the two M F Hussain posts written by you. However, if all nudes of European master painters were meant to be sensual how would you categorize Picasso's nudes? Was Hussain experimenting with naturism? Whether Hussain was deliberately attempting that is, of course, quite debatable.

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr said...

Thanks Jugu. I take your point that Picasso's nudes do not fit the bill of sensual European nudes. I will have to clarify that I am referring to the nude in European paintings from the Renaissance in the 15ht century to the Impressionists in the 19th. Twentieth century European art breaks away from this figurative art tradition and turns abstract at one level and seeks inspiration from African primitive art. Picasso's nudes are a combination of these tewo trends. Husain we can see has not never gone the abstract paitning way. He stuck to figurative painting.

Sense of the mandate

Congress and the BJP can never hope to dominate Karnataka Forming the government after an election is a necessary part of the democ...