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How influential were global art movements in Pakistan?

How influential were global art movements in Pakistan? A look at Mansur Rahi’s legacy and its relationship with adaption of European movements in South Asia

How influential were global art movements in Pakistan?
The Faces - 1973.

“With Cezanne, landscape ‘crystallized’, to use one of the favourite terms of the critics, and it has gone on crystallizing into cubes, cones, pyramids, and so forth ever since.”

D H Lawrence

 Art that emerged right after Cezanne is now classified as ‘cubism’. A term coined by art writers to describe the works of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque – though the former confessed “We had no intention whatever of inventing Cubism”. Because, ‘art’, in the words of Argentinian novelist, Cesar Aira “could have continued to function without names as it had for centuries. However, the big art auction houses needed a name to put on the products they had for sale and on the covers of their catalogues”. Cubism became a popular style, not just in France or Europe; artists from all over the world were inspired by this movement, as one could glimpse influences of Cezanne in some early practitioners of cubism such as Juan Gris and Robert Delaunay. as well as in the works of artists from every continent and community.

The Seated Figure - 1973.

The Seated Figure – 1973.

“Cubism” according to David Hockney, “is not just about cubes it is the ordinary, simplistic historical view”. European art, traditionally presents an image observed from a singular, fixed point. Hockney explains; “with cubism, the viewer can see all sides of an object, it has movement in space, and is everywhere at the same time”. The multiple positioning, along with focus on the internal structures of the visible world led to its treatment “by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone” as instructed by Cezanne to Emily Bernard in 1904. This propelled the spread of cubism; from the social realism of soviet artists; to the canvases of western capitalism; to South Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East.

Another factor for the acceptance and popularity of this mode was its distance from realism and impressionism. These movements had dealt with light, colour, form, representation, and perception, yet their subject matter was quintessentially European. No matter, how artists tried to channel the universal; people with a certain complexion, dresses, carriages, buildings, avenues, fields and activities restricted their paintings to a specific region.

On the other hand, when Cubists began to operate on form, what survived was a combination of lines, shapes, and colours – only distantly related to a house, a man, a table or a bowl of fruit. They diffused local references, or reduced them to mere marks, alphabets and textures. This lack of ‘address’ was picked by painters across the globe, who adopted this language and started to express their own content. For example, the works of early modernists from the subcontinent betray a connection with Cubism. Actually, most major artists had to pass that test, before developing their individual vocabulary. Like Shakir Ali, who produced a number of Cubist canvases prior to creating what is known as his signature style. Like him a number of Middle Eastern, Indian and African artists were fascinated with Cubism at some stage of their lives.

They diffused local references, or reduced them to mere marks, alphabets and textures. This lack of ‘address’ was picked by painters across the globe, who adopted this language to express their own content.

Every artist is aware that a style or way of working is not abandoned immediately, it lingers on, transforms and is reincarnated into a new genre; the processstakes years. When we look at the last paintings of Shakir Ali, we can still trace Cubist elements which formed his aesthetics. So is the case with M F Husain and Krishan Khanna. In some instances, Cubism, or any other style – let’s say Surrealism, continues for a creative person, and what created is a variation on the same ideology. Like Mansur Rahi.

Mother and Children - 1979.

Mother and Children – 1979.

A recent publication Mansur Rahi, The Cubist Legend of Asia by Danish Rahi includes his works from 1957 to 2016: his academic studies in Dhaka, watercolours, oil paintings, sculptures and murals. A pupil of Zein ul Abedien, Rahi showed tremendous talent in rendering figures and landscapes with sweeping brush strokes in vivid hues. The book provides a ‘Rahi evolution graph’ dividing his aura in 7 sections; out of which 4 have some link with Cubism: ‘Cubical Fractionism’, ‘Cubo-Rayonistic Formalism’, ‘Cubo-Void Plus’, ‘Neo-Cubo Precisionism’. Going through these unusual labels, one starts suspecting that Cuba may also have some connection with Cubism!

If one ignores this eager attempt to prove the extraordinary stature of Mansur Rahi, he is still an important artist for this nation, mainly because in his person and art the forsaken history of Pakistan – of East Bengal – lives on. More than that, his paintings from the seventies – a period described as ‘organical mysticism’ in the book – are remarkable for the lyricism managed through layers of paint: flowing, blending and bulging at some point. His choice of palette and compositions suggest a sense of movement, almost a land flooded by light and shadows. The poetic quality of these works, Cubist in construction, makes them outstanding examples of his vision. These paintings although titled The Seated Figure, The Faces, Madonna, Mother and Child, show no contours of a hand or features of a body. All have melted and moulded into sensitive and sensuous forms.

The sophistication of these surfaces – certifying how a borrowed style can be brought home, tamed and translated into highly personal and original idiom – perhaps poses a problem too. What to do now? Most of Rahi’s later work is a compromise between Cubist formulae and human forms. Often added with topics such as hunger, labour, hate, war and terror. One feels that these paintings and drawings lack an element which looks for the opportunity cost of satisfaction and success – a search unfulfilled by his method.

This curse of the method, extends past Rahi and cubism to engulf many artists and styles in its lair. Impression for instance is followed by the landscape painters of Pakistan. Yet painting from Lahore, Punjab and other parts of scenic Pakistan at the turn of the twentieth century appear dated, dull and conformist. Whereas Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley where ripping reality into shreds of light and colour; a mere impression of what is visible. Solid structures such as; railway stations, cathedrals, city square, trees, boats were broken into small daubs of colours, conveying the sensation of light which the painter initially experienced.

For Impressionists, the identity of a motif was not as important as its transfiguration into atmosphere. Hence Monet’s series of Rouen Cathedral and Hay Stacks was painted in varying light and seasons, because for Monet the building or bundle of crop was not the main concern.

But in our midst when you see artists taking pride in their depiction of a street, a neighbourhood, a village, old section of a town, lush meadows, clear streams, snowy mountains – in such a minute, careful and calculated scheme that you do recognize each site. You also realize that Impressionism and Cubism were neither really here nor understood!

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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