The development of an artist or writer is akin to that of a human body. Beginning from an infantile state, it comes to an impressionable stage and with the passage of time acquires maturity and independent identity.
The connection or analogy is about both physical and intellectual capabilities. Even though a creative person is old, he is active in his artistic pursuits and is treated as a master. Yet in some cases, one finds this notion of the evolving artist inadequate; many artists and writers have produced works of lesser quality in the advanced stage of their lives.
Many others have offered unexpected turns and twists in their professional careers. Often, instead of following a logical process of progression, they have stumbled in different directions and produced pieces that can not be related to their intellectual pursuits or formal concerns. In some instances, they have reverted to their past works, thus disappointing their audience who rightly think of art as a natural advancement of ideas and images.
If the act of reversal takes place in terms of going back to a successful pictorial practice, it is understood and justified to some extent. But if it is the act of turning back to a period which is not appreciated much, it causes confusion. It casts a shadow on the artist’s aim and quest to explore new forms and ideas. Yet it affirms the freedom exercised by the artist in terms of choosing his way, even if it shatters the opinion or assumption of the viewer.
A surprise of this sort awaited me when I visited the retrospective of Kazimir Malevich (July 16-Oct 26, 2014) at Tate Modern, London. My knowledge of Malevich was of an artist who, like everyone else, started with naturalistic portrayal, moved to Impressionism, then shifted to stylised forms and figures of Cubism and Fauvism before he arrived at his most remarkable and known phase: Painting with basic geometric shapes in elementary colours, which is referred as ‘Suprematism’. In those canvases, the Russian painter has composed a single cube in black, and crosses or cubes in different hues superimposed on top of each other. Thus he has sought simplicity and spirituality in formal language after his experience with naturalistic representation and stylised rendering.
Malevich wrote in his booklet From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: “The artist can be a creator only when the forms in his picture have nothing in common with nature”.
After seeing and admiring Black Square (1915), Dynamic Suprematism/Supremus (1916-17), White Suprematist Cross (1920-21) and Black Cross (1923), I came across paintings based upon human figures, which could have been from his earlier periods. Thus the Head of a Peasant from 1928-29 did not look distinct in style and appearance from The Scyther painted much earlier, in1911-12. This can perplex a person who believes an artist must develop his vision and vocabulary in a linear fashion. In the case of Malevich, the shift from his most remarkable flat paintings to stylised figurative canvases has altered his position and prestige; what was achieved in the Suprematism years seems a short lived span without much consequence and follow-up.
However, even one brief period in an artist’s long career in which he explores something extraordinary and creates unprecedented art pieces alone should suffice to measure his creative genius instead of expecting him to keep producing works of great quality all through his life. For instance Georges Braque — like Malevich — created Cubist paintings but soon went back to making more conventional imagery. On the other hand, his companion Pablo Picasso after years of Cubism continued to amuse spectators by his amazing experiments in image-making. He was working on canvases of diverse and contradictory pictorial nature, often simultaneously, even on the same day.
Whatever path an artist takes, the most important thing is to challenge his usual way of working. Change is vital for a creative individual whether he moves ahead or goes back (difficult to determine this sense of direction when it comes to visual arts). Zahoor ul Akhlaq used to advise his students who were stuck to leave whatever they were doing and start from the basics — by focusing on the act of drawing in a realistic manner. To him, this exercise was essential to provide new venues for imagination and ideas.
This lesson of Akhlaq and the meaning of Malevich’s art are more crucial for an artist today than ever before. The two person exhibition held at the Taseer Art Gallery, Lahore (from Sept 1-5, 2014) illustrates the need for change recognised by two recent graduates of the National College of Arts. Both Sajid Khan and Anushka Musa exhibited different kind of works in their degree shows, but the latest exhibition indicates an urge to introduce something new or unique in their art. It was interesting to examine the strategies and outcomes of the two artists. Sajid Khan, with more exposure and experience, was not able to forsake his earlier pictorial vocabulary, except adding photo transfers of rag picker’s satchels next to his modulated skies and softened clouds rendered in numerous shades of grey.
Compared to Khan, Anushka Musa took a completely separate course and, instead of exhibiting large scale paintings based on human bodies (as seen at her degree show), showed a number of works on paper with formation of water, derived from traditional miniature painting. This shift to another territory was unexpected and posed a primary question: the motive behind the move. On one level, the modification in sensibility seemed a way to explore something unusual; at the same time, it could be an attempt to join the success of miniature painting by taking a different route though.
It is the Time, that unbiased and ruthless judge, that will decide on these matters, but artists can also become part of their time, without leaving or levitating from their place and yet inventing all sorts of worlds within.