Many would still remember the famous last words of then captain of Pakistan cricket team, Imran Khan, on the conclusion of the final match of World Cup 1992 where he declared his delight on winning the trophy ‘in the twilight of his career’. Compared to sportsmen’s triumphant finale, creative persons’ end is not always on a high note. Often it is blurred and obscure; only their death reminds us they were still alive.
A few authors, such as Philip Roth and Alice Munro, announced their ‘retirement’ from writing. There are no such examples in the world of visual arts, especially in Pakistan. It is strange because making a work of art demands more physical strength.
Iqbal Hussain enjoyed fame, admiration, and huge following in his heydays. He won national awards, got international coverage, had permanent patrons and was respected for his incredible and unmatched painterly surfaces. His enchanting sense of composition as much as his selection of female figures haunted the viewers. All this was revisited in Iqbal Hussain: A Retrospective, the exhibition of his paintings, prints, watercolours and drawings (November 13-27, 2018) at Tanzara Gallery, Islamabad.
It would be misleading to call the show a retrospective, because the collection seemed more like grouping of available works rather than a coherent effort to comprehend the development of the painter. This sense was lacking in the order of display, in which the main objective and element of a retrospective — date of an artwork — was missing. Unless you were a handwriting expert and could decipher the year next to Hussain’s signatures, you could not have an idea about the history of the work.
It is crucial to know the chronology of creations in the case of Hussain; because even if the painter’s models, subjects, and spots for his landscape and cityscape remain the same, the difference in date determines the shift in his aesthetic pursuits. The recent ‘Retrospective’ failed to suffice that information, thus appearing more like any other exhibition of the painter. Yet, the best thing about the show was to glimpse his works from different periods and speculating upon the common thread among canvases of varying scales and treatment.
In a majority of these surfaces, one comes across women belonging to the oldest profession. Apart from their link with the red light area of Lahore, it is the presence of life in these figures that turns them into more than mere prototypes. For instance, girl lying on a couch (‘Sheena’), a woman perched on bed (‘Laila’), a number of females interacting with men (‘Deck Function’), some naked figures, portraits of people you unmistakably find in the old city of Lahore. The passage of time, the lines of labour, the mark of hard life etched on these features add a new significance to their address — the infamous Fort Road.
In presenting women from his area who are in the business of providing pleasure of flesh, Iqbal Hussain has achieved something that perhaps was not even planned. In his portrayal of these prostitutes, an unexpected aspect of their humaneness comes to surface. Females placed in certain settings but not ashamed of their existence, presence or bodies. Instead, they appear to be at ease with their body and attire or its absence.
Reducing Hussain to a painter of prostitutes would be a disservice to the artist — even when it is true. In the strange sphere of image-making, art sometimes takes over or moves away from the intentions of the artist, thus acquiring an independence of its own. Likewise, in Iqbal Hussain’s work, the knowledge of these women being from a certain profession ceases to excite or exist, because it is the application of paint that takes all attention. Hussain is perhaps one of the last painters if not the best to have explored the potential of paint. He has used his background — lovers, friends, acquaintances, neighbourhood — as an excuse to construct a convincing, powerful and tight composition. A structure so ‘perfect’ that it entices and attracts a viewer despite the subject matter or its context. Arguably, the aspect of ‘composition’, (now) a minor matter in the world of art theory and the field of social subject, has also been overlooked in the art of Iqbal Hussain.
I remember being a student of Professor Hussain at NCA and seeing my teacher engrossed in the books on Edgar Degas, exclaiming the mastery of the French master for his division of planes and organisation of figures. Today being in front of a canvas by Hussain, I feel his praise for Degas aptly fits his own compositions. The distribution of spaces and areas signify an intuitive impulse, because each work, regardless if it’s a painting, print, or a work on paper amuses and impresses due to its spatial relationship of figure and background, and colours. Within that parameter, Hussain has introduced some pictorial devices which, on the surface, may be considered formal but have other interpretations. One is the use of mirror. Like in ‘Reflection’ a woman is sitting in front of a looking glass, while the image of a half-clad man (probably the painter) can be seen at her back. Similarly, in ‘Self Portrait with Muse’ the artist is posing with his model standing at the back, while both are reflected in mirror. So here what a viewer sees is not a painted canvas, but replica of a mirror.
Or something transitory is caught in glass and on a painted surface; because if the existence of mirror alludes to the function of art as a means to reveal hidden elements, at the same time Hussain’s painterly quality conveys a sense of pleasure. It’s not only a privilege for the painter, but the viewers are also allowed to enter in that realm of retinal delight.
The artist’s ability in transmitting a pictorial pleasure is at par with his subject: models provide pleasure of body and their painter offers enjoyment to the eye. Two separate personalities and professions that, in their surge for physical or optical joy, seem to be converging at some point.