Aicon Gallery is proud to present M. F. Husain | Restless Traveler, an exhibition themed around Husain’s constant travels throughout the world and the significant inspiration they had upon his work. The centerpiece of this exhibition is a monumental masterpiece on canvas over sixteen feet long, which has never before been publicly exhibited. This one-of a-kind work, the largest single canvas painting by the towering giant of Indian modernist art, comes directly from Husain’s Estate.
Long considered a pioneer of Modern Indian art, Husain initially made a living as a billboard painter and children’s furniture designer, painting at first in his spare time until joining the Bombay Progressive Artist’s Group (PAG) in 1947. The PAG grew to be the most influential group of Modern artists in India, fusing Indian subject matter with Post-Impressionist colors, Cubist forms and Expressionist gestures, forging a synthesis between early European modernist techniques and the ever-shifting cultural and historical identities of India.
Nonetheless, Husain’s vision as an artist remained firmly rooted on Indian soil: ‘I paint the nation and the nation sees itself in my paintings’ he once famously declared. The declaration is all the more poignant from an artist of such towering stature who had the land he loved brutally ripped away from him on facile grounds of sectarian difference. This work thus foreshadows the erosion of Nehruvian secularism and India’s frightening descent into tribalism. Just as in Picasso’s great ode to the horrors of war, Guernica would take on a life beyond the canvas as it later came to stand-in for Dresden, Berlin, Hiroshima, synonymous with all and any place where defenseless civilians had come under attack. And for the attacks on Husain that hit at the very core of his humanity, the Nehruvian dream for India lay in tatters. This was undoubtedly an act that left him restless and in search of a homeland for the rest of his life.
Husain himself combined this internationalist outlook with iconography and vistas that drew on India’s teeming metropoles, her epic mythology, the Raj, and the unending valorization of the Indian people. The common man was ever the hero of his work, the Indian city the new vista of opportunity. But while many in the Progressive group would quickly take their chance to move away to London, Paris or New York, Husain remained in India until he was forced into self-imposed exile at the hands of his detractors following communal rioting in the early 1990s and a litany of cases against him on the grounds of ‘obscenity’. This ‘war of attrition’ played out in his shows that were desecrated and through the courts that waged war against him the length and breadth of the country. Despite all of this, his deeply emotional commitment to the land of his birth remained absolute. The biography of the boy born into a Muslim family from Indore -who grew up without means or the unconditional love of a mother - is well known. These two factors alone would undoubtedly have deeply colored Husain’s early experience staining it with the need both to find affirmation and belonging coupled with the desire for economic security. While he achieved the latter many times over in later life, the millions of rupees his works fetched would never replenish the wound left by the child abandoned as a result of the early death of his mother.
Husain was no stranger to scale and “Theora” is a large work, stretching almost 16 feet in length. The work is signed and dated 1 June 1994, Madras. Husain’s works lend themselves to complex, multiple, sometimes competing, narratives. With no formal training, he moved to the city of dreams in his teens and began his career as an impoverished painter of billboards and cinema hoardings. Thus the vitality of gargantuan advertising art depicting the larger-than-life glamour and dreams of filmic images became emblazoned on the artist's mind at an early and crucial phase of his career. Unusually, this work seems to be read from right to left, as the artist and protagonist has pictured himself standing on the far right of the canvas, his head buried in a broadsheet reading the news.
What is he reading? Does the work reference the plague that broke out in Surat in 1994 that claimed hundreds of lives across multiple states? Or does it reference the big news of the preceding year, which undoubtedly still reverberated across the land in 1994: the devasting series of terrorist bombings that were deployed across Bombay and claimed the lives of 257 civilians and leaving more than 1000 injured? Buried in his paper the artist, is clearly identified by his bare feet. The drama of the painting, however, unfolds beyond the post. To his proper right, a large black disc, or sun, takes up the entire height of the canvas. A bearded figure extends out and across the length of the canvas, reaching out toward the two seated women whose aura reminds us of Husain’s depictions of Mother Teresa who appeared repeatedly throughout multiple works during the 1990s.
The reference to the Sistine Chapel is unmistakeable. Husain had the self-belief to liken himself to Michelangelo in a natural and uncomplicated way. Is this the hand of God reaching out to humanity, here enshrined in the figures of two women, whose heads are covered but remain faceless and unlit? The images hark back to Husain’s many depictions of Mother Theresa, whose significance in rescuing the abandoned children of Calcutta cannot go unnoticed in relation to Husain’s own biography. The ubiquitous bullock cart pulls away from the torsos tumbling out of the orb as the women sit, silently watching the scene unfold. Or is it the artist himself, reaching out towards the mother figure he never knew? At the far left another popular image of Hanuman is poised to move out of the picture but looks back at the scene of devastation behind him. It is a curious work, replete with images familiar from Husain’s oeuvre yet strangely, almost hauntingly, ambiguous. Where Souza’s figures are savage, Husain’s are primordial. Here was an artist who did not idealise woman but depicted her shorn of adornments - enigmatic and powerful. The women in Husain’s world are perceived as objects of beauty and mystery.
In the 1950s a New York gallerist was purported to have asked Husain why he was not painting like an abstract expressionist. To which the artist retorted “there is nothing abstract about a billion people”. The statement was peculiarly appropriate for the Indian painter who came to represent India and Indian art itself. Our reading of Husain is influenced by the popular biography of him as an iconic artist, a nomad and a rebel, who moved from Delhi to London to Frankfurt to Paris then Dubai and Doha. This extraordinary figure of Indian modernism, the “barefoot artist” died in London in self-imposed exile at the age of 95. As for Husain, he summed up his own work and life with the words: “I reach for the sky, the stretch of my canvas is unknown to me.” For, while India may have forsaken Husain, the artist never gave up on the land he loved and called his own.