A Journey/the Spirit of Form
Much has been written on the influences and experiences unfolding on an individual’s path, particularly in attempting to grasp the works of an artist. Deciphering cultural traditions, regional sources and sensorial elements, the sounds and smells of childhood, the crossroads of geo-political events, and the guidance of teachers and mentors, one arrives at a list of trace materials, an array of valid fossils and echoing remembrances such as letters and photographs, phrases of poetry and song. Art predates recorded history, the creative being and their expressions constitute a broader, quixotic fusion of fact and fable, with unpredictable crescents and troughs like nature.
In this tome, Homage to Picasso, produced in tandem with the first solo exhibition of the modern master Jamil Naqsh in India, 80 drawings have been selected from a corpus of 150, created over innumerable years. With this project, the artist, born in India, completes a vital circle. The sixteen paintings are more recent and complement his figural/abstract matrix, with some strident side profile heads, upon occasion with pigeons, and group assemblages as well. Drawing upon the myriad metaphors which populate his work, Naqsh construed this project as a tribute to inspiration by another renowned 20th century master, Pablo Picasso. Essentially, this heralds a celebration of shared spirit – continuity and change, in differing art and geographical contexts – each with his own perceptions and adaptations of form. No doubt both of these visionary artists challenged processes and techniques, the status quo of their respective loci, be it Spain, France, India or Pakistan.
As such, Naqsh is one of these rare beings who straddle epochs and boundaries. His language incorporates the earlier miniature traditions, Rajput and Mughal painting, which he studied, as well as architecture and paysage of his childhood. The rhythm of Sufi poetry, and Ghalib resonate throughout his oeuvres, whether watercolours, paintings, or drawings. He speaks of continuity, yet orchestrates his own ever-evolving exploration of a trio of metaphors – woman, pigeon and horse. In her seminal texts on Naqsh based on years of collaboration, the Pakistan-based art historian and curator Marjorie Husain writes of the pigeons that “these recollections were to be diffused into a symbol of domestic harmony.”
Furthermore, despite inclusion in previous exhibitions, aside from the Woman and Pigeons drawing show in 2001, this project showcases a majority of drawings. Naqsh affirms his embrace of all genres, all materials, from the most basic to elaborate. A panoramic palette in many of his celebrated canvases, or as documented herewith in a feast of monochromatic pencil works, proffer them equally. He prefers not to speak of year or medium, rather to let the piece no matter what hue or trace, no matter what period or subject, speak for itself – as part of an overall, unending flowing lifeline.
More importantly are other elements of art, in particular form. As such, his drawings sculpt forms out of the elements- his ether settles and unties shawls of light and shadow to expose its transitory identity. As Eliel Saarinen intoned in The Search for Form in Art and Architecture, “Form is something which is in man, which grows when man grows, and which declines when man declines.” Heralding growth, the drawings in this show are each completed upon simple paper, with the most easily accessible material – a pencil. To embrace this huge fecund array of works, the viewer must focus on Naqsh’s fluency within the medium, which facilitates an intuitive rather than rational understanding.
Indian art, similarly, illustrates this tangible, textural thing of comforting, limitless potential. Like the sky, ever changing, reconfigured at each moment of the day and night, when a cloud passes by, a star shines. Naqsh orchestrates his beloved idioms, the peacefulness and liberty of nature (the pigeon), the eternal strength, grace and love of the female, and the romantic bravura and courage of the equine. The horse, beloved being in lore and history, has inspired artists throughout the world. In the West, horses figure prominently in the works of the German artist Franz Marc (of the Munich-based group Der Blaue Reiter), and those of the Italian Mario Marini. The latter inspired an exhibition by Naqsh in Karachi in 1998. Marc adored horses, he wrote: “We have to learn from now on to relate the animals and plants to ourselves and to depict this relationship in art.” On another plateau, there are pigeons in groups, pigeons with women, and the featured image of Picasso with a pigeon, recalling earlier canvases from the 1960’s. Other works introduce charismatic and provocative images, such as a cow, an impish devil, a poetic, languid Christ, and intertwined pairs of beings, whether with female or male. Parallel in this exhibition seemingly cubist works on canvas are partially composed of mask-like features, another raga of form, colour and composition.
A blank sheet of paper proffers realms of discourse and expression…to illustrate the Vedic term of ket with open expanses to be played. As a young artist in Karachi, while contemplating the work of Pierre Bonnard, Naqsh drew and paint on newspapers. Thick, thin, translucent, strong, fragile…all adjectives describe the multitudinous character of paper. Naqsh triumphs on this surface as well. His figures expand beyond the perimeters of the page. Some are sensuous lines, while another figure bends in asanas, bringing her limbs into direct perpendicularity to the picture plane. Shadows and strokes reveal the energies of a male and female (possibly a double auto-portrait?); cross-hatching captures the spirit of other layers from within the mind of the creator. Space is fused with energy even before a single line, smudge, or stroke is applied. This is the essential strength and character of paper: as if it breathes with the artist. It hovers, waiting to be caressed, offering itself like a silent instrument. Such is the nature of things of passion – they call out, tools of meditative expression. ‘Tis foolish to think paper does not demand exactitudes of exertion. Unlike the medium of canvas (oil and acrylic, with whatever additions), which permits over painting, knife scraping, scratching, hacking and other cover-ups and tricks, paper leaves little if any room for mere mistakes. Naqsh cherishes this challenge, and arranges this panoply of light and line in a continuum as if an unfolding narrative tapestry.
To affirm how Naqsh achieves corporeality and abstract energy as somewhat dual facets of an intricate experience, his feelings about the body bespeak its ‘vitality, its vulnerability and mortality’. Similarly, the paint skin which he produces with alterations of texture on canvas finds its echo in the denial of colour, and the agile manipulation of graphite. The range of the work suggests the pencil as magic wand in his hands. Naqsh stated that the essence of his work does not lie in his choice of subject matter. “If you must find a plot or a story, music or meter, then you should find them in my treatment of colour, texture, form and composition,”cited by the art critic Dr. Syed Amjad Ali in 1971. As for an explication of his work, Naqsh recently said that ‘a creative man’s process of thinking is beyond a critic’s comprehension.”
Just as Benoy Behl in Eternal India pens that “according to the Chitrasutra, the treatise on art-making, personalities are too unimportant to be depicted in art. The purpose of art is a noble one: to show the eternal beyond the ephemeral.” Grasping the ever-ongoing challenges to the art establishments, predominately nascent in the West, it could be reasoned that the theme or subject of a work is a reflection of the constituent forms, the atomic whole of its protons and neutrons.
Picasso passed through numerous stages of expression, experimenting with colour, realism, caricature, portraiture, medium, primitivism, fauvism, animals, simplified forms of ancient and tribal art, cubism, trompe l’oeil, collage, print-making, ceramics and sculpture. Not to forget another primary influence upon his work and life, the women in his life who appear in all manner of portraits. His works at the start of the 20th century imbibed the classical figural forms of Greek art. A number of the images by Naqsh in this book also manifest a frontal or distinct profile and larger than life aura. Later, Picasso assumed the forms and lines of African art (cf. the famed Primitivism exhibition), and wound his strident shapes into mask like spaces. Naqsh has played upon this melody in works depicting a headless female figure holding or accompanying a mask wound round with rope. The influences of Cubism are decidedly ascertained in his works, “fragmenting of three-dimensional forms into flat areas of pattern and colour, overlapping and intertwining so that shapes and parts of the human anatomy are seen from the front and back at the same time.” Yet as all evolves from the visual, his inherent miniature prowess and sensibility are concordant within all that he fabricates.
Naqsh fears not - his traces affirm themselves, spreading across the blank blotter. No obscurations come into play. Instead behold: dark shaded strokes or thin harried cross-hatching, thicker patches and matted ink; each movement across a page connects and invites the eye. Unfolding in these moments are undivided expressions of energy. Such work can only arise from true observation, from painstaking attention to the barely perceptible movements and synapses which construct the visible, the identifiable. Ram Kinker Baij, considered by many the “Indian modern master”, drew upon his village roots and communion with the Santhals, throughout his life at Shantiniketan and his studies with Western art teachers. Naqsh also straddles these diverse aesthetic worlds, drawing upon both for concordance. Yet, it is in these minute flickers and reflections that the essence exists. Juxtaposition of many illustrations of the supreme consciousness (Brahmanad) demands persistent concentration and effort. Postmodernists like Jackson Pollock and the musician-artist John Cage rendered their own type of kinetic consciousness in electric paint drippings and syncopated notes. Like the still photographs sequentially flipped through to simulate cinema, such a multitude of chiaroscuro triggers unconscious reactions. Therein lays the strength of this art.
Such reverie of form bears no reference point saves to life itself (i.e. energy). This is difficult to write about, as it is organic and abstract all at once. Something no one can possess like moonbeams on water, or sensations and thoughts that change as quickly as they arise. A manner of the reactive versus responsive aesthetic experience of modern man, reminding of the increasing separation from the organic and spiritual. Citing the multi-faceted Rabindranath Tagore's extensive writings on creative unity, paradoxes and junctures, and man and nature: "Art gives our personality the disinterested freedom of the eternal, there to find it in its true perspective."
Two causes for any creation – the maker and the material. Maker, one responsible for the creation, is called the efficient cause or nimitta-karana. And there must be some material…a creation can never be separate from its material cause…
Swami Dayananda, Talks on Emotional Maturity
Modern and classical, women populate the works. Inspired by the woman with whom he shares his life and creative passions, as companion, muse, and painter, Najmi Sura, who studied the miniature tradition with him. Just as art is his unequivocal passion, so according to Husain is his fascination with the human form and his infinite interpretations thereupon. Overfoldings of images, lines beyond a single perspective, and a mercurial fusion of matter and energy procreate before the viewer’s eyes. Subtle fields of colour denote a limb, a curve of the torso, the chignon at the nape of her neck, besides a fracturing of background areas, bearing the work into timeless realms. Works from different eras depict kindred spirits with shared expressions. A previous catalogue, Jamil Naqsh for Najmi Sura, published by the Jamil Naqsh Foundation in Karachi, explored this personal and aesthetic intimacy; one which conjures notes throughout the corpus of his artistic legacy.
Vision (dhyana) emanates within the spatial nature of a higher dimension, and therefore is timeless. It transcends thought. The artist does not think through and thereby realise his/her creations; they are visualised spontaneously, largely through a subconscious process, bringing images, feelings, notes, details, references from all facets of time and life together in an assimilated amalgam. In this intuitive realm of awareness, one dwells in a limitless present, surpassing mere space and action. Yet, complete delineation in art falls short of the ideal, and one must accept evocation. It is finally left to the viewer to utilise his/her own powers of imagination to carry the flat representation to other levels. For linearity, as such, does not exist. Art renders such impasses explorable, perhaps even shareable, through interplay of portrayal, visual arrangement, and grouping - blending the material and palette. Imagination interweaves symbols, uncovering lost and active layers, even those with culture-specific meaning. As the Swiss psychologist/philosopher Dr. C.C. Jung wrote and noted throughout his legendary work on dreams, universal symbols exist, as a “collective unconscious” in truly disparate cultural nexuses across time and the world.
In his eloquent work, Painting as an Art (1987), inclusive of Painting, Metaphor and the Body, the philosopher and aesthetician Richard Wollheim ponders that the nature of art is “one of the most elusive of the traditional problems of human culture.” Jamil Naqsh, the man, the artist, the one who sees, the one who loves; a man who prefers his privacy and discerns his space for creativity, rather than the pettiness of the public arena. His oeuvres communicate his ideas, his emotions. They undergo the transformation of formal elements and applaud them for their inherent nature which is inextricably timeless. Naqsh’s muses are life, in all, its poetic and altered manners, with their pleasure and pain and passion.