In review - Art

Sadequain: An outsider in Paris

Updated Jan 22, 2016 08:08pm

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Figure in Cacti, 1966 | Pictures courtesy Grosvenor Gallery Figure in Cacti, 1966 | Pictures courtesy Grosvenor Gallery

Sadequain was born in Amroha (in the north-west of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh) during the height of the British rule in 1930. It was the colonial context that helped him combine his calligraphy skills with an interest in the ideas propounded by the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (1947-1956) that included the likes of M F Husain, F N Souza, and S H Raza. It was also the British presence in India that introduced Sadequain to European modernism as an alternative aesthetic movement to the purely Indian nationalist artistic aesthetics prevalent at the time. The freedom that both the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group and modernism bestowed upon him led the young bespectacled Sadequain to make creative choices based on artistic tenets he knew intuitively rather than through formal study.

Sadequain is renowned for a number of murals that adorn public spaces in Pakistan which he created between 1955 and 1986. Inspired by humanist and progressive ideas, he interwove icons and images in these murals in such a way that they highlight the complex state of life that human beings face on earth — with all its actions and ideas, wants and desires, successes and failures and ecstasies and agonies. His murals are as visually eloquent about the life of ordinary people as those created by Mexican artist Diego Rivera.

Script for Sadequain was as favoured a format as figural representation or abstraction. He masterfully used his skill at calligraphy to turn it into a medium for public art. Claiming that his calligraphy works resulted from divine inspiration, he was of the view that these were more the property of the people than belonging to a privileged few who could afford to purchase them.

Sadequain briefly migrated from Pakistan to Paris, for six years, after he was given the Laureate de Paris award in 1961. During those years, he took a break from his signature style art work – large scale murals and calligraphy – and instead illustrated a series of publications including The Stranger, a literary masterpiece written by Albert Camus in 1942. He produced a set of colour and black-and-white lithographs that accompanied a special edition of the novel. The exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery has showcased illustrations out of this set.

Head IV Head IV

Highlights of the exhibition include Untitled (Study of Meursault’s Demon), 1966. This is a mesmerising image made of a heady mix of gouache, ink and graphite on a thin card. It shows an incarnation of the Devil feverishly contorting over the withered and weary central character of the novel, who is reduced to crouching close to the ground; curled up in a remorseful pose, he is trying to piece together a shattered mask. The illustration is meant to show how Meursault, the character, is wrestling with questions on religion as he gets entirely undone by his own desires. To highlight the torment suffered by Meursault, Sadequain withdraws him from all reality in order to heighten his anguish. The artist creates a scene full of morose melancholy and evokes a sense of foreboding hanging over Meursault like a demon.

Sadequain’s use of colours in this illustration suggests that he is feeling some sympathy for the character. Heavy-handed brush strokes on the shirt and the trousers that the forlorn figure of Meursault is wearing suggest a character in the throes of ungovernable emotions. The terrifying creature of the demon is, in contrast, created with terser strokes and is more definitely delineated than that of Meursault. A warm wash of colour surrounds the entire scene in a touching embrace. The illustration is a laudable attempt to demonstrate the extraordinary tension between religion and what Camus described as ‘the idea of the absurd’. It highlights that our desire for clarity and control is an entirely fruitless pursuit in a world where – the writer and the artist are both convinced – neither clarity nor control exist.

It was his mental and artistic autonomy from any creed and dogma that enabled him to create and conjure an aesthetic atmosphere akin to the one created by Van Gogh or Henri Matisse before him.

Another illustration, Untitled (Meursault at the Window), 1966, dilutes some of the tensions shown in Untitled (Study of Meursault’s Demon), 1966. This illustration is done in gouache on card and it shows Meursault standing next to a window and gazing out into the night sky. Even though the character is silent, Sadequain is able to render all his emotional agitation in the same way he did while showing him with a demon. The strokes suggest an intensity that runs counter to the overall ambience of the scene which is bereft of any physical commotion. Like Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh, Sadequain appears to have charged every motif in the illustration with emotion. The chair, the wide open window, Meursault’s loosely fitting clothing, and his shadow — everything appears riddled with passion made palpable by the artist’s skilful hand. Sadequain appears less concerned with presenting dry details of the scene and is more focused on portraying the sensation of the situation thus offering an incredibly stylised interpretation of Camus’ text.

Untitled (Meursault and Marie in the Sea), 1966 Untitled (Meursault and Marie in the Sea), 1966

In Untitled (Meursault and Marie in the Sea), 1966, emotions are not just in the periphery; they become all-encompassing. This illustration shows the two lead characters in the novel kissing and caressing each other as they stand in shallow water. They look like lovers who have been able to find solitude for the first time. Their mutual passion is so strong that they seem to be living their entire lives in that very moment, exactly how American writer Henry David Thoreau wanted: “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.” And Sadequain captures the ecstasy of this passionate moment in all its self-absorbed intensity. The illustration comprehensively captures the existentialist creed propounded by Camus: that the essence of life is to be able to experience the vitality and visceral allure of the emotional and the physical and not be bothered about any order or meaning because they don’t exist.

This is, perhaps, the strongest of Sadequain’s illustrations for The Stranger. It exudes a warm glow hovering over the two lovers clinging to each other in an embrace worth their entire lives. In order to further intensify the halo of happiness around them, the artist has infused a kaleidoscope of colours to illuminate the pool of water they are standing in. Clearly, he is not just reproducing the scene as it appears in the book but is fully invested in it. Sadequain’s work, it can be argued, is as much informed by the characters in the novel as the artist is touched by them.

Sadequain’s focus on the psychological and the emotional is a testament to the creative freedom that fashioned his mind during his illustrious lifetime.

The rest of the lithographs on show manifest Sadequain’s earthy and intense approach to depicting life. His stylised illustrations are as moving as the novel itself. He has created images that are as tormented as they are tender. In at least one illustration, which shows trees in the foreground of a wafer-thin sky and arid landscape, he is able to show his mastery over European-style impressionism. In this particular work, Sadequain has successfully made en plein air work as an illustration for a book.

One illustration in the exhibition shows two characters, one in front of the other. Meursault is one of the two while the other, dressed in a robe, is holding aloft a rather garish mask part human, part animal. He is trying to cover Meursault’s face with the mask in order to hide him from the world and everything in it.

Untitled, (Meursault, Marie and Raymond, on way to the beach), 1966 Untitled, (Meursault, Marie and Raymond, on way to the beach), 1966

In another illustration, Meursault appears with two other characters – Marie and Raymond – at the water’s edge. A scene of exuberant relaxation is greeting them reminiscent of the lucid forms of Paul Cezanne’s painting The Bathers. As a vast sea rises from the centre of the illustration out onto the horizon, the three characters appear slightly out of place; they are heavily dressed for a scene bathed in sunlight. They seem to have been transposed onto the scene, as a manifestation of their longing for the freedom that the sea, the sun and the sand offer.

It is clear that Sadequain is not objectively rendering scenes from the novel and is rather making the illustrations in a way that they also highlight the emotional upheavals, ideological conviction – or lack thereof – and morality that Camus has written about in The Stranger. The artist’s mastery at illustrating the subject matter of the book is so great that it made the French newspaper, Le Figaro, comment that he has perfectly created “the impression of space, density, volume and the reality of matter; transforming an abstract thought into a material fact in plastic.”

Untitled, (Meursault at the Window), 1966 Untitled, (Meursault at the Window), 1966

Thanks to his own tenderness and empathy, Sadequain is able to give emotional and psychological features to the book’s fictional characters beyond what their print versions offer. These additional facets have resulted from the fact that at the time he was wrestling with his own emotional grievances and wanted to move away from the world of politics and commerce – as much as the protagonist in the book – to a life that could be more intuitively lived.

Sadequain’s focus on the psychological and the emotional is a testament to the creative freedom that fashioned his mind during his illustrious lifetime. It was his mental and artistic autonomy from any creed and dogma that enabled him to create and conjure an aesthetic atmosphere akin to the one created by Van Gogh or Henri Matisse before him.


This was originally published in Herald's December 2015 issue. To read more, subscribe to Herald in print.