India, the largest experiment in democratic institutions the world has ever known, has many grave challenges. Pollution, communal strife, massive income disparity, and especially lawlessness continue to flourish. No wonder both M.F. Husain (1915-2011), the artist, and Lakshmi MIttal, his multi-billionaire patron, decided to live somewhere else. The awkward quality of these eight wall-size triptychs, twelve feet wide by six feet high, reflects this difficult moment in history. Executed 2008-2011, the design and drawing is crude, while the iconography wantonly conflates the personal with the national. Much of it is incomprehensible without the accompanying texts in the gallery signage which are often incomplete. Is this really how “India’s most important 20th-century artist” presents South Asia’s cultural legacy?
Mostly, what Husain has to offer is sincere affection and sentimentality. He loved the streets where he grew up, even if he could no longer walk them. Offended by how he depicted their deities, militant Hindus threatened his life. One of the triptychs in this show depicts the great trimurti, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, as Marc Chagall might have imagined them. They are more like charming characters in a folk tale than cosmic divinities who demand worship and interpretation. They feel no more sacred than the heroes of Bollywood cinema—just goofier—as if all of creation was a situation comedy.
A few pieces offer a pleasing, cheerful design – especially his depiction of “Traditional Indian Festivals” . The bold colorful pattern would look good printed on a tropical shirt, as well as hanging from the wall of a restaurant. One might note, however, that all three festivals depicted are Hindu, despite the artist’s Muslim background. Indeed, the only Muslims depicted in these eight paintings are the Mughal emperor, Akbar, and members of the artist’s own family.
For Americans, the most revealing piece might be “Indian Households.”. Grandfather and teenage granddaughter are sitting on the same bed— – he is smoking a hookah, while she is leaning back with her knees spread and a fresh green mango in her lap. That arrangement may suggest sexual transgression, – but probably not for those who grew up in small, one-room apartments. Americans might also be surprised by the prominence given in “Three Cities” to Chandra Bose. His status as a liberation leader has been undercut, for us, by his collaboration with Hitler.
For me, the most annoying piece is “Language of Stone”, a celebration of India’s tradition of stone carving. It hangs in the Alsdorf Galleries, surrounded by many examples of devotional sculpture whose qualities Husain’s stiff, awkward scrawl cannot even begin to suggest. Has India’s greatest artistic legacy really become so invisible in the modern world?
Husain’s approach to “The Indian Civilization” appears to be nostalgic both for the land of his childhood as well as the painting of early Twentieth Century European Modernists. He offers more of a suggestion than a strong connection to either one of them. His work has the content as well as the aesthetic quality of a cheap travel brochure. One of the great achievements of Hindustani classical music is that it expresses South Asian identity in a spiritual yet non-sectarian way. Husain’s attempt to do that with visual art was a noble, but not especially successful one.
“India Modern: The Paintings of M. F. Husain” shows through March 4 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan.
******************Unlike most of the reviews posted to this blog, this one was rejected by New City and an explicit reason given:
"It doesn't approach the work with the generosity of spirit that such works require, especially from the standpoint of someone who knows little about the culture from which it comes."
In other words -- I am not qualified to deliver such a scathing judgment - regardless of whether one has reasons to disagree with any of it.
I have, however, been reading the literature and history of South Asia for the past eight years, beginning here
And though I usually try to approach all reviews with "a generosity of spirit", the circumstances of this exhibit did not seem to call for it: A presentation of one of the planet's great civilizations as commissioned by one of India's wealthiest men from one of India's most famous artists, installed in one of America's largest art museums. These pieces belong elsewhere - like in a high school cafeteria.