Jamil Naqsh Pays Homage to Pablo Picasso


Jamil Naqsh is generally – and deservedly – thought of as Pakistan’s most prominent representative in the rapidly expanding universe of contemporary art. He seems to say things for, and about, the culture of his country that no other artist articulates so clearly. This, in spite of the fact that he now lives as a recluse in London, with his companion, muse and pupil Najmi Sura, whose likeness can be found in so many of his paintings, made since she first appeared in his life in 1970.

Naqsh was born at Kairana in Uttar Pradesh, the youngest child in a cultivated Muslim family. His mother died when he was very young. At the time of Partition (1947), he and his brothers moved to Karachi, leaving their father behind in India. Naqsh never saw him again. He was to return to Kairana at the age of fourteen, after his father’s death, only to realize that the place could no longer be home. After wandering through other parts of India, he returned to live in Pakistan.

Once settled in Karachi, Naqsh and his family were, like many of the refugees of that time, originally very poor. Naqsh remembers that his first drawings were made on newspapers. There is an echo of this in recent paintings where fragments of newspaper are incorporated into the work. The newspapers can perhaps also be seen as a statement that the paintings can be read as messages about the human condition.

What led Naqsh towards a career in the visual arts was something paradoxical – his childhood memories of other art forms – Indian classical poetry and music. Kairana had long been a centre for Indian classical music. The ghazels of the great 19th century poet Mirza Ghalib, known to Urdu speakers throughout the world, have had a particular influence on Naqsh’s work. One striking feature of ghazel poetry is that its over-riding subject is love – in general, unrequited and frustrated love. Many of the paintings here can be seen as the equivalents of ghazel couplets, Each work is a representation of a particular emotional moment.This helps to explain the fact that women play such a prominent role in Naqsh’s painting, often combined with images of pigeons. Pigeons are, in this case, the messengers of love.

They also have additional meanings. As a child, Naqsh saw them flying in and out of the windows of the family house. For him theyoffer a glimpse of the familiar, the domestic, the soothing – the pleasures of traditional family life, snatched away from him bythe trauma of his mother’s death and the violence of Partition.  When Naqsh decided to train as an artist, in the aftermath of that event, there seemed to be two paths open to him. The most obvious was to become a painter using European techniques, which had first been introduced in India in the late 18th century. These had been codified by an education and training system introduced by the British. He could experience essentially European methods at the Mayo School in Lahore(now the National College of Arts), founded in 1875, and named after a British Viceroy. The apparent alternative was to learn the traditional methods of Mughal and Rajput book art and miniature painting.

Much earlier than his contemporaries, Naqsh decided that the two approaches were not mutually exclusive. He became the disciple of the leading modern miniaturist Ustad Mohommad Sharif, who also taught at the National College of Arts. At the same time, however, he was, like the other young artists who were his compatriots, exposed to the major figures in oil on paper European Modernism. Though they had no direct access tothe original works in European and American museums and private collections, they could learn about them from books andmagazines. Theirs was perhaps the first generation to benefitfrom the post-World War II revolution in colour printing, which brought a flood of images from all over the world, and with itthe creation of what the French writer André Malraux calledthe ‘Imaginary Museum’, wider in its scope than any physical museum could ever be. Certain images, a reproduction of apainting by Bonnard, for example, acquired iconic status with these young enthusiasts in Pakistan.

The fusion of these apparently opposing methods eventually produced a distinctive and immediately recognizable personal style, which has the linear strength and precision of traditional miniature painting, plus the visual weight and impact of contemporary work in oil and canvas. One feature of Naqsh’s life as a student, however, was his innate sense of when he had learned enough. He left Mayo College without a diploma, and has never regretted it. Another aspect of his early career was the time he spent working in advertising. In Europe, this is an occupation generally despised and if possible avoided by those who wish to be taken seriously asfine artists. What I believe it taught him – and here I speak from parallel experience, as a one time advertising copywriter – was the importance of direct communication

A characteristic of effective advertising is that it makes use ofwhatever comes to hand, without bothering too much about the nature of the source. One of the things that strikes me forcibly about Jamil Naqsh’s art is its ability to absorb and make gooduse of a wide variety of cultural influences. A common European critical attitude has been to condemn art from non-Europeansources that shows signs of western influence, while acclaiming European masters who use non-European source material.

Picasso, for example, has been praised, not condemned, for his use of African tribal art. Naqsh is like Picasso, in that head opts a completely pragmatic approach to the visual materials that interest him. Picasso once said: “ I do not seek, I find.”This is in fact one of his most famous aphorisms. An example water colour ink on paper of Naqsh’s ability to ‘find’ can be seen in a series of works that  are abstractions based on Islamic calligraphy. These show an unexpected affinity with the work of Paul Klee, who once described his way of making art as “going for a walk with aline”. Naqsh’s abstract works are, like Klee’s, both controlled andrandom – he goes where the line chooses to lead him, a process comparable to the highly controlled improvisation found inIndian classical music.

In Naqsh’s art one sees not only the impact of Mughal painting,but that of pre-Islamic Indian sculpture – for example, the erotic reliefs on the temples at Khajuraho, created between 950 and 1150 c.e, Clearly what attracted him to these was their celebration of the female body. His paintings of female nudes have extraordinary plasticity, so much so that they sometimes look like studies for as-yet-unmade sculptures: at moments they remindme of the drawings made by eminent Modernist sculptors, such as Henry Moore. In fact, there is one 20th century European sculptor with whom Naqsh has had a particularly fruitful dialogue – the Italian Marino Marini. His fascination with Marini led to a major series of ‘Women and Horses’, dedicated to the memory of the Italian sculptor.

However, these are not simply transcriptions. One finds in them references to the horses that appear in Chinese inkpainting, and also, perhaps to the horses of the Parthenon frieze. In this series of compositions the horse often seems to represent the masculine principle, as opposed to the feminine, which remains Naqsh’s central obsession.One of the things one learns from this series is that Naqsh’s attitude to his exemplars and sources is non-hierarchical. Bythis I mean that he sees the works of art that interest him asthings-in-themselves, outside the framework of conventional western art history. Art historians tend to construct the story of art as a sequence of ‘begats’. This, for example, is the attitude taken by the Italian Renaissance painter and author Giorgio Vasari in his famous series of biographies of his predecessors and contemporaries. In Vasari’s text, each generation gives birth to thenext, which is a visible improvement on what went before it. The sequence culminates, of course, in the art of Michelangelo, the contemporary whom Vasari worshipped.

Early histories of the Modern Movement in art tended to follow the same method, with each new style or movement giving way inevitably to a destined successor – Fauvism to Cubism, Cubismto Surrealism, Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism to Pop. As the sequence continued, the relationships between styles became more and more obviously strained. The Minimal Art movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s brought the sequence, already artificial, to a halt. The result was a shift intothe plurality of styles that we now describe as Post Modernism. In western terms, Naqsh ranks as an important Post Modern master. It is interesting, however, to shift one’s perspective and to lookfrom a different angle at the major artists of our time whoare without question Modernist or Post Modernists but who nevertheless have roots in cultures that are non-European. The first artists of this sort emerged, not in the Indian subcontinent, nor in China, through both of these regions are not assuming a position of leadership, but in Latin America.

A major characteristic of Latin American Modernism, and ofthe Post Modernism that followed, is that its relationship to the established Modernist styles of Europe and North America wasnon-hierarchical. That is, Latin American Modernists always feltfree to use elements taken from different Modernist movements,and to combine them in new ways. One can see this clearly, for example, in the work of Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973), the first major Modernist artist to appear in Brazil. During brief visits to Paris in the 1920s, Tarsila was exposed to all the major early Modernist styles. The result, as she said at the time, was to make her feel “ever more Brazilian”. With her husband, the writer Oswald de Andrade, she founded the Antropofagia art movement.Its aim, as the name suggests, was to cannibalize existing European styles and turn them into something that was truly an unmistakably Brazilian. It seems to me that very much the samespirit informs Jamil Naqsh’s work.

The main challenge, especially in his recent paintings anddrawings, has been the art and personality of Picasso. Picasso has water colour pen and verwhelmed many artists, with his violent energy, his immense productivity, his power to embrace change. Naqsh must be oneof the very few who has survived the encounter. One reason maybe that the two artists share a special sensitivity to the power of line. Throughout his life, Picasso admired the great conservativ eclassicist Jean-Dominique Ingres. As a young man, Naqsh was fascinated by a reproduction of Ingres’ painting La Source, andit is easy to see how its influence lingers today, in some of hissensuous depictions of the female nude.

Essentially what Naqsh has been looking for, when examining Picasso’s work, is a route to a more rigorous sense of form. Picasso also forced him to search for more radical ways of presenting the human body, which has always been his central obsession – this, despite the fact that he has also, as I have said, produced a long series of abstract paintings based on Islamic calligraphy. One question remains – why has Jamil Naqsh become a recluse, at a time when he might be enjoying all the pleasures that his considerable celebrity might bring him, whether in Pakistanor elsewhere? It is not, I think, that he has become afraid of the world outside, but that he feels he needs time and tranquility to listen to the inner voices that have always guided his work. Unlike many artists, he is not fixated on art alone – on the physical business of making art in the studio. He is interested in music, literature, philosophy. What happens in his head eventually produces he images he allows us to see. Our reaction, as spectators, to his art forms only a small part of the rich conversations that surround him.

Edward Lucie-Smith, London