Woman in Red

Woman in Red
signed in Hindi (lower right); further signed, dated, titled and inscribed '"Woman in Red" Husain 1964 New York no. 1' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
35 x 24 in. (89 x 61 cm.)
Painted in 1964
Acquired directly from the artist in Ottawa in 1965 by a Canadian diplomat
Thence by descent
Sotheby's London, 16 June 2009, lot 51
New York, India House, February 1964

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Lot Essay

"[...] Always it has seemed to me, that, to you, space was colour and colour was space, that space was unlimited, and that the space within the space, where you wanted to put an image could be invented at will. The woman speaking in profile, or with three-fourths face, flat feet and open hands, the bird's cage before her, was from your Grant Road cosmos.
Then, you did a whole long strip called "Earth" and put into it man and women and bulls and birds and flowers, who all looked as though they had sprung from the Indian mud, all part of life, instinct with the quick, prevalent as at the beginning of creation." (Poetry to be Seen, Homage to Husain by Mulk Raj Anand, Cinema Ghar, Hyderabad, 2006)

Universally acclaimed as one of India's modern masters, Maqbool Fida Husain is unparalleled in his breadth of artistic vision and sophisticated recontextualization of European Modernism. From his humble beginnings as a billboard painter, Husain has since successfully transcended the critical constraints of regional aesthetics and public opinion. As a leading member of the Progressive Artists' Group, every single work by Husain is a paean to the theory of the artist as an individual visionary engaging in an act of metaphysical creation.

Woman in Red belongs to the oeuvre of Husain's most important paintings of women he painted in 1950s and 60s - the subjects ranging from Blue Night (1959), Fatima (1960), Black Moon (1960), Nartaki (1964), Devdasi (1965). As one looks at these paintings the protagonist evolves from a young girl confronting the viewer as a lover, with a lamp, with a letter in hand, to a more contemplative, dignified figure of motherhood as seen in the present painting. Contemplative and self-absorbed, the protagonist deliberately avoids the gaze, monumental in its silence. The surrounding red vibrates with charged emotion in contrast with the ascetic face and stature. Husain chose to include this painting in his first exhibition in New York in 1964.

Ebrahim Alkazi writes about this series of paintings, "The treatment of the colours is flat, but the linear contours with deep shading give a sculptural solidity of form, [...] There is great restraint and control in the execution of the work. True to its expressionist idiom, emotion is communicated by association, the background colours and the lamp suggesting what the character feels. [...] The elongated face with its unusually long nose has a strange radiance and solemnity. (E. Alkazi, M. F. Husain: The Modern Artist & Tradition, Art Heritage, New Delhi, 1978, pp. 11-12)
One cannot help but be reminded of the film, The Lady with the Lamp which was released in 1951 celebrating the life of Florence Nightingale--signifying motherhood, womanhood and sacrifice at its highest pinnacle. It would be safe to assume that Husain, an ardent follower of films, both Western and Indian, was inspired by it and worked on a series of paintings depicting the lady with the lamp, with its earliest manifestation in his masterpiece Between the Spider and the Lamp in 1958. The group of contemplative iconic women set in a red background with a lamp is a precursor to the Woman in Red.

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