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Untitled (Pieta)

Untitled (Pieta)
signed in Japanese and signed and dated ‘HUSAIN ‘89’ (upper left)

oil on canvas
53½ x 76 7/8 in. (135.9 x 195.3 cm.)
Painted in 1989
Formerly in the collection of the artist
Thence by descent
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Contemporary Art from Northeastern Private Collections, exhibition catalogue, Rutgers, 2002, p. 62 (illustrated)
New Brunswick, Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, India: Contemporary Art from Northeastern Private Collections, 7 April - 31 July, 2002
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Damian Vesey
Damian Vesey

Lot Essay

Pieta is a quintessential image of suffering, betrayal and redemption. The subject of the Pieta has long been entrenched in the cannon of European art from Giovanni Bellini to Vincent van Gogh and signifies a moment of immense sorrow, symbolic of the ultimate sacrifice.

Maqbool Fida Husain significantly updates this subject by replacing the image of the Virgin Mary with that of Mother Teresa. From the late 1970s, following a series of powerful encounters with the saint, Husain began to portray Mother Teresa. He was deeply inspired by her on a human, spiritual and symbolic level. The artist acknowledged an earlier poignant experience in Calcutta, “I was walking through the streets of Calcutta with my pen and my sketch book, when I saw her angelic form, draped in a white sari, her head covered, her face suffused with tender love and her posture discerning humility. She was comforting sick children and old people by holding their hands and praying for them. I felt that scene of love in every pore of my body. I just could not move away from there. That very day, I resolved to make a portrait of her but it would need a lot of study. Her personality, her presence and her work are so great; I cannot depict her in realistic form.” (Artist statement, R. Siddiqui, In Conversation with Husain Paintings, New Delhi, 2001, pp. 202-203)

Mother Teresa became a compulsive image in Husain’s oeuvre from this point on. At first it seems a contradiction that such images of Mother Teresa by the artist show no discernable corporeal features. In part this is consistent with classical western images of saints and religious figures, where the physical features become stylised and secondary to subjects, colourful signifiers and vestments. Instead their sanctity is communicated through universal symbols rather than verisimilitude. More significant and personal to Husain is the fact that the artist’s mother passed away when he was only two years old leaving him with no visual artefacts of her likeness. He was left therefore without any memory of her face. The faceless women in Untitled (Pieta) are representations of Mother Teresa, Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, and a signifier of the artist’s own mother.

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