Untitled (Astronaut)

Untitled (Astronaut)
signed in Hindi and dated ''68' (upper right)
oil on canvas
71 1/2 x 35 3/4 in. (181.6 x 90.2 cm.)
Painted in 1968
Dhoomimal Gallery, New Delhi
Acquired from the above, circa mid-1970s to mid-1990s
Thence by descent

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Nishad Avari
Nishad Avari Specialist, Head of Department

Lot Essay

Maqbool Fida Husain is one of India’s greatest modernist painters, and is often associated with depictions of Indian village life away from the distractions of the city and modernity. His most iconic works form the 1950s, such as Zameen, now in the collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, are visual epics depicting aspects of everyday rural life, which he saw as the quintessential heart of India. Although the artist frequently revisited such subjects over the course of his career, until his death in 2011, he also had the unique ability to apply his signature aesthetic and powers as a storyteller to more contemporary themes.

Among the events that were particularly impactful for Husain was the moon landing in 1969. The artist responded by painting a small series of works inspired by this momentous achievement. The most well-known of these appeared as the last illustrated page in the famous monograph on his work by Richard Bartholomew and Shiv S. Kapur, published internationally by Abrams a few years later in 1972. What did not appear in this black and white reproduction was Husain’s masterful use of color in the works from this series. From the late 1960s, Husain began to use color in a more scientific and symbolic way. The Abrams monograph describes his application of pigment as “shining out with an inner glow [...] His lines are quiet amid colors that have the design and luminosity of stained glass. The richness of this mystic illumination is reflected in his choice of colors: glowing blues, browns, and reds from the diagonal reaches of the spectrum, lit by patches of white” (R. Bartholomew and S. Kapur, Maqbool Fida Husain, New York, 1972, p. 52).

This luminosity is evident in Husain’s bold use of color for the two figures depicted in the present lot, and acts to heighten the cosmic juxtaposition the artist creates between them. On the right, in a brilliant white space suit is an astronaut suspended in space, inverted with one arm extended as if caught in freefall. To the left is a giant, radiant bird, possibly referencing Jatayu, king of the vultures and a demi-god from the Hindu epic Ramayana. In the Ramayana, Jatayu famously has his wings clipped by the daemon Ravana causing him to plummet to earth. Here, Jatayu appears with a very recognizable beak and talons but no wings, seemingly falling to earth like the astronaut beside him. The curvature of the earth as seen from space is subtly depicted with a thin bowed line at the lower edge of the painted surface.

Through the figures in this large-format work, Husain links past and present, myth and science, to offer his viewers an allegorical warning about the perils of the space race of the late 1960s, and of pushing man and technology beyond known limits. Despite his achievements, the astronaut suddenly seems less stable, no longer floating free of gravity, but alone in a harsh environment. An outstanding example from a period when Husain was systematically engaging with philosophical questions, this work represents the artist’s explorations not only of painting and color, but of the existence of man and his function on earth, and in this case beyond earth.

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