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Untitled (Naga)

Untitled (Naga)
signed in Hindi and inscribed in Urdu (lower left)
oil on canvas
73 ½ x 115 ¼ in. (186.7 x 292.7 cm.)
Painted circa 1971
Acquired from the artist by Harry N. Abrams, 1972
Thence by descent
New York, Asia House Gallery, September - October, 1971
Worcester, Worcester Art Museum, Paintings by Husain, 15 November - 15 December, 1974

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Nishad Avari
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Lot Essay

Maqbool Fida Husain and Harry N. Abrams

Maqbool Fida Husain was perhaps the most itinerant of all of India’s modern masters. As one of the founding members of the seminal Progressive Artists Group (PAG), formed in 1947 on the eve of Indian Independence, Husain embraced its unwritten manifesto that sought a break from the rigidity and prescriptiveness of established artistic styles and traditions, both Indian and Western. From the early 1950s, he travelled extensively in Europe, viewing Western art in person and learning from works by artists like Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Constantin Brancusi and Marcel Duchamp amongst others. A few years later in 1959, Husain received a prestigious Rockefeller Foundation grant that supported a work-study trip to New York. In his autobiography, he states that he accepted the honor in the hopes of understanding the assault of Jackson Pollock and the Op Art and Pop Art movements of the day on the prevailing European consciousness, which he likened to the brash new superpower of America exerting its force in the art historical pantheon (Artist statement, K. Mohamed, 'America, America', M.F. Husain, Where Art Thou, Mumbai, 2002, p. 116).

Husain gained early international exposure representing India at the Venice Biennale in 1955, and later at the Tokyo and Sao Paulo Biennales in the decade that followed. His film Through the Eyes of a Painter was received with great acclaim, and won the Golden Bear at the 1967 Berlin Film Festival. However, it was during the early 1970s, when Untitled (Naga) was painted, that Husain’s international acclaim was truly cemented. In September 1971, he was invited by the Sao Paulo Biennale to exhibit alongside Pablo Picasso. Perhaps with Picasso's 1937 painting Guernica in mind, Husain created a series of 29 major works for the biennale based on the Mahabharata, an epic tale of India's mythical origins borne of civil war, a theme that resonated with the Partition of the Subcontinent and the subsequent troubled geopolitical relationships between India and her neighbors. At the same time, the legendary American art publisher, Harry N. Abrams, an admirer and collector of Husain's work (including the present lot), released the book Husain written by Richard Bartholomew and Shiv S. Kapur, the first international monograph ever published on any modern Indian artist.

Abrams was the founder of the eponymous Harry N. Abrams, Inc., the largest publisher of art and illustrated books in the United States. His company was the first in the United States to specialize in creating and distributing such volumes. Abrams played a pivotal role in introducing art and making it accessible to the general public. By making books that not only catered to serious scholars, but also engaged a wider audience, including enthusiasts and casual readers, Abrams transformed a field otherwise deemed inaccessible and daunting. Not only was Abrams a pioneer in publishing high quality art books, he was also a dedicated collector, putting together a private collection that included works by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Jean Dubuffet, Jasper Johns, Alexander Calder, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselman, Fernando Botero, Isamu Noguchi, Zao Wou Ki and Maqbool Fida Husain to name just a few. Speaking about the family’s collecting philosophy in the context of the present lot, Abrams’s son Robert notes, “In my opinion and I believe my father’s, it is a privilege to live with and care for great art while it is in your possession, but in fact it’s not a personal possession, it is a cultural possession. I feel this Husain is very much a part of that tradition in our collection” (correspondence with Robert Abrams, August 2023).

Born in 1905 in London, Harry Abrams moved to New York with his parents when he was eight years old. In 1936, he was hired as an art director at the newly founded publishing company, Book of the Month Club, where he created the Illustrated Junior Library and the Illustrated Modern Library. The publications in these series were designed and illustrated by important artists of the time including Thomas Benton, George Grosz and Salvador Dali. In 1949, “dissatisfied with the art books on the market”, Abrams decided to found his own company. (‘Harry N. Abrams, Publisher, Dies; A Pioneer With Quality Art Books’, The New York Times, 27 November 1979). Harry N. Abrams, Inc., specializing in art historical books that were exquisitely crafted, well marketed and written in a style that appealed to all, was founded the same year. The first three titles the company published were Renoir, Van Gogh and El Greco, and each sold over 14,000 copies. These were soon followed by other titles, including volumes on Joan Miro, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Helen Frankenthaler, and many other artists.

By 1960, Harry N. Abrams Inc. had published close to 200 titles with a revenue of one million, making it the largest and most successful art book publisher in the country with a vast catalogue of artist monographs, ranging from the Old Masters to Robert Rauschenberg, with texts by the leading scholars of time. Abrams’s interest in contemporary art was also growing, leading him to publish The Contemporary Painter Series from the early 1960s. This series included a feature on contemporary Indian art, which precipitated his first trip to India in 1962.

It was during this trip, on a visit to Kumar Gallery in New Delhi, that Abrams first encountered the work of Husain. Immediately struck by the artist’s unique visual vocabulary, Abrams noted how Husain was able to combine modern themes with classical and symbolic imagery, bridging East and West in his work. Introduced to Husain in person, the two soon struck up a friendship. Over the course of the next decade, Abrams nurtured this relationship, collecting works by the artist and starting work on the publication of his now iconic monograph authored by the critics Richard Bartholomew and Shiv S Kapur. It cannot be emphasized enough, what a radical and bold decision it was for Abrams to include a modern Indian artist in the celebrated catalogue of Harry N. Abrams Inc.

For Husain and his work to be featured in an international publication of the quality of Abrams’s bestselling artbooks, was a major milestone in not only the artist’s career but also the development of modern Indian art. This ground breaking publication offered its readers a look into the artist’s life through his oeuvre, featuring color plates of his most iconic works till date. The monograph was and still is the gold standard for Husain’s work of the period, and one of the most important and esteemed books published in the field. Reviewing the book, the Times of India asked, “Has Maqbool Fida Husain, the best known Indian painter today, at last forced his entry into the modern masters club? Judging from the lush treatment which Abrams, the leading art publisher in the U.S., have given him, he has. Not more than a score of living artists can boast the kind of book Abrams have brought out on Husain’s work [...] The superb colour illustrations [...] give a vivid idea of the entire range of his work [...] The Husain book may mark the entry of Indian art into the international art market in a big way and push up the prices of not only Husain but some others as well” (‘Modern Master’, The Times of India Notebook, 1971).

Over the course of their friendship, Abrams collected a few iconic works by Husain, some of which were included in the monograph. The present lot, a monumental painting featuring five female figures and a serpent or naga, was almost certainly painted to commemorate the launch of the book at Asia House Gallery (now Asia Society) in New York in September 1971, where it was first exhibited. Following soon after his solo exhibition at the Sao Paolo Biennale, this exhibition, hosted by World Education and the India Council of the Asia Society, represented one of the most important moments in establishing Husain as an international emissary for Indian art and culture.

Given his extroverted character and immense popularity, Husain stepped into the role of unofficial cultural ambassador of India with ease. As his reputation and successes began to grow, his group of patrons and supporters in the United States did as well. Apart from Harry Abrams, prominent American collectors such as Chester and Davida Herwitz, Thomas Keehn and John Kenneth Galbraith acquired and promoted his work. A major solo exhibition of Husain’s work was planned at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts in 1974. Galbraith encapsulated the artist’s gregarious persona in his foreword to catalogue for this exhibition, which featured works from four American collections, writing, “He is a quiet man with an inner light and humor, piercing eyes and the face of a slightly bemused Biblical prophet” (J.K. Galbraith, Paintings by Husain, Worcester, 1974, unpaginated). The present lot was included as a centerpiece of this exhibition, and was a major attraction as Richard Stuart Teitz, the Director of the museum noted. In a letter to Abrams, he wrote “Husain’s work has drawn a large and interested audience to the Museum not only form Worcester but from much of New England” (R.S. Teitz, in a letter to Mr and Mrs Abrams, 17 December 1974).

Chester Herwitz, who with his wife Davida put together one of the largest collections of Modern Indian art in America, was one of the organizers of the 1974 exhibition. He met with Abrams prior to the exhibition, and the two exchanged a mutually appreciative correspondence about Husain, their common link. Writing about the present lot in a letter to Abrams dated 28 May 1975, Herwitz exclaimed, "By the way, the Husain paintings were much appreciated in Worcester and your large beige painting was the star of the Museum show”, making it clear that Untitled (Naga), referred to then as Five Figures, was the leading light in the exhibition.

The Abrams Husain: Untitled (Naga)

Although he had already acquired several works by Husain, the present lot deeply fascinated Harry Abrams, who acquired it around the time of its debut exhibition at Asia House Gallery in New York. From its subtle palette to its symbolic storytelling, Untitled (Naga) would hold pride of place in the Abrams Family collection, not only for Harry, but also his son Robert, with whom he founded Abbeville Press in 1977. Among their collection of works by the artist, the family consider this painting the finest, living with it first in the offices of Harry N. Abrams, Inc. prominently displayed behind the desk of the Senior Editor Paul Anbinder, and then in their home for more than fifty years. Even in 1974, when the present picture was loaned to the Worcester Museum, it was insured at five times the value of the other works by the artist they sent to the exhibition, encapsulating how highly they esteemed it and how prized it was in their collection.

Speaking about the painting recently, Harry’s son Robert Abrams compared Husain’s confident line to that of Franz Kline, saying, “Husain uses his own expressive line, one of the hallmarks of his style, the equal of the abstract expressionist Franz Kline, in the power of its gesture to portray the women. The power of myth as represented by Naga, the snake, with its full and complex meaning of both good and bad. And finally, at the right end, stands a woman whose state appears more serene and pure. He combines both representational and mythological elements in one monumental expression of art that is hypnotic to contemplate” (correspondence with Robert Abrams, July 2023).

Untitled (Naga) depicts five female figures. Four of them, occupying the left side of the painting, are masked by foliage, possibly inspired by Husain’s travels in Kerala in the late 1960s. Separated from them by the figure of a serpent or naga, the fifth figure is on the right side modestly covering herself with her arms. Likely depicting a ritual or rite of passage into womanhood, this large format painting brings to the forefront the aesthetic relationships Husain saw between dance, sculpture and painting, by referencing Shiva Nataraja (lord of dance) through the naga as well as the female embodiment of his energy, or Shakti. Here the women are portrayed with strong lines, standing in graceful postures borrowed from Indian sculptural and dance traditions, and bearing connections to their Greco-Roman counterparts. They have a shared sense of rhythm that is carried through the painting in their movements and body language.

Untitled (Naga) embodies Husain’s fascination with drawing together art historical references from East and West, combining them in a single composition that is both radical and harmonious. Even on first glance, this picture reflects profound influences from European tradition, ranging from the stone-colored palette of classical Greco-Roman sculpture to one of the twentieth century's most celebrated paintings by Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), with which the present lot bears striking similarities in its overall composition. In addition, the younger woman’s mask like countenance in this painting also recalls Constantin Brancusi’s famous sculpture, La Muse Endormie (1909-10). Both Picasso and Brancusi appropriated imagery and themes from non-Western ‘primitive’ cultures to much acclaim in these works, creating a powerful and visceral language for modern Western art. Husain has playfully inverted this by re-appropriating some of the artistic language of their ‘high art’ and distilling it with his own identity into a visual vocabulary that is neither Western nor Eastern, yet bears characteristics of both.

In this painting, the naga or serpent epitomises this cultural symbolic dichotomy that Husain expertly navigates. In Indian and Eastern cultures, particularly Hindu and Buddhist traditions, naga bears a variety of symbolic meanings including protection, knowledge, renewal and transformation, virility, and benevolent guardianship. The snake in Western art can also represent knowledge and rebirth, as in the intertwined serpents on the staff of Hermes, known as the Caduceus. However, it is most commonly associated with the story of Adam and Eve from the Christian Book of Genesis, symbolizing the loss of innocence. Perhaps referencing this visual tradition, the lone figure Husain paints on the right stands in mock contrapposto, her stance alluding to Western depictions of Eve, the first woman in the Garden of Eden. In the garden, a serpent convinces Eve to partake of the forbidden fruit of knowledge, and in doing so, brings about original sin and the awareness of sexuality and nakedness.

The collector and critic Ebrahim Alkazi described Husain’s work, noting, “One of the most revealing aspects of an artist’s work is his sense of the past: his capacity to assimilate in his mind and being the consciousness of his race, and his ability to direct the totality of that awareness through the filter of his creative imagination into an engagement with the contemporary situation” (E. Alkazi, "M.F. Husain, The Modern Artist and Tradition”, Art Heritage, New Delhi, 1978, p. 3). In the women’s figures that Husain renders in this painting, the influence of classical Indian art forms is palpable. Deeply interested in expressing sculptural nature and musicality of his figures on canvas, Husain uses a palette knife and impasto to give them a relief-like presence. While the figure on the right is depicted in western contrapposto, the four women on the left are shown in the classical tribangha (triaxial) pose. Discussing temple sculpture in his practice, Husain notes, “One reason why I went back to the Gupta period of sculpture was to study the human form [...] when the British ruled we were taught to draw a figure with the proportions from Greek and Roman sculpture [...] in the East the human form is an entirely different structure [...] the way a woman walks in the village there are three breaks [...] from the feet, the hips and the shoulder [...] they move in rhythm, the walk of a European is erect and archaic” (Artist statement, P. Nandy, The Illustrated Weekly of India, December 4-10, 1983).

Despite drawing on traditional artistic references from East and West, Husain’s eschewal of vibrant color in favor of a muted palette of taupe and brown tones makes this picture radically modern. In the oeuvre of an artist renowned for his brazen use of primary colors, this work stands out as unique. Viewed in the context of Western modern artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Kazimir Malevich and Agnes Martin, however, we see how Husain too can harness the transformative potential of a restrained palette. Here, Husain reveals the capacity of such tones to evoke power, contemplation and spirituality. Mesmerizing viewers with its silent intensity, this painting showcases Husain as sculptor and painter, historian and cultural commentator, classicist and Avant Garde.

In his foreword to the Abrams monograph, Husain acknowledges the breadth of his oeuvre and multifaceted persona, noting, “I am still concerned with the mysteries of the human panorama, and entranced watching the immortal dance of Nataraja – and then come down to earth, to be reborn again and again through the voluminous womb of Venus d’Avignon” (Artist statement, Husain, New York, 1971, p. v). Galbraith concurs, writing, “Not only is Husain prodigious in quantity but also in variety. His painting has been a thing of many themes and moods and also of many styles [...] He is a man not only deeply conscious of the world around him but deeply conscious of what artists in the world around are doing [...] For if Husain is eclectic, he is also sui generis. Far more of his work, one senses, has come from inside than from without” (J.K. Galbraith, Paintings by Husain, Worcester, 1974, unpaginated).

The monumental Untitled (Naga) has represented Husain and modern Indian art in the prestigious Abrams Family collection for over half a century, across three generations. Harry Abrams’s friendship, patronage and decision to produce a monograph presenting Husain’s works to the world played a vital role in the artist’s career, and set in motion many of the events that firmly planted modern Indian art on the North American stage. It is an honor and privilege to bring this painting to auction, and showcase its significant role in the convergence of South Asian and Euro-American art history.

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