It was the search for the intangible. My quest to create the tangible altered during the seventies. I tried to find ways to capture the moods of places and people. I had a preoccupation with evoking the essence of emotions and moods more than a visual sight. Elementary experiences of night and day, joy and anguish, summer and winter became my subjects for the fact that they were felt more than seen. From that gestural period of tones and expression, I moved to a new period in the eighties.
– S.H. Raza
I am grateful [...] that I could come to a certain recognition in the art world in France and the rest of the world. But I was still unhappy. I said to myself: Yes, it is all right to be an important painter of the École de Paris, but where is your Indian background Raza? I asked myself and I started coming more and more regularly to India – for two to three months every year to study again what Indian culture was, what Indian sculpture was. I went to Ellora and Ajanta, I went to Benares, I went to Gujarat and Rajasthan. I looked at the sculptures and paintings, I read books and still I needed another twenty years to arrive where I am today.
– S.H. Raza
Sayed Haider Raza: A Life in Color
Born in Central India in 1922, Sayed Haider Raza studied at the Nagpur School of Art before moving to Bombay in 1943 to study at the renowned Sir J.J. School of Art.
In 1947, the year of Indian independence, Raza joined the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) in Bombay, striving to establish a unique painterly language for himself and to help define what modern Indian art should stand for. In this period of intense searching and experimentation, Raza was already masterfully deploying light and color in his work to express the ways in which the landscape resonated with him.
Reviewing Raza’s work in 1948, Rudy von Leyden wrote, “Colours have deepened, washes have changed into rich juicy pigment with an endless play of tones [...] There are paintings in which the colour structure seems to be too centrifugal to contain the composition.” (R. von Leyden, ‘Paintings by Mr. S.H. Raza, Bombay Exhibition’, The Times of India, 23 October, 1948) Watercolours fluidly pooled into each other in paintings like Flora Fountain in Monsoon (1945) and Benares (1946), evoking the essence of the scene and flagging off the artist’s discovery of the emotive potential of pigment, a quality he would relentlessly mine in his later work.
While the oeuvres of the other founding members of the PAG, Maqbool Fida Husain and Francis Newton Souza are most often related to form and line respectively, it is not surprising that Raza’s body of work is closely associated with color. Over the course of his artistic career, which lasted well over six decades, the artist came to understand and manipulate paint in the most accomplished ways to achieve truly unique ends.
After moving to France in 1949, Raza began to work in the styles of the École de Paris. He saw the paintings of Post-Impressionists like Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh and began to use color as a tool of construction, switching from gouache and watercolor to more tactile oil-based pigments. Soon, however, color overtook construction, and Raza’s landscapes of the French countryside became less about tangible representation and more about the mood they evoked in the artist. The easiest way to express this – the slow creeping of twilight, an angry summer tempest, villages tumbling down forested hills – was through thick swathes of vivid primary colors.
As the pictorial space in Raza’s paintings became less structured, exploring the play of light and color in nature, it was as if Raza had redefined the genre of landscape to center pigment as its main premise. This stylistic turn was reinforced in 1962, when the artist spent a summer teaching at the University of California, Berkeley. During his time in the United States, Raza was deeply impacted by the work of Abstract Expressionists Sam Francis, Hans Hoffman and Mark Rothko. Speaking about this encounter, he noted, “Rothko’s work opened up lots of interesting associations for me. It was so different from the insipid realism of the European School. It was like a door that opened to another interior vision. Yes, I felt that I was awakening to the music of another forest, one of subliminal energy. Rothko’s works brought back the images of japmala, where the repetition of a word continues till you achieve a state of elated consciousness. Rothko’s works made me understand the feel for spatial perception.” (Artist statement, Raza: Celebrating 85 Years, exhibition catalogue, New Delhi, 2007)
To allow his brushstrokes and use of space to become freer and even more expressive, Raza began to use quick-drying acrylic paints. It was also in this period of gestural expression, sometimes termed ‘lyrical abstraction’, that the artist turned to his homeland, India, for inspiration. Not only did Raza draw on his memories of growing up in the forests of central India, but also on traditional Indian theories of color and aesthetics, Sanskrit and Urdu poetry, and teachings on visually-guided meditation. The use of color in Indian miniature paintings, particularly those from Pahari and Rajasthani schools, became an important point of reference for the artist.
“More importantly, he continued to explore further possibilities of colour, making colour rather than any geometrical design or division the pivotal element around which his paintings moved. Also, colours were not being used as merely formal elements: they were emotionally charged. Their movements or consonances on the canvases seemed more and more to be provoked by emotions, reflecting or embodying emotive content. The earlier objectivity, or perhaps the distance started getting replaced or at least modified by an emergent subjectivity – colours started to carry the light load of emotions more than ever before.” (A. Vajpeyi, A Life in Art: S.H. Raza, New Delhi, 2007, p. 78) It was during this period that Raza painted magnum opi like Zamin (1971), Tapovan (1972), La Terre (1973) and La Terre (1977), paeans to the sensuousness of nature and to the living landscape of his childhood home.
In these works, primary pigments were balanced against black as their ultimate source. “For black was the mother of all colours and the one from which all others were born. It was also the void from which sprang the manifest universe [...] Some of the most haunting works of this period are those which evoke the night [...] where the liminal sheaths of black are illuminated by sparks of white light [...] As with Mark Rothko, black is one of the richest colours in Raza’s palette and signifies a state of fulsomeness. However, for both painters, colours plumb the depths and are not simply used for their own sake.” (Y. Dalmia, ‘The Subliminal World of Raza’, A Life in Art: Raza, New Delhi, 2007, p. 197)
Developing from his gestural masterpieces of the 1970s, in Raza’s works from the 1980s, regimented form began to take over from the artist’s expressive strokes, and geometry emerged as the main organizing principle. Much like tantric mandalas, Raza started using diagonals, triangles, squares and circles to symbolize natural phenomena and the cycles of the universe. Color remained central, gaining an additional symbolic dimension, with the primary hues now representing the five foundational elements of Nature – earth, sky, water, fire and ether. At the heart of these compositions was the opaque black bindu, representing the beginning and end of all energy and creation in the cosmos, and the source of all color.
Although its significance evolved from decade to decade through Raza’s career, color remained the most important component of his work till the very end of his life. An understanding of the aesthetic relevance of color, thus, is of the utmost importance to engage with Raza’s work. “We see that his color cycles are matched by a conceptual stream which continuously archives deeper ravines. This restless craving for a renewal of means and methods is the essential aspect of the works of Raza.” (Y. Dalmia, ‘The Subliminal World of Raza’, A Life in Art: Raza, New Delhi, 2007, p. 199)
Painted in 1977, La Terre is one of the most important and largest works from a key period in Sayed Haider Raza’s artistic career, when, after many years working within the style of the Second École de Paris, his path brought him full circle and he began to integrate vital elements of his Indian childhood and cultural heritage into his paintings.
La Terre represents a triumph in Raza’s long engagement with nature and the genre of the landscape, with its gestural brushwork, expressionistic use of color and spiritual and symbolic engagement with the land and the notion of creation. The scale and depth of this painting are instantly captivating, invoking a deep sense of land by fusing abstract and symbolic forms into a powerful and mystic expression of the mood and atmosphere of the Indian nightscape. There are less than twenty documented paintings by the artist of this size and caliber, and even fewer from this period. Zamin (1971), from the collection of the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation, is the only documented painting by the artist of comparable scale to the present lot.
Rooted in Raza’s childhood memories of growing up in the small and densely forested village of Kakaiya near the Narmada River valley in Madhya Pradesh, this painting is an evocative expression of the rich and strong sensory life inherent with the deep, warm, pervasive darkness of the night in Central India. As the artist recalled, “Nights in the forest were hallucinating [...] Sometimes the only humanizing influence was the dancing of the Gond tribes. Daybreak brought back a sentiment of security and wellbeing. On market-day under the radiant sun, the village was a fairyland of colours. And then, the night again. Even today I find that these two aspects of my life dominate me and are an integral part of my paintings.” (Artist statement, Y. Dalmia, The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives, New Delhi, 2001, p. 155)
For Raza, nature and the landscape always offered an arena to engage with viewers that far exceeded the power of figurative representation. Although his artistic vocabulary evolved across the seven decades of his career, color was always his most important tool in this engagement. “Nature had become a pictorial metaphor: the forest, the river, the ravines, parched earth. The sun magnified a hundred times, exploding with energy and dynamism as the sole luminary. The earthscape [...] these formed the essential components of his [Raza’s] work in the 60s and 70s”. (G. Sen, ‘Genesis’ Understanding Raza: Many Ways of Looking at a Master, New Delhi, p. 74)
In La Terre, the artist’s energetic gestural brushstrokes and splashes of yellow, orange, red and white paint are mesmerizing, providing contrast to the earthy browns and greens that encircle them. Like flashes of light flickering through a forest in the twilight, the warmth of these colors lends both depth and tension to the composition. Writing about the artist’s work, the critic Richard Bartholomew identified color as the legend for Raza’s landscapes. In the absence of discernible forms or topographical features in paintings like the present lot, color becomes subject and object, medium and form, representational and abstract. In this monumental painting, each tone expresses a different emotional register and experience drawn from the artist’s memories of the landscapes of his youth.
Raza’s combination of his emotional responses to physical details and sensual enjoyment of color with a profound sense of painterliness and a fundamentally more conceptual idiom, allows this painting to transcend the question of representational or abstract and move into the realm of the mystic and spiritual. La Terre, in its persuasive delineation of a rich, animated world full of energy and vitality on one hand, and the dark, ominous unknown on the other, stands as a metaphor for the whole of creation itself. A masterpiece in every sense of the word, La Terre invokes a profound sense of the land and existence that stretches not only beyond the borders of the painted canvas, but beyond all mapped terrain as well, extending to infinity.