THE FRIENDSHIP THAT INSPIRED A MASTER: SAYED HAIDER RAZA AND LYDIA NORDENTOFT
Following the example of fellow Progressive Artists’ Group member, Francis Newton Souza, Sayed Haider Raza left India for Europe shortly after independence. Raza however chose Paris over London, and was awarded a two-year scholarship at the prestigious École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in 1950. It was here that he met Lydia Nordentoft and the two became close friends while classmates between 1950 and 1952. Raza and Nordentoft shared a mutual desire to experience all the art that Paris and Europe had to offer. They became enraptured by the thriving creativity of bohemian Paris and the books, galleries and museums that were afforded to them for the first time. When they weren’t in each other’s company they wrote regularly, continuing their in-depth discussions on art, culture, philosophical musings and artistic influences in a touching friendship. While shy and retiring with his fellow students, Raza’s letters to Nordentoft reveal a hitherto unknown bond that was significant and influential on his development as an artist. In the early 1950s it was Nordentoft’s support and friendship that sustained Raza, allowing him to develop into the modern master he is recognised as today. Even after she returned to Sweden in 1952, Nordentoft and Raza remained close friends. Raza wrote regularly to update Nordentoft of the Parisian art scene and the highs and lows of achieving the critical and financial success which he desired.
Raza analysed the art around him endlessly. He visited every exhibition and read every new art publication, keen to absorb, learn and develop his understanding of his contemporaries. From his correspondence, it is clear that European Modernism fascinated Raza and he took particular interest in the Post-Impressionists as his overriding influence in the first half of the 1950s. Having just returned from spending Christmas in London with Souza, Raza writes:
I must give you a glimpse into my trip to London from where I returned on the 2nd Jan. My stay was enjoyable chiefly due to my friend Newton [Souza] and the London museums. […] I realise more and more now more than ever, how the Post-Impressionist movement rescued painting from the aerobatics of the academitions to the creation of significant form. Cézanne the earliest manifestation of this movement occupies a dominating position and is amazing to see the crop of good art that followed later. (Artist statement, letter to L. Nordentoft, Paris, 15 January 1950)
Raza’s work evolved dramatically from his small watercolours of the late 1940s towards a bolder more ambitious and modernist idiom. Raza began to work on a larger scale, mixing his media, first working in gouache on paper or card (lot 17) and then with oils on board and canvas (lot 18). His practice constantly advanced during these years as he assimilated the modernist masters he so admired and the Parisian cityscape around him, and created the new unique hybrid styles that are so recognisable today. Raza writes fondly about the significance of these critical two years in Paris as a time when he could enjoy and focus on art in the purest sense unrestrained by financial impediments:
My scholarship is over. This was the last month: two years of carefree time. I am thankful to providence. It is rare in an artist’s life to have regular income for 24 months and that too when he is in Paris. The time passed quickly it’s hard to believe that I am two years in France. But many things have happened during this time. I am almost a new man, a different man in any case. My work has undergone a change, it is impossible for anyone, including myself to have anticipated. (Artist statement, letter to L. Nordentoft, Paris, 30 July 1952)
As with Souza in London at the same period, there were unavoidable financial challenges that accompanied competing in the thriving unforgiving art scene of post-war 1950s Paris. On Christmas eve of 1954, in a period of hardship and crisis, Raza writes emotionally how he considered giving up and returning to India before asking his dear friend Nordentoft for help:
I am exhausted, physically. It’s not possible to bear any longer this material wait from day to day […] I have decided to go back to India, about April. You know that it will be good to be back in my country.[…] I owe you Lydia, quite a lot. First for a friendship which I cherish and esteem. You have indeed been a friend. Your presents have all been of real help. They came when I needed them most […] I wish that I can manage to send you two of my paintings as a token of my friendship. This is all I can send at the moment. (Artist statement, letter to L. Nordentoft Paris, 24 December 1954)
The ever-supporting friend, Nordentoft, offered to pay for Raza’s paintings and they eventually agreed that she would pay for one and be gifted the other. Raza, touched by this gesture, soon responded, “I should like to send you one of my best paintings.” (Artist statement, letter to L. Nordentoft, Paris, 7 January, 1955)
In a letter from January 1955, Raza proudly describes lots 17-18 as he prepares to send his two favourite paintings to his loyal friend, Lydia Nordentoft, then living in Sweden.
Each painting extolls Raza’s love of landscape in unique and contrasting ways. Lot 18, Untitled (Church in Landscape) is an iconic example of Raza’s early landscapes on canvas. The bold palette in red and black, and geometric flattened forms betray the Post-Impressionist influences he so admired. This painting was so dear to the artist that he stood carrying it in a photograph that now appears on the cover of S H Raza Catalogue Raisonne 1958- 1971 (Volume I). The fact that Raza chose to sell his most prized painting of the period to Nordentoft demonstrates the esteem in which he held his cherished friend.
Lot 17, the Untitled cityscape is a delicate rendering of rooftops executed in gouache. It was this work that Raza sent as a token of his gratitude. It is from a small series of experimental works produced in 1951-53. These flattened cubist forms of Parisian rooftops float across a pale blue sky. These were most likely the rooftops seen from Raza’s apartment window in Paris where he lived in these early years. There is a playful lightness from Raza’s formal treatment and technique as jewel like forms almost dissolve into the luminescent background in a ghostly cityscape.
These two masterpieces have remained in the Nordentoft family since Raza sent them to his dear friend in 1955, and have hitherto never been publicly documented or exhibited.