In the early 1950s Husain embarked upon several experiments with the human figure, in particular the rural indigenous peasant with their large rough hands. His earliest works appear two-dimensional like his cut-out toys, infilled with deceptively simple flat planes of color, but his vocabulary evolves rapidly over the coming decades. His first-hand encounters with the paintings of Paul Klee, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso during his travels to Europe in 1953 had a decisive impact on his art. His Indian sensibility merged with newly experienced aspects of European Modernism, forming a distinctive pictorial language. 'There is an exalted dignity about the people who inhabit Husain's canvases. Peasants, workers, craftsmen, women toiling in fields, or huddled together in conversation all have self-contained poise, the stoic patience and grace associated with the common people...he captures in their postures and lineaments their distinctive ethos and culture...not by physiognomy or costume alone are they differentiated, but in their total bearing and presence.' (E. Alkazi, M. F. Husain: The Modern Artist and Tradition, Art Heritage, New Delhi, 1978, p. 22)
Husain’s Untitled (Four Women) from 1971 is a departure from his earlier depictions of the female form. ‘His figures suddenly became anonymous. They existed on the picture plane without any specific locale or identity. They possessed a static poise, a slow langerous deliberateness. These directions were foreign to Husain’s personal attitudes, as revealed in his unfolding up till this point.’ (G. Kapur, Husain, Vakil & Sons Private Ltd., Bombay, p. 4) In the past, where his figures populated the spaces with rural village scenes in the background or detailed landscapes, these women with their silent masks are archetypal figures in their own private world. The colors divide the picture plane into areas of light and dark. Through this sense of alienation and the careful use of pigments, Husain invokes a deep awareness of the human condition. Philosophical and impulsive, these paintings are more about emotion and less to do with a particular subject. ‘Husain uses color emotively, in flat planes and subtle tones, amid restlessly active or strongly arresting lines. The world that he creates, while capable of gay outbursts, tends to be brooding, inward, world, lit by a haunting-black sun. […] his quest in his work is already becoming a mysterious and lonely poetry. The icons of his expression, which were derived from folk art in his earlier paintings, now move between the personal and the archetypal.’ (D. Nadkarni, Husain: Riding the Lightning, Popular Prakashan Pvt. Ltd., Bombay, 1996, p. 82)
Husain reached his first critical height with Between the Spider and the Lamp, 1956. Three women, monumentally constructed, and set against a bright red background and painted with flat applications of brown, blue, white and yellow paint, reflect the various complexities between the rural and the urban or the city dweller and the earth mother. Husain then introduces the mask into this composition, a recurring motif in many paintings that followed including the present work. Interestingly, in one of the preparatory sketches for Between the Spider and the Lamp, Husain has drawn a small child standing between two of the women. Untitled (Four Women) retains part of the composition and structure with the same figures as those drawn in the preparatory sketch including the child in between the womens’ legs. It is fascinating to see how Husain revisits his earlier constructions but now, in this painting from 1971, the number of women increases and the colors darken. This group of women, and in particular the tribal mask on the woman’s blue face in the center of this painting are highly influenced by Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In both these works, the women are free from the pressure of any direct male gaze. The figure on the left in both paintings is profiled from the side and looks towards the other subjects. The overall effect is one of mystery, it is a glimpse into their private sanctum. The fact that the figure on the right has a dark patch of paint over her face instead of well-defined features, and the background has no depth or perspectival space, renders it timeless and universal. It speaks to the mystery and nature of human identity.
‘While Husain’s paintings do have an immediate local context, the essential concern of his art is archetypal: it explores the parables of life, love, and death. The figures in his group are for the most part given personal, not social, relationships. Each comes robed in its own solitary identity, the structure of the grouping accentuating the monumental character of the individual figure. Husain’s paintings finally create a closed world, a picture which is in the nature of a book that carries its interest with it wheverever it goes.’ (ibid., p. 115). The central figure clad in blue with her mask, is made the focal point while a child painted in black clings to her.
'It is a point worth noting that Husain’s women, far from arousing passion, are ascetic without any of the abundant sexuality found in Indian sculptures. It is almost as if he strips the sculptures of all exterior embellishments to arrive at their basic sense of movement. Husain’s women are always enshrouded in an invisible veil, the simplicity of their form countered by their inaccessibility. They could well be women from his own childhood in a Muslim household, where the feminine presence alternates between the secretive and the visible.’ (Y. Dalmia, The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2001, p. 110-111)
Apart from its beautifully constructed pathos and subtle use of color to bring forth emotion, and the fact that it references Husain’s best known masterpiece, Untitled (Four Women) has an illustrious history, having been exhibited and once owned by two prominent tastemakers; fashion forward designer Pierre Cardin and the legendary collectors of Indian art Chester and Davida Herwitz. Husain made many of his paintings during a sojourn in France in the late 60s-early 70s and exhibited them at the Pierre Cardin gallery in Paris. Cardin visited Bombay occasionally and was inspired by Indian fashion and culture. Chester and Davida Herwitz amassed one of the largest collections of Modern Indian Art, housed in the Peabody Essex Museum; Salem, Massachusetts. The three historic sales of their works, held at Sotheby's New York in 1995, 1996 and 2000 were the first ever single owner collections of Modern and Contemporary Indian art to appear at auction.