This painting was amongst the first to be selected for the Musée Carnoles exhibition in Menton by Janine Mongillat and Michel Imbert.
- J. Lassaigne quoted in A. Vajpeyi, Raza: A Life in Art, Art Alive Gallery, New Delhi, 2007, p. 73
La Terre marks a distinct moment in the development of Sayed Haider Raza’s artistic style. The painting retains the loose brushstrokes which Raza had employed since the 1940s, whilst also signalling advances in the artist’s move towards total abstraction. Eventually, Raza’s gestural brushwork disappeared from his work to be replaced by a more rigid and formal geometry, one borne from the precepts of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. This work illustrates the early beginnings of Raza’s experimentations with geometric space.
A founding member of the celebrated Progressive Artists’ Group, Raza left India on a government scholarship to Paris in 1950. There, he became a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts and was exposed to the Post-Impressionist artists, in particular Paul Cézanne and Vincent Van Gogh. Raza admired how such artists used colour to structure their paintings, something which greatly influenced his own artistic production. In 1962, Raza moved to America to teach at Berkeley, University of California, and during this period he came into contact with many American painters. He witnessed for the first time the Abstract Expressionism employed by Sam Francis, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, the influence of whom is readily seen in La Terre. Of the many Expressionists, Pollock’s works in particular were marked by an absence of formal construction or sense of spatial recession. This allowed Pollock greater artistic autonomy over the pictorial space, a freedom Raza also sought in his paintings.
Raza’s artistic sojourns parallel those of the legendary Chinese-French painter, Zao Wuo-Ki. Zao, a fellow member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, likewise travelled from Asia to France, and then to North America, and found artistic inspiration in the work of western modernists and Abstract Expressionists respectively. Blending these influences with their own native sensibilities, Wuo-Ki and Raza created breathtaking abstracted canvases with a primary emphasis on colour and light. Individually and collectively, their trajectories illustrate the encounter between Asian aesthetics and international art movements that came to define the global scope of Post-war abstraction.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Raza employed the precepts of Abstract Expressionism, and was increasingly drawn, both emotionally and philosophically, toward his native land. He began a series of paintings titled La Terre or ‘The Earth’, of which this is one of the finest examples. “…sometime between 1975 and 1980, I began to feel the draw to my Indian heritage. I thought: I come from India. I have a different vision; I should incorporate what I have learned in France with Indian concepts. In this period, I visited India every year to study Indian philosophy, iconography, magic diagrams, and ancient Indian art, particularly Hindu, Buddhist and Jain art. I was impressed by paintings from Basholi, Malwa and Mewar, and began combining colours in a manner that echoed Indian miniature painting.” (Raza in conversation with Amrita Jhaveri, Sotheby's Preview Magazine, 2007, p. 57)
During his childhood, Raza formed a close connection with the natural world. His father was a forest warden stationed in the thick jungles of central India in the 1930s and this is said to have had a profound influence on the artist. “The most tenacious memory of my childhood is the fear and fascination of Indian forests. We lived near the source of the Narmada river in the centre of the dense forests of Madhya Pradesh. 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 well-being. 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.” (S.H. Raza quoted in Y. Dalmia, The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2001, p. 155)
Of Raza’s many variations of La Terre, this work is one of the more brooding and atmospheric examples. The artist is able to capture the delirium of the dark and dense Madhya Pradesh forests which he experienced as a child, and the mystical power of nature more generally, through his bold use of colour. Raza has stated, “The variations are infinite; the mysteries are total. In painting the five Elements we use the five colours: black, white, yellow, red and blue, giving birth to a vision of nature. But the most perfect orchestration of colour and form is insufficient if the painting is not invested by profound feeling. This is possible only in an elevated state of direct perception - manasa pratyakshata. How this miracle happens, how this state of mind is achieved, how one feels – not even the artist knows. However, the best of poetry, the finest music, the most significant art takes place in this ‘état de grace’.” (G. Sen, Bindu Space and Time in Raza’s Vision, Media TransAsia Ltd., New Delhi, p. 11)
Raza considered black to be the mother of all colours and in La Terre she dominates the canvas. Fiery earthy tones are enveloped within the impending darkness, and through the energetic lines and fluid shapes which flit across the canvas, Raza depicts the rhythms of nature. ‘In the thickness of his matter, a whole network of coloured veins circulated; flashing reds and yellows pierced deep blacks. Effects of tension and nervous agitation upset shadowy zones. The composition itself was affected by this, and in a given work, the compressed pulsations of the forms, the character of which could be defined as anguishing, were in opposition to immense, light and calm surfaces. Thus, ever faithful to his deep sentiments, Raza sought to free himself of the oppression of the night and to glorify the serenity rediscovered in the light of dawn’. (J. Lassaigne quoted in Raza: A Retrospective, Saffronart, New York, 2007, p. 76)
The movement Raza creates in La Terre is housed within a black border, a typical framing feature of his work from the 1970s onwards. By the late 1980s, the signature Raza border no longer contained expressive lines and shapes but strictly geometric ones. The physical energy which moves throughout canvases like La Terre was to be replaced with a more philosophical energy, in his existential Bindu paintings.
La Terre is a tour de force – a testament to Raza’s intellectual aptitude and artistic brilliance, imparting his complex and theoretical thoughts into a masterpiece of great beauty and fluidity.
GORBIO: RAZA'S SANCTUARY IN THE SOUTH OF FRANCE
Michel Imbert is an independent art historian based in the south of France and author of Raza: An Introduction to his Painting. The Imbert family were close friends and neighbours of Raza and his wife Janine Mongillat, meeting in the medieval village of Gorbio. Raza and Mongillat purchased their Gorbio home from the Imberts in 1958.
In 1975, Sayed Haider Raza and his wife regularly travelled to India, where he was once again inspired by Nature, a theme already present in his paintings. He was particularly concerned with the metaphysical aspects of his surroundings, where emotion is closely associated with the soul (“atman”), and is as much a part of human life as art. He returned to his origins, to his native village of Babaria on the banks of the Narmada River, where, along with his childhood memories, he also rediscovered the wisdom of village life. He journeyed up to Amarkantak, the source of the Narmada River, and all the way to the village of Kakaiya and the city of Mandala, where he had spent the first thirteen years of his life.
However, Gorbio, France was the main inspiration for Raza’s paintings. He took advantage of the peaceful surroundings and his airy studio at the top of the village to relax and create. All of his works are a combination of his upbringing in India and his travels throughout France. His multi-cultural viewpoint is reflected in this lyrical and abstract painting. This work combines his memories of the dense forest of Madhya Pradesh, from his childhood along with his mountain facing home in Gorbio, part of the pre-Alps separating France and Italy. This work is structured by alternating forces, full and empty, transparent and opaque colours bringing an intimist feeling directly inspired by these multiple sources. After a session of meditation and prayer, Raza would eat breakfast in front of the French landscape that stretched towards the Italian coasts. This mountain with contrasting colours accentuated by the fact that its base plunges into the deep blue of the Mediterranean, brought a strong intensity that is reflected in this charming work.
This period is also characteristic of his awareness and the importance placed on the structure of his works. Henri Cartier-Bresson advised him in 1948 in Kashmir to come to France to study the structure of Cezanne's works, which he did with passion. This painting is a strong example of these various influences. On the occasion of the exhibition held at Palais Carnoles in Menton in 1991, the former summer residence of the Princes of Monaco, I was in charge of choosing with Raza and his wife Janine the works that best illustrated the ideas behind his work. I remember very well, we chose this work which was for Raza a key piece, essential to the understanding of its pictorial evolution of this time. This is because his colours and his subject matter formed a link between his different inspirations. The dramatic deep black masses of the painting were favoured by the committee choosing paintings for the exhibition. La Terre, 1980 was also one of the first paintings chosen for this exhibition.
- Michel Imbert, 7 September 2018
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