A s one of the most celebrated Indian artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, M.F. Husain was a trailblazer in blending influences from the European avant-garde with Indian sensibility and a founding member of the revolutionary Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, which formed in 1947. It is therefore apt that one of Husain's works – the 2000 painting, Fury – will be the first time an Indian's artist's work is offered as a "phygital" lot at Sotheby's and sold as a single lot online with cryptocurrency payments accepted, to coincide with the live Modern and Contemporary South Asian art auction at Sotheby’s London on 25 October. In a collaboration with the platform Hefty Art, this historic event will see the original artwork sold alongside an accompanying NFT.
Husain's son, Owais, is a multi-disciplinary artist in his own right and here, he tells Sotheby's about his father at work, how they found common ground and the decision to sell Fury in this groundbreaking auction format.
Why have you decided to sell this work in the groundbreaking joint format of a physical painting and NFT at the same time?
As tech-supported platforms grow rapidly, the general ability to comprehend, and thereafter employ these innovations, plays catch up. Bringing a physical work of art into the transaction is therefore only helpful in seeking a wider outreach.
Do you think this is the future of the art market? Is it something that excites you?
The ways of selling and collecting of art are far evolved, more so in these past few years. As much as we feel that we’re already there, in my opinion, this is just the beginning of the future of the art trade. Just like at the start of any phenomenal change, challenges are a heap full. But then that's what makes it exciting for me as an artist.
What do you think your father would have made of it?
He was always big on innovation and ever willing to learn. Apart from the novel element, this is also a promising opportunity offering a greater democracy in the space by opening a wide prospect as well consistent retribution for the artist. My father’s practice at its core was to reach out to a far-reaching viewership and an extensive range of collectors. Something that would make him feel right at home.
Why did you select this particular painting from the many you could have chosen? What do you love about this work?
As a draughtsman, Husain employed a minimal approach. To complete with less, which he did and most effortlessly with the form of his horses. The selected painting is from his last series on horses – a motif that famously grew to be synonymous with his art. Ablaze in a scorching red, a mirror of his passion for life, forever raging deep within. It is also an appropriate punctuation, a looking back in celebration of an epic career as well as an expression of his consistent youthful vigor as an artist.
Horses are such an important theme through your father’s career. Why do you think this animal was such a source of inspiration for him?
Growing up on folklore of terracotta horses and later discovering its form in the works of the master painter Qi Baishi (upon their meeting in China in 1953), Husain’s exploration of the theme continued to evolve in practice and purpose. What began as a useful iconography to work on his Mahabharata series that dealt with the concept of circular time, the horse eventually became the strongest form of expressing unbridled energy. Personally, this was a valuable tool for him, a window in time of a distant youthfulness that he carried within to the end.
So many people will feel that they know him through his art and his well-known life story but what do you remember of him as a father? What kind of relationship did you have with him?
At the beginning, I was sensitive of his absences and valued our time together as family. Only later in years, I would comprehend (and consequently imbibe) his wanderlust, the need to spread the canvas afar and nurse an appetite of curiosity to explore the rich tapestry of life.
With two opposing world views especially in our reflections of the art scene at home and abroad, we often agreed to disagree. Right there in the resilience of our own unswerving opinions, we found common ground.
A favourite pasttime we shared, was unravelling etymology and historical usage in poetry and text of words in Hindi and Urdu.
"I leave behind a flood of work so expansive that, regardless of whoever would chose to accept or deny it, posterity would unavoidably find it everywhere.”
Do you remember being in the studio and being around his process?
As a child, I grew up with his studio in my mother’s living room (she would silently and diligently clean up after him), our balcony, the walls and floor. It was everywhere and anywhere, mobile, what we call a pop-up today – in a hotel room, an apartment, a shed, a conservatory of a collector’s home.
We spoke extensively and often of his processes, the exercises that were necessary, the respect for an artist’s tools and the discipline of a watchmaker.
In his last years, while shooting him on camera for my film Letters To My Son About My Father, we would often play this game of guessing the next hue or colour that he was to apply to the painting in progress.
Was he encouraging of your own path to becoming an artist?
I ran away from boarding to school at 13 to pursue a life as an artist, for that is all I desired from outset. However, through most of those growing up years, he would exhort about the colossal challenges of a life spent in the pursuit of art. Notably, back then the landscape of the art world was a universe away from what we have today – an art student now has the paraphernalia and ecosystem to help plot multiple paths forward. It was only later, that he began picking up on the poetry I endeavored to infuse in my work. And that was relatable to him, as his own lexicon was a stucco of lyricism and questions.
Your father is renowned as one of the most important modern artists to come out of India but obviously had a complicated relationship with the country that he left. How do you view his legacy there today?
All he knew was to paint and all he wanted was to celebrate what life had to offer. In his paintings, his search for the true Indian identity continued past the alter of Indian independence in 1947 – in the landscapes, the forms, the themes, the complexity of a rich culture, as well as the Indian light. However, the world was also changing rapidly, and a time for discourse was sadly fast eclipsed by larger issues with reduced margins.
Towards the end of his historically prolific career, my father also said of his work, “I leave behind a flood of work so expansive that, regardless of whoever would chose to accept or deny it, posterity would unavoidably find it everywhere”.