Sayed Haider Raza: A Life of Evolution

Sayed Haider Raza: A Life of Evolution

As Sotheby's presents an exhibition of rarely-seen masterpieces by the late artist Sayed Haider Raza in its London Galleries, Lily Zirlin takes a look at the Indian-born master's life and achievements through the prism of these ten extraordinary pictures.
As Sotheby's presents an exhibition of rarely-seen masterpieces by the late artist Sayed Haider Raza in its London Galleries, Lily Zirlin takes a look at the Indian-born master's life and achievements through the prism of these ten extraordinary pictures.
Masterpieces: Sayed Haider Raza 1955 – 1985

T his has been a landmark year for the late Indian artist Sayed Haider Raza's (1922 – 2016) work and legacy for a number of reasons. There was the expansive retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris earlier in the year, featuring nearly 100 pieces. Then there have been several market milestones that have energised institutional and commercial support. Closing this triumphant Year of Raza, Sotheby's presents Masterpieces: Sayed Haider Raza 1955 – 1985, an exhibition encapsulating the painter's oeuvre, with nine exceptional examples of his landscapes and abstract compositions that have rarely, if ever, been on public view.

Sayed Haider Raza (Image courtesy The Raza Foundation)

A founding member of the famed Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group in 1947, Raza remains a towering presence in the Subcontinent's art scene to this day. Established in 1947, the year of Indian independence, the Bombay Progressive Artists' Group of young artists – Raza, Maqbool Fida Husain, Francis Newton Souza, Krishnaji Howlaji Ara, Hari Ambadas Gade and Sadanand K. Bakre – sought to redefine art for a newly independent nation.

“We were in the full bloom of youth and energy when the country won its independence… it was a period of radical changes.”
- S H Raza (Artists Today: East-West Visual Arts Encounter, 1987)

Raza left Bombay in 1950 to study at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris, with a bursary from the French Government. Here, he found great inspiration in the city’s museums and galleries, filled with European modern masterworks, as well as a sense of community amongst the burgeoning art scene. Raza remained in France until 2010, and it became his beloved second home.

“France gave me for six decades a home, hearth and sustenance," Raza remembered, when receiving the Ordre Nationale de la Légion d’Honneur award from the French government on 14 July 2015. "France provided me [with] evocative ambience, inspiring confidence in creativity and imagination, openness to ideas and innovation. More than anything else, France made me realise my Indian inheritance in colour and concepts that came alive through my art.”

"More than anything else, France made me realise my Indian inheritance in colour and concepts that came alive through my art.”
- S H Raza (A. Vajpeyi, Sayed Haider Raza)

Just as Raza fell in love with his adopted home, so France wasn't slow in recognising the Indian painter's exceptional talent. Raza achieved international recognition as the first non-French artist to win the prestigious Prix de la Critique in 1956. He went on to exhibit Ville Provençale at the Venice Biennale of the same year, an exhibition that kick-started a global succession of solo and group exhibitions at important institutions around the world. Advent of Autumn was shown at Tecta Galerie in Dusseldorf in 1966 and Croix sous l'orage was exhibited at Biennale 57 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1957. With this global reach, Raza's reputation was established as a sensitive student of colours, a master of evocative and soulful compositions and a master of painterly precision to evoke dreamlike, emotional canvases.

And each of the works in Sotheby's exhibition can claim masterpiece status in its own right. Shown together, they highlight the significant evolutions that took place throughout Raza's career.

In the 1950s, expressively rendered French landscapes and carefully composed natural and human elements are blended together. After encountering Abstract Expressionism in the United States in the early 60s, the recognisable scenes and identifiable architectural features of Raza’s compositions disappeared, and his compositions became increasingly abstracted. The natural world still remained at the heart of his work, with his proclivity to depict dawn, dusk and the shifting seasons, but the painter was now concerned with conveying emotion rather than tangible forms in his painting.

From the late 1970s onwards, Raza embarked on his final evolution, through his philosophical, geometrically arranged ‘bindu’ series, works that reimagined the artist’s aesthetic. In 1981, Raza received the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian award. He would later receive the Padma Bhushan, India’s third-highest civilian award (2007) and the Padma Vibhushan, the second-highest award (2013).

Logic and instinct simultaneously guided Raza’s experimentations, influenced by the painter’s French environs and his Indian birthplace. In conversation with Sotheby's Preview Magazine in 2007, Raza explained his approach at this point in his career as “…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.”

This kaleidoscopic vision and hungry intellect can be seen in each of the works in the Sotheby's exhibition. Shown together, they highlight the significant evolutions that took place throughout Raza's career and just why this painter remains not only a towering icon of Indian art, but to successive generations of artists worldwide.

Banner image: Sayed Haider Raza La Petite Rue (1958)

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