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Details & Cataloguing

Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art

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London

Maqbool Fida Husain
1913 - 2011
UNTITLED (FERTILITY)
Signed in Devanagari and Urdu lower right
Oil on canvas
97 x 127 cm. (38 ⅛ x 50 in.)
Painted in the late 1960s
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Provenance

Acquired in Delhi in the 1970s by a private Canadian collector
Purchased from the above in 2014

Catalogue Note

Painted around 1967, Untitled (Fertility) exhibits the more abstract-expressionist style that Maqbool Fida Husain was using at this point in his career. Combining the abstract with the figurative, this work comprises a seated man and woman constructed of sharp, angular lines, blocks of colour and gestural brushstrokes. As is typical of Husain’s figures, the strong outlines and thicker impasto makes them appear as if they have been carved rather than painted.

The painted area of white behind the figures in Untitled (Fertility) is suggestive of the colour field paintings of Mark Rothko and Barnet Newman, whilst simultaneously echoing the high horizon line of Rajasthani miniatures. Indeed, despite the pervasive influence of European modernism on Husain, he nonetheless remained committed to his South Asian roots. “I'm an Indian-origin painter. I will remain so to my last breath.” (M .F. Husain quoted in 'Indian artist M F Husain dies in London', Dawn, 9 June 2011, https://www.dawn.com/news/635242)

Husain frequently chose characters from Indian mythology as his subject matter, such as in his famous Shiva Parvati (1966). This representation of an intertwined couple explores the ancient Indian concept of Mithuna, a theme to which Husain turned repeatedly throughout the 1960s. The theme of Mithuna ranges in interpretations, from the celebration of life and rapturous joy to the metaphorical longing of the soul for unification with the divine. Like in Shiva ParvatiUntitled (Fertility) also shows a man and woman in seated positions beside one another. There are, however, differences between the two paintings. In (Untitled) Fertility, Husain seems to reject the traditional image of Mithuna. The man and woman do not embrace, but rather face away from one another. Nevertheless, just as the woman is rendered with the most colour and care in Shiva Parvati, here the man is painted in muted tones and the woman is formed of an abstract jumble of blocks, coloured in vibrant reds, oranges, blues and greens.

Amongst these bright colours, the key focus is the yellow-orange, yolk-like sphere which glows from within the woman’s figure. Motherhood was a significant theme in Husain’s work, and the radiant orb in Untitled (Fertility) is thus perhaps representative of the woman’s womb. Moreover, the painting’s composition echoes that of Husain’s 1964 work Sun in her Womb, Lamp on her Thigh in which an expectant woman’s womb is shown ablaze with life.

To the lower left of the woman in Untitled (Fertility) sits a crudely outlined kerosene lamp, another motif that the painting shares with Sun in her Womb, Lamp on her Thigh. The lamp features heavily throughout Husain’s oeuvre, most notably in his iconic 1956 masterpiece Between the Spider and the Lamp and his award-winning 1967 film Through the Eyes of a Painter. This particular object held a personal significance for Husain, speaking to his special relationship with his grandfather Abdul, a lamp-repairer and tinsmith. Following the death of Husain’s mother when he was less than two years old, it was his grandfather who raised him until he died when Husain was aged six. “It took me some time to realize just what grandfather’s death meant. Everything seemed to be finished for me.” (M. F. Husain quoted by Y. Dalmia, The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2001, p. 111)

Husain’s lamps are typically recorded in conjunction with veiled and faceless women, a pairing which simultaneously reveals the artist’s longing for his mother whose face he could not recall and his enduring love for his long-deceased grandfather. Husain’s childhood association of the lamp with loss stands in contrast with the life-giving theme of Untitled (Fertility).

Influenced by Husain’s own past, the narratives and traditions of his South Asian heritage, and the continuing evolution of modernism and abstraction, this is an exceptional work, dynamic and energetic, and at the same time quiet and contemplative.

Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art

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London