The Art Institute of Chicago’s Alsdorf Galleries of Indian, Southeast Asian, Himalayan and Islamic Art are hosting a special installation, “India Modern: The Paintings of M. F. Husain,” featuring eight monumental triptychs from Maqbool Fida Husain’s (1915-2011) “Indian Civilization” series. Husain was a founding member of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, formed in the wake of Indian independence and the 1947 Partition. The group was known, and often criticized, for exploring themes of Indian nationalism using international modernist styles. Throughout his six-decade career as painter and filmmaker, Husain used historical narratives, cultural tropes and religious themes, positing an idealized image of India as a diverse, secular democracy. The eight triptychs in the Alsdorf Galleries exemplify this approach. “Indian Households” juxtaposes three domestic scenes that feature Hindu Brahmins, Sikhs and Husain’s own Muslim family members. Husain painted the work in his characteristic style, using saturated colors, layered forms and minimal use of line. Informed by Cubism, Husain is often referred to as “India’s Picasso.” “Three Dynasties” presents different episodes in India’s political history prior to independence: the Mauryan empire ruled by the Buddhist king Ashoka (r. 272-231 BC), the matrimonial alliance between the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605) and Hindu Rajput princess of Amber, and British imperial rule. The triptych challenges recent claims by Hindu nationalists that India is synonymous with Hinduism. Husain’s work, which posits that “Indian civilization” is constituted by diverse sociopolitical, religious and cultural communities, speaks to contemporary political debates as Hindu nationalists gain power in India. Yet it also challenges the art-historical narrative presented in the gallery space that South Asia’s art-historical contributions are primarily limited to the ancient arts of a distant Hindu and Buddhist past.
The Alsdorf Galleries are named after Marilynn and James Alsdorf, private collectors who donated or loaned a majority of the works on display in the Art Institute’s Asian galleries. The South Asian gallery consists almost entirely of Hindu and Buddhist sculptures dated prior to the eighteenth century. This shows the Alsdorfs’ personal tastes and collecting practices—which, in turn, are representative of the larger art market—and is one consequence of building a museum collection around a single patron. The lack of Muslim, Sikh or Jain works, for example, elides these and other communities’ rich artistic contributions to South Asian history. Likewise, the absence of artworks produced after the eighteenth century implies that South Asia’s artistic production ended with the advent of colonialism, relegating achievements in visual culture to a distant past. As such, Husain’s paintings address two major gaps in the Art Institute’s South Asian collections: works by Muslim artists and works by modern and contemporary South Asian artists.
Husain’s monumental paintings also encourage different modes of engagement with the gallery space. The South Asian galleries occupy an interstitial bridge between the main galleries and the Modern Wing. Artworks, organized by geographic location, are dispersed throughout the space. The exhibition design does little to direct visitors’ movement and, as a result, visitors tend to treat the gallery like a hallway, moving quickly through the space rather than engaging with the works. Husain’s monumental paintings, placed on the side walls and flanking both entrances, help frame and transform the hallway gallery into a discrete exhibition space. The rich color palettes and grand scale command attention, drawing viewers into and among the objects of the permanent collection. Husain actively engages with India’s visual culture and art history; paintings like “Language of Stone” make explicit reference to a sculptural heritage that is well represented by the Alsdorf collection. India Modern provides a rare opportunity to view M.F. Husain’s work in Chicago and encourages new ways of engaging with the Art Institute’s permanent collection. (Rachel Q. Levy)
“India Modern: The Paintings of M.F. Husain” shows through March 4 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan.