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     Volume 6 Issue 33 | August 24, 2007 |

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Master of 'Abstract Realism'

Aasha Mehreen Amin

At 75, Murtaja Baseer is as agile and hyperactive as a child with a mind as sharp and clear. In his cosy apartment in Manipuripara, Baseer eagerly shows his oil paintings stacked against the walls and explains the various phases that he has gone through as an artist and the mentors who have helped him along the way.

Taking up art as a profession was somewhat decided by Providence rather than a conscious personal choice. In 1947 Baseer was in class nine and was already influenced by Marxism. He became a member of the student wing of the communist party and drew pictures of Marx, Engels and Lenin for the Party. It was this association that paved his entry into the world of art and that heavily influenced the themes and subjects that he was to depict in his work throughout his life. The Party wanted to form cadres in all educational institutions and so Baseer was asked to join the Government Art Institute set up by Zainul Abedin. At first, his father Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah, a prominent scholar of literature and language and a doctorate holder from Paris's famous Sorbonne University, was not particularly excited about Baseer's academic choice. But his son's eagerness won him over and even induced him to give Baseer two rare volumes on the Louvre Museum that he had kept locked in his library for years. That was ample encouragement for the delighted 16 and a half-year-old who spent hours studying the books and learning from them.

But Baseer's early days as an art student were far from smooth sailing. He was still very involved with left politics that ended him in jail for five months after he was caught putting up a Party poster on the wall. After being released when Baseer came back to the Institute he felt alienated and was apathetic enough to want to give up art altogether. “I told Zainul Abedin, my teacher that I would give up”, says Baseer, “but he said 'no' and called for Aminul Islam, one of his most brilliant and favourite students and a year senior to me.” Aminul, with whom he shared the same political ideology, helped Baseer to get back on track and to improve his drawing and painting.

It was when he was in the second year that Baseer experienced an unpleasant experience that actually led him to start painting in oil. “I was doing a drawing in one of the classes when my teacher tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to get up and give my seat to another student Razzak who always stood first in class. I knew I wasn't a very good student but I felt extremely insulted and ended up sitting in the corridor with tears streaming down my face.” It was at that moment that the famous Safiuddin Ahmed, then a teacher at the Institute stopped and asked him why he was crying. When he heard what had happened, Ahmed took him home, an unusual gesture for the reserved teacher from Calcutta. “I was a little surprised”, says Baseer, “there were oil paintings done by him all over the place; Safiuddin was famous for his woodcuts at the time.” It was Safiuddin who encouraged Baseer to start doing oil paintings, often taking the young student along to various spots to paint. Baseer says that incident taught him a lot. Later as a Professor of Fine Arts at Chittagong University, Baseer says he always made sure that he would first go to the worst student in the class. “I think a teacher is successful,” says Baseer, “if he or she can uplift the weakest students.” When Baseer was asked at the interview board that decided on his professorship what he taught he replied “Nothing” further explaining, “I never impose my personality on my students, I only try to help them.” Baseer acquired this way of thinking from his first mentor Zainul Abedin who, says Baseer, never encouraged his students to be like their teacher but urged them to try to develop on their own.

It was after 1954, in Calcutta where he went to take an art appreciation course at the Ashutosh Museum that Baseer met Paritosh Sen who had just come back from Paris. Baseer was impressed with Sen's minimalism and his style of painting with palette knife. During his stay in Cacutta, he also learnt the technique of mixing water colours from famous painter Dilip Das Gupta.

Baseer says that it was in Florence where he went for higher studies that he was drawn to the pre-renaissance painters such as Giotto, Cimabue, Duccio, Fra Angelico and others from the 13th and 14th centuries. “I liked the simplified drawing of these artists”, says Baseer, “with their absence of perspective or shades of light.” “Around '57, '58 I thought of something: that there is no such thing as so-called background and so I started superimposing in light and shade making the main subject transparent. This translucent effect is found in many of his works such as 'Somnambular Ballad' (1959), The gypsy (1958), 'Man with Accordian' 1959 with traces of this even in later works in other media such as 'Girl with Flower'.

The 60s proved to be another important decade for Baseer. In 1960 an exhibition of his paintings, drawings and lithographs was organised by the Pakistan Arts Council in Lahore. His second exhibition in Lahore displayed 28 of his works and were completely different from his 'transparancism' phase. A brief period of despondency while in Lahore resulted in his depicting the darker side of life in 'Girl with Lizard' and 'Dead Lizard' which he did in Dhaka.

In 1962 the artist got married and this is when he developed yet another style. “My life became very organised and structured”, says Baseer, “and this was reflected in my work.” The geometric shapes and female forms of his paintings at that time portrayed the emotional stability of the artist.

Baseer was always drawn to realism and the abstraction of modern art did not really appeal to him. “But I felt I was not in the mainstream with everyone moving towards the abstract; I started getting a complex”, says Baseer. The artist remarks that he does not believe in pure abstract which is often the result of alienation and angst of those societies in which life has become mechanical and vacant. The claustrophobia the country was facing in the late 60s however, influenced him to come up with his 'Wall' series which seemed to be the closest he had come to abstract art. But as far as Baseer was concerned he was reproducing actual parts of walls that looked abstract because they were devoid of figures. This is when Baseer came up with a new term to describe his work: abstract realism. The walls denoted barriers between people, the emotional distancing in relationships.

In 1971 Baseer escaped to Paris with his family fearing arrest for his involvement in the independence movement. It was during his stay in Paris that the 'Epitaph for the Martyrs' series was done inspired by the colours enmeshed in pebbles that he found on a Parisian Street. The understated colours and forms of the pebbles represented a solemn epitaph for the martyrs who had died and were dying. In 1975 Baseer received the Shilpakala Academy Award especially for his 'Epitaph' series. He was awarded the Ekushey Padak in 1980.

In 1978 Baseer did a few paintings in his 'Jyoti' series using religious motifs from prayer mats, scriptures and charms.

Baseer is very wary of repetition and says he stops as soon as he detects any sign of it in his work. Which is why he admires Picasso so much for his constant attempt to be innovative. He describes his 'abstract realism' as the attempt to blend the vision of a renaissance painter with the mind of an impressionist. The 'wings' series of the late 90s for example, is a completely new phase. The magnifying of a part of a butterfly wing in all its spectacular pattern and colour is a defiant protest and optimism against the degeneration of modern society. Again, in 1980, 'The Light' series showed another form of work based on Quranic verses. “I was heavily criticised for this work”, says Baseer, “ I do not see any contradiction between religion and progress. Bangali Muslims are very progressive but that does not mean they are atheists.” Baseer adds that the work of artists like Michael Angelo and Rembrandt were heavily influenced by religious motifs so it is very natural for artists to use religion as a theme.

Baseer, the eternal optimist, is very hopeful about the future of Bangladeshi art. “Bangladeshi art is of international standard,” remarks Baseer, “ but there are constraints. The state must play a greater role and patronize art; there should be a Shiplakala Academy in every district. There are many abandoned houses all over the country. They can be turned into venues for exhibitions. All creative work including art, moreover, should be made tax-free.

Even after more than fifty years of creating a formidable repertoire of work, Baseer is far from being complacent. For Baseer, talent is an overstated word in art; it all boils down to sheer hard work, something this dynamic artist has never shied away from.


A Journey Into An Artist's Life

He has been described as a distinguished modern artist, known for his versatility and sheer volume of work spanning over five decades and always spilling with new energy, something that is so characteristic of him. What is evident from the innumerable phases of the work of Murtaja Baseer, one of the masters of Bangladeshi art, is perhaps his voracious appetite for life and all that it has to offer. Constantly trying to reconcile the duality of his artistic persona, heavily influenced by western technique and eastern sensibility, Baseer is a Chameleon changing and adapting, experimenting and innovating, constantly looking for novelty, not so much to keep the interest of his audience as to prevent himself from falling into stagnation, a common affliction among artists of prominence.

The range and diversity of Baseer's work from the early fifties to the present time, has been showcased in a rare exhibition sponsored by HSBC at Gallerikaya in Uttara, celebrating the artist's 75th birthday. From the original, naïve drawing of a hand in his first year as an art student that his teacher, the great Zainul Abedin corrected with red ink and gave only 24 out of 50, to the sophisticated semi-abstract etchings at various stages of his life concluding with his simple lined pen and ink drawings that he would inevitably master, the exhibition is a journey not only through Baseer's artistic career but a glimpse into the turbulent waves of our own history.

The exhibition is a collection of graphics and drawings done by the artist between 1949 and 2007 and includes works created wherever the artist has lived Dhaka, Chittagong, Kolkata, Florence, Karachi, Lahore, Paris, Santa Fe, London and Cairo.

It is an unusual exhibition ( ending August 31), says artist Goutam Chakraborti, the owner of the gallery, because it is a rare opportunity to be able to see a lifetime of work of an artist of such caliber since very few artists have been able to preserve their earliest works. Curiously, the show has only concentrated on prints and drawings, leaving out Baseer's enormous range of oil paintings which he is more known for. Prints are more affordable and allow for wider participation in terms of buying explains Chakraborty.

Bloody 21st, his most famous linocut done in 1952 captures the angst, rebelliousness and fearless spirit of the language martyrs, Biriwala, Sho-shine boy, both linocuts and A Lane (woodcut) all done in the early 50's reveal the artist's weakness for detailed simplicity as well his socialist affiliations.

Baseer has used a variety of mediums etching, aquatint, dry point, carburandum for instance, singularly or in combination, revealing his insatiable desire to try out new methods and perfect them. His 'Imagees' series are more abstract in expression and are etchings or etching and aquatints. Neat, controlled lines hold combinations of subtle and darker hues to create dreamy effects. A few times he has used old themes such as his oil paintings series 'Wall' and 'Epitaph for Martyr', in others the subjects are untried but all of them reflect the sophistication and mastery of techniques that require extreme patience and skill.

There is also an impressive collection of dry point and etchings using minimal colouring give more emphasis on form and expression. There is more detailing and obvious symbolism such as 'Bangladesh 71' a work done in dry point and aquatint and 'Girl with Bird' in aquatint and etching while etchings like 'She', 'Woman' are reminiscent of the smooth, simple lines of the artist's drawings which have been revived in his most recent collection.

It is indeed a rare opportunity for art lovers to not only view such a unique collection of works spanning most of the artist's life but also to be able to acquire them at relatively affordable prices. In view of respecting artistic ethics, the artist has decided to destroy the original plates after this exhibition so that reproductions of the sold prints will remain within the stipulated number. This, says the Gallerikaya's owner, is a landmark in this country's art history.


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