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     Volume 7 Issue 42 | October 24, 2008 |

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  Art-A Multi-faceted   Retrospective
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A Multi-faceted Retrospective

Nader Rahman

Iowa, 1956

Abdur Razzaque could be called a jack-of-all-trades and the current exhibition at the Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts is an exemplary reminder of his talent, versatility and sublime skills, which enchanted a nation. A week after the exhibition ends, Razzaque would have celebrated his 78th birthday and while he may not be around to celebrate it, his work offers us a glance into his remarkable artistic landscape.

Composition-30, 2001

The Abdur Razzaque retrospective is one of the most incisive exhibitions the gallery has ever put forward. It tracks the career of an artist from his formative years through his experimentation all the way round to his death. In between we are left to enjoy six decades of his work and it leaves one breathless. The earliest works are from 1950 and the woodcuts depict rural scenes of nature. The level of detail in the relatively small 'Banana trees' shows that even at the age of 18, Razzaque was destined for greater things. Also from 1950 'Study-2' done in pencil shows a remarkable level of detail as well as beautiful sense of structure as an old twisted tree is depicted in an unusually gentle light. The contours of its twisted bark are exquisitely dealt with, showing the grotesque as beautiful.

Possibly the most fascinating aspect of this exhibition is the sheer number of Razzaque's early works that are on display. From his early days in one of the first batches of the newly established Government Institute of Arts in Dhaka, he showed great intent and talent. The staggering number of his works from that formative phase in his career helps one understand exactly how his art evolved. His watercolours from that time were realistic but never basic. 'Boat repair' from 1951 is wonderfully executed, simple and enchanting. A boat is propped up with bamboo as three people busily work on it. The

Drawing-1, 1952

shadow cast on the boat by the roofing is delicately done and the ocean with other boats in the background gives one a great sense of perspective. Painted over 50 years ago, the image is still one that holds true today, it could be a scene that is replayed anywhere across the country at any given time. Its timelessness is not merely in what it depicts, but how it is depicted.

Other watercolours from the same period follow the same aesthetic style and there is a striking painting of Rashid Chowdhury at work, which really stands out. His fellow artist is seated with one foot outstretched beneath his table, eyes fixed on his work, with his hand deftly holding a brush. The painting is desperately stylised and conjures up what could be an iconic image of the fifties. Wearing brown shoes, khaki trousers, a white shirt and a well cut blue jacket, Rashid Chowdhury is the epitome of a stylish young man. A mop of thick black hair is meticulously combed and along with his upright posture the image speaks of a different time. The colour scheme is simple yet astute for an artist that young. A lot of his work through his university years is on show and much of it is starkly different from the rest of his cannon.

His foundation in simplicity is best exemplified in 'Drawing-1', an ink and brush from 1952. The cow portrayed is very Zainul like, yet there is a minimal usage of ink. Delicately yet sinuously the cow is depicted as an animal of grace, the calf in the background adds a subtle touch of warmth. By 1954 he had graduated from art school having achieved a first class first. Within a year he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to the State University of Iowa, where he completed a two year Masters in Fine Arts. Around this time many Bangladeshi artists went abroad and brought back a better understanding, appreciation and skill in western techniques. Razzaque was no different yet it took him a few years to fully practise what he learned abroad.

Self Portrait-2, 1956
Study-2, 1950
Bananna trees, 1950

Amazingly, there is a decent collection of his from his days in Iowa on display as well. There are some soothing watercolours that depict various scenes of natural beauty and then there is the oil on canvas 'Iowa'. It seems inspired by the great American artist Edward Hopper and displays the same elements of confinement and isolation that he became so famous for. In his masterpiece 'Nighthawks' the light of the diner is contrasted against the dark outside, and for 'Iowa' the reverse applies with light of the houses starkly cutting out the dark from beneath the trees. In the end they both exude solitude, a sort of bleached sense of tranquillity. From his American years there are also a few abstracts, which he will mirror a good forty years later, in the mid to late nineties.

Cactus, 1998
Boat Repair, 1951

After returning from the States, Razzaque soon turned to printmaking, and was highly successful for a few years. But his interest in printmaking was waning as oil started to take centre stage for him. His next phase was that of abstract expressionism particularly that of the American tradition. Razzaque was still studying in the States when Jackson Pollock passed away in 1956 and that is rumoured to have been his entrance in the abstract expressionism that Pollock became so (in)famous for. Razzaque's own works seemed to be pay homage to Pollock. He increasingly started to use larger canvases (as Pollock did) and whirls of colours were used to paint every inch of the canvas. Very late in life he returned to abstract expressionism and the exhibition fantastically documents his attempts with compositions 29 through to 31. Those four paintings dominate the wall, with an energy and wizardry that only a master artist could produce. His subtle homage to Pollock came yet again as he infused a great deal of white into his work often completing works and then adding white right at the end.

Rashid Chowdhury at work, 1951

While he has continuously painted throughout his career, he is possibly better known as the pioneer of establishing sculpture as a medium of modern art. He led the sculpture movement as a practitioner and notable teacher, constantly learning and passing on his wisdom to his students. He was the driving force behind the institutional establishment of sculpture and he was an inspiration to a whole generation of sculptors. The exhibition also included a fair number of his sculptures from different periods of his life. From 'Head of Woman' in 1964 to 'Composition-22' in 2000 there is a decent selection of his sculptures which one might consider quite representative of his work. This is where the exhibition really comes together, from his very early watercolours to his large oils to his sculptures, it captures the very essence of the artist. This is possibly the most exhaustive retrospective ever put together in Bangladesh and is the second of such high quality since Shafiuddin's in late June. It is a feast for the eyes and provides a fantastic look into the life and works of one of Bangladesh's most celebrated artists.

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