Irfan and I were batch fellows at the National College of Arts, Lahore. He chose the miniature department and I chose painting as my major. Paths took different turns after graduation and I kept on hearing about Irfan Hasan’s success and his technique. Some artists mentioned to me here and there how they were taking classes from him to learn the scheme of his art.
After a long day’s work in our own respective departments at NCA, Irfan and I head out to his studio as planned. The famous Zahoor Elahi Road is serene and grand as usual when Irfan turns his car, staring to this ‘mile’ of a drive-way. We were chitchatting in the car about his transition from Lahore to Karachi and then back and he mentions how Lahore is much cheaper, comfortable and residential spaces are accessible. I can’t agree more upon reaching the studio. The jolly cocker-spaniels which belong to the landlords downstairs greet us warmly. And we reach the compact upper portion of this lush acre of space and greenery. The place is all about truth of material, raw and contemporary/creative finishes – humble, intelligent; it belongs to a man with ‘his own’ taste. He shows me the place; the rooms are situated one after the other with a cozy lounge and dining space in the center. The split level stairs lead to a large roof-top/balcony, a dream with the mammoth view of greenness and old trees which know Lahore more than anyone alive!
There is art and literature on the walls and in the shelves and while having nihari on the dining table we discuss how as a young man Irfan found guidance and an instructive world of the art in the Fabbri series. For him they came as the bible of anatomy and portrait. He was seduced by the brilliance they were painted in. Kenneth Clark’s The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form helped him further in mastering this genre. As a young child Irfan was fortunate – his grandfather was the writer of the famous Pakistani film Aina, the literati Bashir Niaz true to his nurturing elderly role would tell Irfan not to go through certain books in the shelf. And Irfan made sure to go through them… they included Manto’s novels. Irfan’s brother was in the army and as a child he had access to the true representation of the macho male figure where Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with their famous art personality names and Rambo, Schwarzenegger stickers were his rapture. This all fortified the love for figure and humanbody.
The commonwealth scholarship in Calcutta came as an unforgettable note in history. After ninety-nine years a Pakistani artist was chosen/invited after the legendary Chughtai. In Calcutta a great political climax was in the air just when he saw the longest of que on the road only to find out that it was a public toilet and not anything to do with politics. The dichotomy and humor in time and space inspired a new work.
Detail is almost a ‘muse’ to Irfan. The Curve in the little finger of the idealized female form through Greek and Roman mastery of art are like a fetish for Irfan. He confesses, “almost all my girlfriends had that curve in the small finger, what they looked like came after!” J.W. Waterhouse’s sheer ability to paint the human body with the study of light with skin was so dynamic that it made him explore further and he indulged wholeheartedly. Stretching upon the technique and influences we reflect on detail, the fundamentals of color and harmony, the gradient and infinity of tone in skin, from Vandyke’s marvelous color pallet to the fresh Naples yellow flesh tint. Aesthetic decisions and a psycho/obsessive work routine where the conclusion of work makes him extremely restless -The intention, concern, concept, technique varies and changes with need and time. The nature of the show decides where the work is going. Irfan saw Chuck Close at MET and it was detail-to- kill, the grandeur and perfection overwhelmed… from Lucid Frued’s powerful texture in paint to William Adolf Hore’s elaborate-mythological content with Nymphs. Irfan Idealizes Rembrandt’s tone of skin in work. He has tried to almost-scientifically evaluate and measure the tonality in the masterworks he admires and created them for himself.
In college everyone expected Irfan to take painting as his major but he took on miniature as a challenge – it was almost like a fear that he wanted to overcome – temperament, precision, patience, training – it was a tide that stood against him and he took it on to make it his own. The methods and styles of old masters have been important lessons for Irfan. National College of Arts came as an island of newness and learning. Along with his regular classes and studio practice Irfan helped his seniors and apprenticed with Aqeel Solangi; these seniors and friends gave him insights into studio-culture and practice and he closely looked at their individualistic methods of work.
We talk about materiality and Irfan shared an incident where his first-year sculpture class teacher told him that he was not finishing the work properly and it should be smoothened. Irfan argued that the raw/loose, molding/finishing of clay patches reminded him of Rodin’s technique and added to the form, and the teacher responded “you think you are Rodin”. Jamil Baloch came as the juror and gave the highest grade to the head-sculpture that Irfan had made. He appreciated Irfan’s understanding and usage of clay to its utmost potential. Human instinct and intuition are crucial in the artist’s practice; the difference between machine and man is this: that the human hand decides its course with senses and not programed data.
Choosing the miniature also had one similar reason behind it. Irfan was enthused by the origin of watercolour as a material and its relevance to the east. He felt there was a free space out there to explore the medium and its open dynamics. Oil paint, he claims, has travelled to this part of the world but watercolour began from here and we need to understand its complex sensibility. Elaborating more, Irfan shares how he feels that patience doesn’t have anything to do with medium – it is for every man, his own.
Figurative art is the backbone of his practice and it takes me to a line from Dante: “He who paints a figure, if he cannot be it, cannot draw it.” This positive obsessiveness stands true to Irfan’s practice. To start, with Irfan excavated all that was visibly human in art history… from the Renaissance to the Impressionists. Monet was not good with drawing and so he began another exploration and touched its pinnacle – Picasso was looking at Degas work and he played a vital role for his understanding of art…He stresses upon the ‘Masters’ highlights and how light set its own narrative in all art. William Bouguereau’s Equality Before Death comes into the discussion at this point. As he talks about the oneness of life, how death and birth go hand in hand and how one can’t ignore the other. In the work he painted the dead body of his own father. Being so impressed by a work that one tweaks the composition and technique to the point where it becomes your own may seem like the easy way out and while discussing it with Irfan I have some preconceived notions but they all vanish with one word…his sheer ‘love’ for drawing them himself. Irfan has done his own versions of historically and aesthetically eminent art. Origin of the World, The Sleepers by Courbet and many more add to his list of favorites. The masterworks are marvels of skill, subject and composition and Irfan deconstructs them in newfound ways. Technique prevails and becomes the environment on its own. I ask him about obsession for flesh and he says “flesh is with us, close to us, the taste and smell, its toxic and surreal and there’s no escape – we are in it all the time” We talk about preferences, favorites and visual treats and Courbet as a bold and explicit artist is discussed – his oomph and his self-portrait with the cigar where he presented himself the way he actually was – and wanted the world to see. His painting with the wrestlers is a remarkable tribute to anatomy and the art of figure.
Sitting with Maria Khan and Irfan Hassan in Irfan’s studio-cum-bedroom for the time, Aamir Habib’s techno-conceptual circular work flashing its lights behind the mattress-bed we are seated on – the large customized easel with pixels of flesh jarring out for reality – I asked Irfan when he thinks the obsession for body will fade – and not to my surprise … the answer is: NEVER.
Images courtesy Irfan Hasan.
Sehr Jalil Raja is a visual artist and writer based in Lahore (BFA, NCA 2006) and (MA Hons Visual Arts, NCA 2014). She is currently teaching at NCA.
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