Mian Ijaz ul Hassan is one of those rare Pakistani painters who are relentless in pursuing poetry in real life and who, like unabashed Romantics, insist on seeing “a world in a grain of sand/ And a heaven in a wild flower”. True to this simple Romantic ethos, his oeuvre has, for decades now, combated mean-spiritedness on a social level with a felicity of expression and plain persistence. Young painters, take note. The ‘veteran painter’ (as Quddus Mirza aptly titled him during a conversation) was painting on his canvases even up to the moment of their display at the Lahore Art Gallery for an upcoming exhibition. His coat hung on a doorknob and his brushes and oil paints lay almost apologetically on one corner of a bench while he added the final (or nearly final) touches to the lilies and laburnum in a painting.
The body of work ready for display features many new paintings, with some earlier pieces lending support like an arbor does to a vine. Incidentally climbing plants are a much-loved symbol of the artist and here they seem to have transcended the distinctions of individual, representational plant forms and become motifs – unifying threads running through the tapestry that is the artist’s visual output. In a way their increased likeness to motifs can be seen as the artist’s deeper understanding of depicting the slippery and varying force that is nature.
He seems to have captured many of the recurring strains (having painted it tirelessly for years) and preserved them in a frank and lucid style, with each stem and tendril separate, each leaf neat and traceable, almost like the flora from the designs of William Morris or medieval tapestries.
His halcyon colour palette, built on neutrals and reminiscent of the cheer-enforcing design code of the 50s, leaves the major part of interpretation to the viewer. There are no harsh contrasts, no forced overlays of meaning and no ruptures in the harmonious and almost subconsciously-formed arabesques of leaves. Like poetry, these paintings operate on two levels. To the candid and unaffected eye, they are visually pleasing, and to the inquiring eye, they can provide a number of lateral meanings and associations.
One does not have to be schooled in the symbolic preferences of the artist to take immediately to the rain-soaked lilies, the laburnum tree with its dangling golden ornaments or the large and heavy leaves of the popular Monstera vine. These may or may not represent resilience or nature’s all too fixed cycle of growth, decay and regrowth. What they do represent, in any case, is the delightful diversity that makes up the land around us should we but choose to admire it without relegating its depictions or thinking it prosaic.
Although dominated by the artist’s usual orchard scenes, the show also includes several paintings of demurely inviting water bodies. Like the homegrown plants and flowers which inhabit many of his canvases, these pools of water also bear signs of domestication.
The other category of his paintings deals with social injustice. These paintings feature figures protesting and bemoaning the state of affairs but, in his clear, sunlit tones, and with a strong emphasis on design, they are free of that forced sense of horror that usually accompanies art bent on exhorting a reaction. In one painting, for example, which shows protesting unarmed lawyers being harassed by policemen in riot gear, the canvas is occupied by figures in basic black on one side and figures in blue on the other, on a misleadingly sunny backdrop. The palette, on the whole, is a throwback to Hopper and the movements of the two sets of figures are so complementary that the visual attraction of the piece is in no way compromised by the sourness of the subject.
It is sadly ironic that Mian Ijaz ul Hassan’s attachment to the sun-struck outdoors began during his imprisonment at the Lahore Fort for political activism during Zia’s regime. But the suppression, instead of rendering him permanently dejected, roused a slumbering Pan in him and with such effectiveness that three decades have passed and he is still guarding the groves and the gardens.
The solo exhibition runs from 21 December 2012 to 13 January 2013 at Lahore Art Gallery.
Dua Abbas is a visual artist and writer based in Lahore, Pakistan.