Tribute - Last of the Nudes and Pigeons.
Jamil Naqsh, the Pakistani artist who had become a recluse, passed away in London on May 16, 2019. He was suffering from pneumonia.
He was the man, who blended cubism with a subtle use of colour, but perhaps his subject matter - voluptuous nude women - made his life in an Islamic country like Pakistan, difficult and he moved to London. He did turn to calligraphy in his later years but that didn't quite make much of a dent in his artistic reputation as the practice of art is not a part of the country's national narrative anymore.
Most known for painting nude women with pigeons, Naqsh lived for art. He was known to be a master of texture and he artfully balanced light and space as the background in his paintings. His work is described as idealized and sensual.
At the prime of his career in Pakistan, in the 60s and 70s, Jamil Naqsh was an artist's artist and a much-revered figure in the art community though his brash behaviour did put many people off.
Naqsh was born in Kairana, India and came to Pakistan at the age of nine. In 1954, he joined the Mayo School of Arts and Crafts in Lahore where he was drawn towards miniature painting. His father, the painter Abdul Basit, introduced him to miniature painting. He devoted much of his two years at the National College of Arts in Lahore to do an internship with Mohammad Haji Sharif, the last of the old-guard miniature painters in Pakistan. He did not complete his training under Haji Sharif because he thought he had gained enough experience and the formal qualification did not matter. It is interesting, though, that Jamil Naqsh came to be known not as much for his miniatures as his large canvases.
Naqsh set up his studio in Karachi on a rooftop garden where pigeons were allowed to move around freely and were welcomed as visitors. In addition to Indian and Pakistani artists, he was also influenced by the works of European old masters like Pablo Picasso and the French neo-classicist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. His work has been exhibited extensively in Pakistan, India, the UK and the UAE and has always fetched high prices.
Naqsh's first major exhibition was held in Lahore in 1962. In 1963, an early series of his pigeon artworks were shown at the Karachi Arts Council, followed by a series of 51 paintings with the pigeon theme in 1971. Naqsh claimed no symbolism for his ubiquitous rendering of women and pigeons (usually in combination). But these were depicted both realistically and in abstract. There came a time when he was only recognized for his female nudes and pigeons and many a young artists looking for quick popularity sought to imitate his nude forms and abstract techniques though they did not last much longer. The connoisseur always had a special fondness for the original work of Jamil Naqsh.
While most painters returned to figurative art and realism in the late 1980s, Jamil embarked upon a colourful and lyrical series of non-objective work. In the 1990s, he introduced the image of the horse juxtaposed with nude female forms. A large retrospective exhibition of his work was held in 2004 in the Mohatta Palace Museum in Karachi, and in 2006 his work was included in the New Delhi exhibition Euphonic Palettes showing the common heritage of Indian and Pakistani painters.
Naqsh seemed to be moved by the subject of women and the pigeon and relished painting erotic female nudes. In fact, the "Picasso pigeons" exemplified his fondness for Picasso and cubism. Pigeons had a deep personal meaning for him. As a child, he saw them flying in and out of the courtyard of the family house. They reminded him of traditional family life which he was deprived of upon his mother's early death, followed by the violence of Partition.
Naqsh was also an accomplished draftsman. He exhibited great skills in pencil, pen and ink, water colour, oil and mixed media. His early figurative work was slightly abstract, reflecting the influence of another mentor, Shakir Ali. Naqsh's colour schemes were often monochromatic or bichromatic in brilliant blues and reds. Other paintings in lighter, more neutral tones, suggested the influence of painter Ali Imam.
In 1994, Naqsh opened the Momart Gallery in Karachi and several of the young artists he had mentored exhibited their work there. Dedicating the exhibition to sculptor Marino Marini, he exhibited 150 works titled Woman and Horse. In 1999 a group of distinguished art enthusiasts inaugurated an adjacent gallery as the Jamil Naqsh Museum with a permanent collection of the artist's work. In 2013 the venue shifted to a building designed by his son Cezanne Naqsh in Clifton. His daughter Mona Naqsh is also a celebrated water colourist.
Jamil Naqsh spent the last years of his life quietly in London. With his passing away, Pakistan has lost the last of its great painters. While many of them left behind legacies of their artistic work that collectors and art galleries lapped up for millions of rupees, none of them endeavoured to set up art traditions that could serve as beacons of light for the coming generations. No wonder, with the major artists gone, art too has died in Pakistan.