Face Study, watercolour on card, inscribed by Arif Chughtai; Rahmen Chughtai (sic.) on reverse, framed, 42 x 42cm (16 9/16 x 16 9/16in).
Provenance: Private collection, Salzburg, Austria; presented by the artist to the original owner and thence by descent.
It has often been reported that A.R. Chughtai never painted from life, did not make portraits nor hire models. Instead, he would stare intently at a passer-by in the street or cause discomfort with his piercing gaze to young women at social gatherings. It was also said that he held a myriad of faces in his mind, accruing a vast memory bank of expressions and appearance which he could access at will. Similar studies housed in the Chughtai Museum, Lahore, suggest that after observing a desired visage the artist would return to his studio and render a quick study of it. These colour sketches were clearly not meant for sale but were executed for personal reference and from time to time were presented to friends or family as gifts. As a body of work they record his experimentations and influences, emanating a spontaneity and realism rarely found in the works destined for the public eye.
Chughtai commenced these studies during his second extended visit to Europe in 1936/37. Some reveal his close scrutiny of European modern art in museums and galleries in London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna. Allusions to, rather than copies of, impressionist and post-impressionist painters, such as Van Gogh, Matisse, Munch and, above all, Modigliani, grace some works from what has been labelled by Marcella Bedford Nesom, his Fourth Period of production (1935-1949), thus augmenting his syncretic visual vocabulary assimilated from Persian and Mughal miniatures, Japanese woodblock prints, Hindu and Buddhist painting.
Face Study embodies the image of a young woman with dark tresses and long neck rising elegantly from her plain purple dress, set against a simple geometric background washed with sienna and Windsor orange. Overall the hues are muted. The head is rendered as a long overemphasized oval, cocked and tilted upward, whilst her gaze focuses on the viewer. This language is familiar from Modigliani, the shape of the head recalls Brancusi who in turn had influence Modigliani's long stylised faces. The young woman, however, if ever she was based on a European model, is quintessentially Chughtai.
1936 and 1937, the years of Chughtai's second European journey, were heady years for art. The American expressionists were beginning to establish themselves in Paris; the French Surrealists achieved international acclaim with a major exhibition in London in 1936; Picasso unveiled Guernica at the Paris World Fair in 1937, and Hitler put on his Degenerate Art exhibition unwittingly bringing early twentieth century modern art to an appreciative public. Significantly, the Zwemmer Gallery off Charing Cross Road, London's leading commercial exhibition space for European and American modern art at the time, exhibited 50 drawings by Modigliani from the end of June 1936 consisting primarily of quickl-executed line drawings of women.
Chughtai arrived in Marseilles by ship in the early summer of 1936 where he was met by his German girlfriend Else Hűffner and her sister Hanna. The three of them travelled to London, where Chughtai enrolled at the London School of Photo Engraving to perfect his etching and aquatint techniques. It is highly likely that Chughtai would not have attended the exhibition at Zwemmer's. He stayed in London until the following year, after which he toured the continent by following the exhibition trail and spending considerable time in Germany and Austria.
Throughout his career, Chughtai insisted on describing himself as a modern painter, however critics disagreed. After all, they argued, his complete rejection of western modernism, his use of miniature painting (which was then still viewed as craft not art) to construct a pan-Islamic artistic identity was downright anachronistic. The fact that Chughtai formally denied western modern art as a viable alternative for his own practice is evident and has its roots in his desire to create an artistic style free from colonial influences. The notion that he rejected the modern in art however, must be revised. Today Chughtai is beginning to be regarded as a predecessor to the avant-garde miniaturists graduating from Lahore's National College of Art over the last two decades. Not only have they re-inflamed the old debate among art historians on the boundaries between modernity and tradition but are posthumously vindicating Chughtai's vision.
I would like to thank Arif Chughtai for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.