An article by the late British novelist J. G. Ballard recently made me think about a growing trend in new Pakistani art, particularly contemporary miniature painting. In the article, Ballard writes about the ultimate failure of modern architecture to find lasting favour in the human heart with its austere, joyless forms that lend so little to the celebration and drama of life. “I have always admired modernism and wish the whole of London could be rebuilt in the style of Michael Manser’s brilliant Heathrow Hilton,” he writes in The Guardian in an essay titled Modernists and Death. “But I know that most people, myself included, find it difficult to be clear-eyed at all times and rise to the demands of a pure and unadorned geometry. Architecture supplies us with camouflage, and I regret that no one could fall in love inside the Heathrow Hilton. By contrast, people are forever falling in love inside the Louvre and the National Gallery,” he adds.
From an author — some of whose own literary works are set in visually resplendent but ravenous tropical and concrete jungles (The Crystal World and High-Rise, respectively) — a lament for the death of atmospheric detail can be expected and understood. He is mourning the loss of embellishment and ambience, of the ‘illusions’ that we need to “protect us, even if the protection takes the form of finials and cartouches, Corinthian columns and acanthus leaves.”
His ruminations reinforced the unease I had been feeling for some time at the rather unchecked proliferation of a category of local art that is characterised by crisply painted miscellanea on pure, white surfaces not worked upon in the least. These assorted, immaculately painted items are unconnected to each other and ungrounded in time, atmosphere or meaning.
Isolated images on flat, white backgrounds are a troubling sign of our dwindling interest as a society in imaginative storytelling
They are clip art, orphan visuals, the unnervingly generic illustrations of alphabet books — a mango from nowhere, a pair of leg-less pants with tactile creases frozen on them, an old man without a name or story or direction to shuffle off in, drawn rigidly out in overexposed permanence.
There is never a background. The light is stark, cold and steady. The shadows are always measured, just right for a little taste of trompe l’oeil, never dark and hungry enough to convey terror, never powdery enough to evoke the bleached and round-edged world of memory. Sometimes, there are no shadows at all.
There is something forensic about these paintings. The skilfully painted heads of hair, the shoes, chairs and flowers, the breasts and limbs picked and painted at random, look like samples from a laboratory, divested of all connections to a past or present, wrung of emotion, lifeless, voiceless, stretched out without a tremor for the world to see.
It is curious but it seems that ‘contemporary’ is being taken by a staggering majority of artists to mean this formulaic painting of sterile worlds.
Why is so much of our contemporary art, in general, so devoid of mood and stories? Is it because artists have begun to rely on their viewers to furnish the vacant spaces of their art with stories? Is it because storytelling through art is discouraged, even ridiculed, at an institutional level? Or is it simply because the absence of a setting is now equated with minimalism, which is chic and sells more? We are the inheritors of a magnificent, illustrative tradition that has combined roots in Persian, Mughal and Rajput ateliers.
We may have revived the techniques of these artistic workshops but we seem to have lost their great flair for imaginative scene-setting. One can’t help but long, sometimes, for the mysterious groves and moonlit nights of those paintings that were so fitting for lovers’ meetings and partings.
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 14th, 2017