Like many artists of his generation, Syed Haider Raza’s life and oeuvre was influenced by the specific historical context in which he started out on his artistic career. After half a century of political turmoil India was finally declared independent on 15 August 1947, putting an end to centuries of British colonial rule, but also leading to the partition of the subcontinent. At that time, Raza, only 25 years old, had moved to Bombay to study at the Sir J.J. School of Art. It was with the artists he met in Bombay that Raza joined the newly founded Progressive Artists' Group. Self-declared as pioneers of Modern Indian Art, this handful of artists, and Raza in particular, are regarded as emblematic figures who personified and encouraged the emergence of new artistic forms in South Asia, building a bridge between the iconographies, styles and techniques of East and West.
Gestation was painted in 1989, during the period considered the apogee of the artist’s vision. Works from this period represent an artistic return to Raza’s Indian culture after he had traveled across the world and lived in France for more than five decades, enriching his artistic horizons with the avant-garde forms he saw and experienced in Europe and the United States.
Raza started his international journey travelling to France in 1950 on a scholarship from the French Government to study art at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts in Paris. While in Paris he was exposed to the wide range of continental artistic movements, with which he engaged both creatively and intellectually. Like Zao Wou-Ki, whom he met in Paris, he became a central figure of the Second École de Paris, a generation which defined itself by a relentless determination and willingness to engage in a struggle to transcend tradition and Western artistic idioms. His unique vision soon garnered him critical attention, and in 1956, Raza became the first non-French artist to win the Prix de la Critique award.
By the time he painted the present lot, however, Raza had moved away from the tangible landscapes and fluid brushstrokes that characterised his earlier work, to turn towards more sacred geometries of form. Using complex arrangements of basic shapes and primary colors, he channeled Indic cosmology and Tantric art in these abstract visual meditations. He began to use the elemental form of the bindu as a compositional starting point to capture the essence of Nature on his canvas. In Hindu mythology, this black dot represents the cosmic egg or primordial seed of nothingness from which all creation is born – the gestation process after which this important painting is titled. From this focal point, Raza adopted a codified and symbolic language, using line, form and palette to represent different aspects of the natural world making the works intrinsically representative. According to the artist’s biographer Geeti Sen, in Raza’s works "Geometrical forms are used to map the universe. Here, the vocabulary of pure plastic form acquires an integral purpose: to relate the shape and rhythm of these forms to Nature." (G. Sen, Bindu: Space and Time in Raza's Vision, New Delhi, 1997, p. 118)
This monumental painting melds the inverted chevron pattern used by Raza to indicate trees with the warm colour palette of the earth. Raza's concern with the principles of pure geometry is equaled by his fascination for colour and its potent symbolism. “I have interpreted the universe in terms of five primary colours: black, white, red, blue and yellow. A total chromatic expression can be
achieved by mixing primary colours with other secondary colours, such as greens, browns, and ochres. From there you can move to a great austerity of colours till you come to a supreme purity of form." (G. Sen, Bindu: Space and Time in Raza's Vision, New Delhi, 1997, pp. 127-128)
In a strictly formal sense, these geometrical works seems to bear some resemblance to the geometric abstraction paintings his American contemporaries were championing at that time. In 1962 while teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, Raza was indeed deeply impacted by the work of Abstract Expressionists Sam Francis, Hans Hofmann and Mark Rothko. However, while these artists were part of a theoretical discussion on the Formalist movement, Raza’s work addresses a more spiritual context. The circle becomes less of a graphical component and more of a central point representing concentrated energy. Formally, it becomes the principle around which Raza structures his canvases with this compositional construct having age-old precedents in meditative aids such as yantras and mandalas.
At the root of Syed Haider Raza's paintings lies a strong tie to nature and to the forests of Madhya Pradesh where he was born. In
Gestation, even if far from representational, the concept of nature remains pervasive and integral to the composition. The son of a forest ranger, Raza grew up in the lush Narmada River valley, and nature played a central role in the artist’s life from a very young age. Painted in 1989, Gestation emanates an inherent rhythm and elegance, making it one of the finest and most striking examples of painting in his oeuvre. Raza captures the beauty of the Indian landscape while offering to himself and to his viewer a visual map to guide its meditative contemplation.
and dated ‘RAZA ‘89’ (lower right); further signed, dated, inscribed and titled ‘RAZA / 1989 / 200 X 100 cms. / Acrylique sur toile “GESTATION” (on the reverse)
SYED HAIDER RAZA (INDIA, 1922-2016)
A. Vajpeyi, A Life in Art: Raza , New Delhi, 2007 (unpaginated, illustrated)
Acquired directly from the artist in 1989
Private Collection, France
Christie’s New York, 23 March 2010, lot 40
Acquired from the above by the present owner