Beauty and the best
By: Quddus Mirza
Reports of dying peacocks have been rife in recent days. Although not related to the migration of Hindus from the same areas, both became “breaking news” on the media which is otherwise focused on courtroom battles and the ensuing commentaries.
Before appearing on our TV sets, peacock was present in our art, too. Historically, the miniature painters picked this bird to depict a number of ideas and narratives. Perhaps the most famous miniature with peacock is the ‘Peafowl’ painted in ca.1610 and attributed to Mansur, the master painter from Emperor Jehangir’s court. Along with this, the bird was represented repeatedly in Pahari, Rajasthani and other schools of miniature, illustrating a range of ragas and religious themes.
Heir to Indian miniature painting, the modern art of Pakistan has a peculiar approach towards the peacock. Admired as a sign of beauty with its attractive colours merging from one shade to the next, and patterns on his tail which appear majestic when the bird spreads it out, the peacock has not been painted much by our artists. One only comes across textile motifs, jewellery pieces and other products from various fields of design and craft inspired from peacock colours but certainly not in the realm of visual art.
The only exception, perhaps, was the art of Askari Mian Irani. The late painter frequently incorporated hues, forms and patterns derived from peacock’s tail along with elements from Islamic calligraphy, amulets and numerology. In a number of paintings, he also drew peacocks either with princesses or perched on some architectural structure. Other than him, no one seems interested in using this symbol of beauty and repository of chromatic variety (the commercial calligraphic painting is obviously excluded from the discussion).
There could be more than one reason for this lack of keenness to include peacocks in art; perhaps the artists’ ideas of beauty may provide a clue for neglecting this subject. The mere fact that peacock is an emblem of beauty may be why it’s absent from our present art. This is an indication of how a creative person thinks and operates regarding aesthetics. For an artist, who is searching for ideal forms, the question of beauty is crucial on all levels (in matters of love, relationships, physical appearance and objects in his environment). He desires to be surrounded with pretty women (one can recall the name of Sadequain, the dervish artist in this regard) and wants beautiful items around him but, when it comes to art, he avoids real beauty. Although there are cases where artists have painted beautiful models, those works are not valued for this reason. For example, the most famous portrait since Renaissance, Mona Lisa, is not appreciated for its pretty face but for enigmatic smile. In many instances, the presence of beauty often mars the creative capabilities of a painter.
Actually, the matter of beauty is extremely complex for a creative individual, since he is more inclined to represent beauty than to reproduce it. He is seeking to shape a work of art that has its separate standard of beauty (because what is beauty if it is not admired by millions across cultures and ages) and, in doing so, if he encounters absolute beauty, it may influence and affect his own vision and aesthetics. So the struggle is to create a sense of beauty independent of nature.
The artists are inspired by the beauty of nature or humans but when they portray a landscape or a figurative composition, they do not replicate the most magnificent side of their chosen subject. Thus a landscape by John Constable, Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne or Khalid Iqbal does not reflect the most beautiful view of a scene (often it is the other way around) nor does a figurative canvas of Vermeer, Rembrandt, David Hockney or Jamil Naqsh present the best of human body. Instead, these artists are aiming for a concept of beauty that exists beyond and above its familiar examples and accepted manifestations.
That is the reason the artists, instead of copying pretty subjects or objects, try to construct meta-beauty which, in most cases, can be a way of defacing real beauty, like in the canvases of Pablo Picasso and Lucian Freud. Hence artistic beauty is beyond and independent of the physical beauty of our daily experiences. So, in several works, the artists are not even inclined to look at the attractiveness of things because they are aware that their art will introduce and imbibe a new version of beauty, more important than other such entities found in nature and man-made surroundings.
Therefore, in contemporary art, the artists are more concerned about issues like terror, tyranny, power and poverty. What keeps them engaged are themes such as war, destruction, dehumanisation and alienation. Dark colours, depressing characters and disgusting narratives reoccur in their art pieces because these provide a substance to extrapolate. Thus they make works which are valued for their level of excellence. They have moved away from the pursuit of prettiness, indulging in themes and imagery that demands brilliance, perfection and professionalism of another kind.