While Husain’s interest in Indian cultural traditions is clearly relevant to his art it is not what marks him out as an outstanding painter. Husain’s predilection for mythological subject matter means that for the most part he has been a narrative painter. The ability to tell a story in a single image requires particular skills and Husain excels at them. From the reflective mood of Nude Women Abstract to the energy and terror of Wounds, it is clear that Husain has a masterful grip on the pictorial elements of line, colour and form and an ability to convey a range of emotions convincingly. But to paint narratives an artist also needs an acute sense of imagination and composition. In his most ambitious works the positioning of figures in relation to one another and the space and objects around them is often startlingly complex but rarely confused. Indeed it is through this complexity that his paintings often gain the extraordinary narrative richness that has marked Husain out as a major figure.
It often used to be said that Husain was the only artist among the post-Independence generation who had an international reputation. While there are now others joining him on that stage, it is worth reflecting on what that means. To have such a position suggests not merely that audiences in other countries know Husain’s work, but that they find it relevant. There is an irony in this, as Husain is also the one artist commonly identified as engaging most closely with what is called the ‘indigenous’ culture of India, and may therefore be considered the least international in subject matter. Ultimately, however, such ranking of individuals is a diversion. What matters and all that most artists want is for their work to be looked at without preconception or prejudice. For a long time modern art from India had a low profile in Britain and there were many reasons for this, some to do with the individuals involved, some cultural and some historic. Perhaps, as the world changes and new histories are written, a new audience is emerging.
Husain first became well-known as an artist in the late 1940s. In 1947, he joined the Progressive Artists’ Group, founded by Francis Newton Souza. This was a clique of young artists who wished to break with the nationalist traditions established by the Bengal school of art and to encourage an Indian avant-garde, engaged at an international level. In 1952, his first solo exhibition was held at Zürich and over the next few years, his work was widely seen in Europe and U.S. In 1955, he was awarded the prestigious Padma Shree prize by the Government of India.