By Izeth Hussain –
This is the first of a series of articles that the writer wants to write on literature and the other arts, with the focus on the relation of the arts to the world outside the arts, hopefully to be published in this column and elsewhere. Ifthikar Cader is holding his fifth exhibition of paintings at the Lionel Wendt Gallery on March 18 and 19. His first exhibition was in 1996, and he is now well-established as a Sri Lanka painter with a circle of local and foreign enthusiasts.
His could be regarded as a most unlikely success story considering his background. A Thomian, vastly proud of the old school, a ruggerite like his elder brother the legendary Ashy, his younger brother Zackroff captained the Thomian team at cricket, and after leaving school Ifthikar became a habitué of the CR and FC club. Worse followed. He shone at the gem trade until he retired at the age of 57 and took to painting. But who could take him seriously as a painter with his kind of past the ethos of which was so remote from that of the arts: muddied oafs and flannelled fools at school followed by success in business and the hedonistic life-style of a man about town? Actually he is what is known as a “cultured Muslim”, a graduate of the London School of Economics, who has had a passion for painting from his schooldays. But in taking to painting he committed yet another faux pas by focusing on the representational which has been out of fashion for decades in Sri Lanka, though he is quite capable of turning out impressive abstracts. So, he has understandably had difficulty in getting due recognition as a serious painter.
In Sri Lanka as elsewhere what tends to prevail in the art world is the fashionable: the showily meretricious that is in accord with the taste of the time will tend to be preferred to the authentic that isn’t in accord with it. What was authentic in Ifthikar as a painter made him choose the representational, and he paid for that by failing to get due recognition. A further point to be made is that here as elsewhere the tendency to form coteries and belong to privileged in-groups could decide the fate of painters. In this connection the fate of Fareed Uduman is most instructive: he merited a position among the foremost Sri Lankan painters of the last century, but he worked as a Hansard reporter, didn’t move in the right circles, and was consequently ignored by the art world of his time. Also most instructive is an article on Uduman by Ellen Dissanayake in an Island issue of May 2005 –easily accessible on the internet – in which she referred to the power of the 43 Group and its successors, to whom she referred as “gentlemen of almost exclusively Sinhalese and Burgher Christian background”.
The present writer has no prejudice against the abstract and the experimental in the visual arts. Who with eyes can fail to feel life-enhanced by the delightful animation to be experienced in Mondrian’s Boogie-woogie – to take just one example at random? But in the course visiting a great many galleries in Paris over a period of five years in the ‘sixties, the writer came to believe that if the abstract and the experimental in the visual arts is pushed too far it becomes non-art. The point was made by Wyndham Lewis in his Demon of Progress in the Arts: he should have known because he painted some of the best abstracts of the last century. Lewis also made the point that if anyone could draw with the power of a Michelangelo he would never waste his time with the meaningless dots and squiggles that were increasingly figuring in the paintings of the ‘fifties.
The present writer holds that two things should be expected of a painter who like Ifthikar focuses on the unfashionably representational. One is that he should be able to draw. According to a painter who taught art for decades, Ifthikar can draw while many who indulge in the experimental can’t. The other is that his paintings should show some of the influences that flow from what has been accomplished in the visual arts since the time of the old masters. He shouldn’t be painting exactly in the manner of, say, Holbein or Jan Van Eyck who meticulously set down what he saw at the wedding of Arnolfini. Ifthikar clearly shows the influence of the impressionists in his landscapes and also, unexpectedly, that of abstract art as will be demonstrated shortly. The best exemplar of what the writer has in mind is Picasso. He eschewed the representational only during his relatively brief cubist period while the rest of his output shows the influence of the great masters of the past.
This writer will take as illustrations two of Ifthikar’s more recent paintings, one of which images a glorious sunset on Sri Lanka’s East Coast. There are three layers to the painting, at the bottom the earth, above it the sea, and above that the sky. The portrayal of the earth looks representational but it is not traditional realism. The portrayal of the sea is clearly influenced by the impressionist masters, while that of the sky looks abstract expressionist. The latter reminds this writer of the skyscapes of Turner who might be regarded as the originator of abstract expressionism. There could also be a fourth influence, a subconscious one perhaps, behind the painting shown in its structuring in three layers going upwards, which reminds the writer of many paintings of Nicolas de Stahl who certainly inspired one of Ifthikar’s abstracts. The whole painting gets its power, for this writer, by its imaging of a process of transcendence, from dark earth to shimmering sea to glorious sky.
The second painting is Water Lilies at Bolgoda. The influence of the late paintings of the great impressionist master Claude Monnet is quite obvious. But the painting is not imitative because there is something else in it which is not usually there in a typical painting by Monnet and the other great impressionist masters. For the writer the painting gets its power from the way the light in the tree trunks retreats into the dark in the background. The writer is reminded of one of the most hauntingly beautiful poems in the English language, Edward Thomas’ The Green Roads. In a good poem every detail is supposed to fit in with every other but it seems difficult to fit in the white goose feathers that are strewn at the edge of the forest with the rest of the poem. The point is in the contrast between the white symbolizing life against the dark and death symbolized by the forest. It is the dark that gives edge to what is light and beautiful in life. We have to suspect that something dark entered the life of Ifthikar which has made him a painter worth taking seriously.
The preceding paragraph raises the question what makes a good work of art a good work of art. It has to be alive and life-giving, but what makes it so? Lorca thought that it had to have “duende”, the dark notes. Trained as he was as a concert pianist, he could recognize what was execrable in music but he wrote of an Italian girl who sang and danced to the wretched Italian ditty “O Marie” and made of it something utterly lovely. His explanation was that that performance had duende in it. Actually that explains nothing because Lorca was referring to an ineffable something that defies definition. But we can say that something dark has to enter an artist’s life to make him really creative. That seems to have happened to Ifthikar Cader, the erstwhile muddied oaf, tycoon, and man about town.