On Iqbal Geoffrey – Collage of life

PARTHA CHATTERJEE

Pakistani artist Iqbal Geoffrey is much more than a witty collage-maker: his world is, artistically and socially, a cosmopolitan one.

PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Image on the rigth: Self-portrait: Man of Steel Massage of Love.

IQBAL GEOFFREY is both a singular artist and a singular character. His work over the past 50 years has been marked by complete integrity and an artistic vision that is uniquely his own. There is no other artist like him in the subcontinent or, for that matter, anywhere else.

His critics may dismiss him as a witty and clever collage-maker but he is, to be sure, much more than that. He is not a hedgehog like the American Abstractionists Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Joseph Albers, Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns. Of course, the collage is his mainstay, and that makes him as acerbic a social critic as Honore Daumier and Constantine Guy were in 19th century France. Unlike the above-mentioned Abstractionists, who did one thing very well, Geoffrey can be quite versatile when he wants to. This is probably because he has never ceased to draw human figure or landscape or, for that matter, objects, which usually form a part of his collages, though not always. He can, therefore, do many things proficiently.



Pink and black suite.

Geoffrey is also a barrister-at-law and an honours graduate of the Harvard Law School. He is a dedicated advocate of vox populi or the voice of the people. His championing of the freedom of speech and expression as a lawyer has also influenced his work in a decisive way. A master of the play of words, his collages, though full of play, invariably have an underlying seriousness that cannot be ignored.

I met him in Delhi more than 20 years ago. When Geoffrey talked in his infectious, informal manner about post-conceptual art, its importance in the history of 20th century Western art, it did not sink in immediately; neither did the connection between his art and his training as a lawyer who had always challenged the status quo. Then, as now, he led a double life – as an artist and as a public-interest lawyer. Sensing my reservation about manipulating existing art works to yield new meanings, he explained the nature of his own work thus: “Like putting a nipple in Monalisa’s mouth.” Only when I saw his work did its enduring merit make itself apparent to me.



The great American Landscape, oil on canvas with collage – 1965 (Slide courtesy: Cornell University, Ithaca, New York).

Zoha Haider, editor of the book The Art of Iqbal Geoffrey, says: “Sir Herbert Reid [British art historian] has described him as an ‘astonishing phenomenon’ and in 1964 dedicated a lecture at Wesleyan University in Connecticut to ‘Iqbal Geoffrey who has entered into an exclusive destiny’.” Like his famous predecessors from the French avant-garde in the early 20th century, Marcel Duschamp (who, incidentally, became an admirer of Geoffrey’s art in his old age) and Man Ray (Jewish American artist), Geoffrey did not stop at doing mischievous things to startle the bourgeoisie, such as burning American currency notes (which did not amuse the Americans). Geoffrey’s irascibility did not exactly endear him to the art establishment in the West with its notions of a carefully shepherded modernity.

His mastery over words puts him in the Joycean tradition – a dangerous precept for a visual artist for whom English is at best a second language. Geoffrey, with his well-cut suits and courtly manners, was a disturbing entity for many arbiters of occidental art; they found it impossible to reconcile his ideas with his demeanour. Though they thought he was a troublemaker, they could not touch him because of his financial independence. Of course, some widely respected scholars and connoisseurs of art have stood by him all these years. For them he is a loyal friend and his visual and verbal pranks are tokens of affection.



The First Theme.

Art inspired by 20th-century Western aesthetics must be appreciated for the right reasons – that is, due attention must be paid to the artist’s mind as well as to his/her spirit and the ability to express an idea with visual panache.

Duschamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” is a visual tour de force, but the aesthetic idea behind its execution may or may not be as adventurous as it seems. It could possibly be seen as an attempt to do what individual frames on a strip of cine film do, but with one difference – that is, when a film strip is run through the projector at a given speed, one gets an illusion of motion. So then, what was Duschamp trying to say? The mystery of his painting lies in this not knowing. A similar interpretation may be given to a “found object”, a polished white public urinal, in his art. What would one say about Man Ray’s display of an Underwood typewriter with its black cover tantalisingly up?

Of course, one could indulge in ‘aesthetic prudery’ and say that both Duschamp and Ray were attention-seeking dabblers. But there is one stumbling block – their impeccable technical credentials. Both knew how to draw the human figure well, and also the intricacies of perspective drawing, among other things.



A dead heat in a Zeppilin Race (After Pablo Picasso).

Geoffrey is similarly accomplished. There are many drawings, including a self-portrait, to substantiate the claim. He is an artist of the real world who has to make surreal connections with it in his pursuit of what he considers to be the artistic truth, or what he might like to call an unending procession of truths, each different from the other, expressed through the medium of art.

The trouble with what emerged as art in the last 100 years is that it is subjective – certainly much more subjective than the art preceding the French Impressionists of the 1870s. To digress from Geoffrey for a moment, it was that remarkable draughtsman Amedeo Modigliani who first drew critics’ flak in the 20th century for drawing ugly heads. But history has judged differently: few others have rendered the human face with all its complexities, which constitute its soul, better than Modigliani. Pablo Picasso, who could draw like a Renaissance Master and turn his hand to anything during his Cubist phase, was accused of perpetrating ugliness. Henri De Toulouse Lautrec, the father of modern Western drawing, was shunned by his aristocrat father not because he remained a dwarf after breaking his legs in childhood but for what he considered in his gifted son to be a penchant for sordidness. Lautrec became a chronicler of the Parisian night life – which was not meant for prudes.

Geoffrey’s locus standi in art can be questioned by fuddy-duddies because of his passionate devotion to the collage as a valid form of artistic expression. They forget that Picasso and his contemporary Georges Braque did some of their most expressive work through the medium of collage. In the hands of a master, a collage can conjure up whole worlds and Geoffrey has been doing just that for the past 50 years or more.



A brand New Collage as a New Wakeup Call No. 13.

The world that he inhabits artistically and socially is a cosmopolitan one. He is a citizen of the world though he is formally a citizen of Pakistan, a country whose destiny both intrigues and deeply affects him. While recognising art’s healing potential for the wounds inflicted on the human psyche by physical violence, among other things, Geoffrey also realises that the undertaking of such a project is an idealistic one. His cosmopolitanism does not preclude his own cultural heritage, which has its roots in undivided Punjab, the land into which the Ravi, Sutlej, Chenab, Beas and Jhelum rivers flowed. These five also, over time, came to symbolise the diverse cultural influences of the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh faiths that gave birth to a creative, nourishing composite culture. The strong Sufi influence in this culture is best understood in the poetry of Shah Husain, Sultan Bahu and Bulleh Shah.

In our times, the compassionate message of the Sufis finds its most dynamic expression in the collages of Geoffrey; this may sound paradoxical, for he juxtaposes unlikely visual elements from the real world to arrive at the essence or abstraction. The Sufis recommend just that – the arrival at the essence of all experience! This Darya Mein Fana Ho Jana, or merging with every droplet of water in the universe, is something that Geoffrey has internalised. But the process for this arrival, in the main, has been fun.

Geoffrey is au fait with all the technical requirements of Western classical painting and Eastern miniature painting, but he prefers to express his innermost desires through juxtaposition. He plays within the same collage with various civilisational and artistic influences, often stretching over centuries. The meaning or meanings such exercises yield are not necessarily intellectual or scientific. They are fugitive and can become apparent to the viewer only if he/she is tuned to the sensory experience. Geoffrey’s collages are, more often than not, a tease.



Miss Sohni Mahiwal Shopping for a Clay Pitcher at Pearl Continental.

He has, on occasion, collaborated with his illustrious colleague from Pakistan, Sadequain. He has used Sadequain’s flowing line drawing of a particularly beautiful lady and then played it off against various elements in the collage, invariably arriving at a playful, even celebratory, conclusion that encourages a new beginning. Geoffrey did a series of collages featuring pen-and-ink drawings by his friend. He is a collaborator par excellence, meaning that he has as much respect for the artist he is collaborating with in a given endeavour as he has for himself. This comes from a supreme self-confidence that comes from self-awareness rather than vanity.

He is adept at making connections not only in art but also in real life. Although he was born into a wealthy family, Geoffrey’s gregariousness cuts across the borders of class. The only class he recognises is one of merit. He is capable of having a sturdy friendship with a Delicatessen operator as he is with an artist or an intellectual provided the person is capable of forgetting the self in order to understand the hidden wonders of life.

Geoffrey is a man of the world; he is regarded as an exceptional barrister. That he is a champion of lost causes is proof of his innate romanticism. Although he has seen continuous turmoil, both at home and abroad, he has managed to retain his equipoise. That is an enviable achievement.

13 Comments

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13 responses to “On Iqbal Geoffrey – Collage of life

  1. Shahid

    Is he muslim or bloody kafir christian….

  2. In this well-written and generous article, s.v.p., there are two typos, SIR HERBERT READ (not Reid) and MARCEL DUCHAMP.

    Some folks contacted me (which I appreciate) as to WHY ‘thurst a nipple between the Lips of Mona Lisa’. Well, a humourous answer (although not required) would be to wipe her smile off (smiling for four centuries, she needs a breather; some change of pace/poise/pose); (ii) because Lips are getting dry; (iii)nipple is neutral (the idea was floated half a century ago and it then sank, sua sponte, because it did not sink-in, being out of step with the Happenings and Occurrences in surround-sound; it is noteworthy that Partha Chatterjee has phoenixed it. The Restatement of The Idea is apropos … with passage of time, it has neither lost (/relinquished) its vitality nor its wherewithal) – – ‘boy/girl/or inbetweenity’ concerning the identity of Mona Lisa; (iv) one must take (although one need not!) the Given further; (v) artists disturb the status quo rather than worshipping it – – an artist does what you did not expect from art; (vi) Sex of one is half-dozen of The Other – – My friend Marcel Duchamp would perhaps put it this way (which way? your guesstimate is as good as anyone’s else).

    Add nauseum. Add more.

    Partha CHATTERJEE is one of the three or four art critics in the world whom i read regularly and respect enormously. All art, in any field or aspect knows no frontiers and recognizes no borders. Even truth cannot transcend art. Art was and is before truth emerged.

    Regards

  3. Hayyer

    Very impressive. Geoffrey must be Jaffrey. Clearly a clever surrealist and riddler at heart. Are the suits due to Magritte?

  4. navanavonmilita

    I am glad that, finally, Raza Rumi found, Iqbal Geoffrey. I think they are two peas in a pod.

    Well somebody has to do it.

    In India, collage medium is not very popular. It is considered as vulgar and “mleccha,” Sanskrit for forein(er). However, I disagree. Whatever medium artist selects, be it oil, watercolor, charcoal or tempera, it is for the artist to bring life into it.

    Van Gough brought certain flair to his paintings. So did Mondrian, Chagal and Picasso. These artists broke away from the traditional styles even though they were either students or practioners of old styles.

    Rembrandt’s portraits were a talk of the town. I have not seen anyone equal to his art.

    British artists made their name by painting portraits of the royalties with impeccable details. One wonders if the real person as portrayed in these pictures were real. Singer leads this genre.

    Rembrandt, however focusses on the face and sometimes hands and darkens the rest of the body and the background.

    That in my opinion, was revolutionary. Rembrandt also pioneered the paintings where a person was a common man or a woman. No glamorization of the subject.

    Some of the neglected genres, today, are still life, lanscape and murals. I guess, nobdy has taste for these styles. Cezane and Pissaro also dropped the oldworld styles and came up the alternative styles.

    Indian artists like Sousa, Gaitonde, Palshikar, P A Dhond, H B Haldankar, M F Hussain, P Mansaram, M S Joshi, A A Almelkar, were the leaders and established themselves as pioneers. I had a good fortune of observing them at a close range.

    Palshikar was my guru. Dhond taught me seascapes. M S Joshi taught me still life. P Mansaram and I graduated form the same class.

    I have known and worked with notable commercial artists. Some of the Bengal’s famous artists came to Bombay seeking good jobs from Calcutta’s Government School of art. They worked in Bombay advertising world and lost their zeal for fine art.

    A sad fact that an artist of impeccable training cannot survive in India without degrading himself to a cheap commercial artist’s level.

    I hope and pray that my good friend, Iqbal may get what he deserves. A shot in the arm to create more artistic renderings and stop fiddling around with justice/injustice kind of hogwash. Hope he is listening.

    I made my sermon short and sweet. Thank God for that. Amen.

    http://navanavonmilita.wordpress.com

    …and I am Sid Harth

  5. Tilsim

    Denial of the shoe throwing incident is preposterous but harping on about it is worse.

  6. Tilsim

    I’m sorry posted in the wrong place!

  7. SHOES DESERVE SOME RESPECT.
    HARPING ON TRUTH IS PART OF OUR ISLAMIC AS WELL AS INDIGENOUS TRADITIONS.
    As THE RIG VEDA SAID: LET NEW IDEAS BLOW IN FROM ALL DIRECTIONS. ALL DIRECTIONS INCLUDE BIRMINGHAM.
    I AM GLAD ZARDARI SAHIB GOT A WIND OF IT.

    NEXT: GONE WITH RAIWIND.

  8. I am appreciative of and grateful for the views expressed which I value. What Sid Harth emphasizes admirably was said to me by all others whom I respect. I think art 99.99 per cent of the time, actually, I do art practically in the rest of my time. May I add that justice is part of aesthETHICS too. Art is more about concealing than revealing. A great artist like Leonardo da Vinci paints <> and over 500 years blinds the lot of us to 99.9 per cent of the portrait-rendition, we become just too over-entangled in the smile, forgetting therere was more to it. That is The artist exercising suzerainty and some(!)control. Duchamp sends a urinal to Metropolitan (it is rejected by the pandits) , it emerges as an icon within the next 50 years,
    I have practiced public interest law since 1959 in four continents.; but in 50 years I filed less than 300 lawsuits/writs en toto : that comes to 5 cases a year. Yet the folklore is, there is a Jafree lawsuit every seven inches under the bushes. NoNo!

  9. RR-ji:

    Why is the NEWS, Dunya TV or Himal Southasia error smitten: “aN ERROR HAS OCCURRED” Syndrome.
    SVP: Kindly get it corrected. Or E-rrect again!!

    Also why has one gotta SUBSCRIBE TO pAK tEA hOUSE AGAIN AND AGAIN WHEN ONE TICKS: NOTIFY ME OF FOLLOW-UP COMMENTS VIA EMAIL.

  10. PEER SCHAMWHOREISCH RIDZVAUN AL-MURTAZA NAQVI-ALBUKHARI

    Above query by the maestro should be addressed amicably.

  11. I suggest Shahid take his irrisponsible, insensitive and intollerant comment back. It is this twisted and shallow thinking that has driven Pakistan to where it is now. Art has no single religion, no single colour, no single language and no boundaries….

  12. PEER SCHAMWHOREISCH RIDZVAUN AL-MURTAZA NAQVI-ALBUKHARI

    I agree entirely with Adil Khan, Sahib.
    The (Paris Biennial Laureate) Syyedna Iqbal Geoffrey is a practising Muslim, a direct and traceable descendant from Hazrat Ali (ES) and Holy Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him).

    Geoffrey (pronounced Jaw-Free!!!) is , independent of his ancestry and background (which merited 12 monographs and an entry thrice more substantive as that of fellow Harvard Law graduate Barrick Hussein Osama, Esquire, albeit Christian by choice which remains his unimpeachable fundamental right!) probably is the greatest artist who ever walked on the Good Earth. He is not bothered by his nemeses, but so that they can freely go to hell, he does not forgive the deviates-from-decency.

    In our plundered-and-exploited Country, there are much too many legpullers (and habitual character-assassinators) of megamerit and macro-excellence. Ubiquitous Negative Sum mentality permeates.

    Hip Hip Hooray for decent denizens like courageous and conscientious Adil Sahib.

  13. PEER SCHAMWHOREISCH RIDZVAUN AL-MURTAZA NAQVI-ALBUKHARI

    I just want to add a postscript (it is not for the Quantumfrogs of the neighborhood pond(s), bionically breastbeating (Their negative Sum Mentality leaking egregiously) against MegaMacroMerit as “has been”; come to think of it, in actuality, all proven genuine merit has to be, a priori, “has been”): Haath Kungaan Koe RC (I am not advertising Cola!) kiya?

    An Exhibition of PARIS BIENNIAL LAUREATE [1965] IQBAL GEOFFREY is going on at the best art gallery in Nepal: The Siddhartha Art Gallery, Kathmandu currently. Atleast Google that.

    Another Art Show of Geoffrey’s diverse masterpieces will, Deo volente, commence at the outstanding KOEL GALLERY in Clifton, Karachi later next month.

    A monograph on THE ART OF IQBAL GEOFFREY published by the Government of Pakistan is available from THE NATIONAL ART GALLERY in ISLAMABAD, F-5/1. It is rather thin (weighs only just over five pounds) and to rectify that two foreign governments and the United Nations are all set to publish more comprehensive, well-deserved monographs.

    How the Syyedna Iqbal Geoffrey Sahib transliterates his great Family Name is solely his prerogative.

    If someone is interested in reading a b/w Monograph on Geoffrey by FAIZ AHMED FAIZ, RA which in 1965 was given away free (published/distributed by the Lahore Arts Council; Naeem Tahir Secretary General); it is available at the ROYAL BOOKS in Baltimore (it is on their website) for merely =PakRupees 51000.00. On the cover of that Monograph is a Surreal Art Bag : Anything That You Put in That Bag Becomes Art. (Try It You Like It).

    The first contemporary Indic artist (Iqbal Geoffrey, of course!) reviewed by The Time Magazine (New York,1963 : Grand Central Moderns) is also prominently mentioned – – although half a century has elapsed – – on the Time Magazine website; (Strive and thou shall find!). The fiends can jump into the Sea nearby if they continue liking his art while passing through Clifton. This way they can go waydown-deep into history by drowning themselves in the High Seas and contgribute to a Sea Change in Pakistan.

    Those who want to contact Harvard Law School in writring can obtain written permission from Iqbal through us and then sensibly write (enclosing self addressed postage-prepaid envelope olr six International Reply Coupons) … HLS, (as well as all Universities worth the name), does not answer quack or nuisance or gratuitious telephone-calls.

    OHIO-GOOD_I.E._MUSS (that is thank you in Japanese)!