The evolving concept of ‘ideal figure’ over the ages
In these pandemic times, when mobility is minimal and people are stuck at home, gaining some extra fat seems unavoidable.
Even earlier, this was considered ‘excess’ baggage that needed to be shed. Gyms, yoga, healthy diets and even medical treatment were sought by both men and women to achieve the ‘ideal’ figure.
The ideal figure has been a preoccupation with painters, particularly in representation of female body. Comparing sculptures and paintings from various periods of European art history, one realizes the changing standards of beauty. Besides portraying a living person, the works of art reveal something about the society in which these were produced — how a community perceived, treated and exploited women.
Some artists, mostly women, have challenged the assignment of this role to male artists. They dissolve the attributes of ideal figure, projecting a reality that does not often match the traditional male expectations.
Frida Kahlo in her self-portraits and Cindy Sherman in her photomontages, based on herself, have offered a different view of a female body - a rather confrontational one.
In Pakistan, if rendering the body was a problem, depicting a woman’s figure was even more difficult. Several male artists, however, did paint women in nude.
During Ziaul Haq’s years, certain women artists chose this image as a sign of defiance. Portraying a woman’s figure thus became a political act, rather than a mere painterly choice.
Seen several decades later, the representation of women can be separated into two categories: idea and reality. There are works portraying flesh and bones, and others which allude to a general concept of womanhood. Both are evident in Fleeting Moments, an online group exhibition currently at Nomad Gallery Islamabad. It includes pieces by Nahid Raza, Akram Dost, Rahat Naveed Masud and Sadaf Naeem.
Due to unavailability of women models, there was a tendency to paint nude figures from one’s imagination: stylised, often distorted. Painters like Colin David, Jamil Naqsh and Iqbal Hussain referred to actual models, but several others relied on the idea of a woman. For them, the basic form of a female was more important than the physical entity. The restrictions on public display inclined some artists towards modifying the anatomy and reducing it to almost an abstraction.
Following this pattern, Nahid Raza’s paintings of women - single figures or in groups - are combinations of colours and lines, rather than identifiable contours.
In their treatment, chromatic scheme and composition, these figures become part of the background. A girl next to a flower pot, another with a flower dangling from her hand, some sitting against a mosaic - appear as patchwork of bright paint. These remind one of Nahid Raza’s earlier phase, from the 1970s, of an abstract painter. One can detect a sense of abstraction in these works too, enhanced through bright blues and vivid reds applied in some canvases.
Woman as an idea can also be seen in the work of Akram Dost. In these highly charged expressionistic paintings, women are depicted along with patterns — mainly Balochi motifs the artist has been collecting and documenting for years. In some works, faces, too, have turned into patterns, or repositories of varying textures. Someone familiar with Dost’s work can read these portraits (a few echoing passport photos) as a critique on the status of women in a feudal society, or a general comment on repression.
Due to unavailability of women models, there was a tendency to paint nude figures using one’s imagination; stylised, often distorted.
These faces, entangled in grids and other divisions, especially when veiled, showcase the limits imposed on women. Although Dost employs bright and cheerful hues in a number of his paintings, the overall impression of these paintings is of an atmosphere Orhan Pamuk describes as huzn (melancholy).
One feels that more than representing a gender, Dost has rendered a state of sadness. This sadness is evident in the works of Rahat Naveed Masud as well. Taking a leap forward from her established style, Masud attempts in her interlocked figures, to depict gloom.
In a sensitively drawn work, The Plight II, two women, in outlines, have their hands on their foreheads, suggesting despair and hopelessness, next to pans on the ground and nomadic tents as a backdrop.
A toddler on a mother’s chest, as if pondering over the situation, accentuates the feeling the artist aims to convey. Yet a viewer enjoys the deft handling of material, used to indicate the transitory nature of her characters’ setting.
Another work depicts a change of scenario: here a girl, posing as idle, is superimposed on another person lying on the ground. You can spot a group of hazy travellers near the horizon, and water level with a big boat. The impressive illustration of figures, in a realistic manner, confirms that a subject such as The Plight I can be communicated in a way that can excite a spectator with its sensitive handling.
The composite figures continue in another pencil, charcoal and wash on paper work, called Nature Nurture Nourishment, in which three women of different ages are holding three infants. Light, posture of these figures and a rich texture of foliage take this work from its ‘theme’ to a pictorial joy.
Sometimes formal concerns take over when artists are dealing with seriousness of the subject. The painter’s senses are thus awakened to physical stimuli of observed material, more than obeying the preordained content.
This appears to be the case with Sadaf Naeem. She paints a woman’s world without a direct depiction of her. You guess her existence through motifs and design of a tapestry dominating these compositions.
In Love Story 3, a girl stands under a tree, but her face melts in the greyness of the backdrop and her shirt is camouflaged by the surroundings. Interestingly, in several works, floral motifs in curtains, blinds and sheets are joined with trees, flowers and bushes, creating a merger inside and outside. It’s a woman’s world in which her presence is not a fleeting moment, but a reality that surpasses the shifting ideas of beauty.