Maqbool Fida Husain

Virgin Night, 1964

Image for Virgin Night, 1964

M. F. Husain, perhaps India’s most celebrated and controversial artist, remains at the center of a debate in India regarding obscenity in art. Born to a Muslim Bohra family in Pandharpur, Maharashtra, he was raised in the city of Indore. At the age of twenty he left for Bombay, intending to pursue a career in the arts. His first years in that bustling cosmopolitan center were difficult. Working as a billboard painter and a children’s furniture and toy designer, he struggled to maintain a painting practice during his spare time. Then, in the late 1940s, he was asked by F. N. Souza to join the newly formed, Bombay-based Progressive Artists Group (PAG). Founded following India’s emancipation from Britain, the PAG was deeply committed to breaking the grasp of Bengal’s nationalist schools and forming an Indian avant-garde. As a member of the group, Husain mined cubist, expressionist, and local modes to create his own vocabulary of darkly expressive forms.

Although Husain traveled far from his humble beginnings, design remained central to his vision; as seen here, he often placed his strongly outlined figures at the center of the composition. Known for recontextualizing religious-cultural iconography, Husain painted numerous abstractions of the Virgin Mary, Hindu goddesses, and even Mother Teresa, often veiling the figures or otherwise hiding their faces. In Virgin Night the female form is resolutely contoured yet inaccessible, present yet removed. In her hand she holds a hookah pipe with a spider perched on it, and the light casts a shadow that obscures her face. Perhaps derived from the artist’s yearning for his own mother—who died when he was two years old—the mother figure reappears frequently in his art, her face always hidden from the viewer’s gaze. Such iconography sparked great controversy. In the 1990s Hindu nationalist groups disturbed by the artist’s paintings of nude goddesses started anti-Husain campaigns that still rage on. In 2006, unable to sustain the pressure of legal complaints and threats on his life, Husain left India, living out his last days between Doha and London.

M. F. Husain, perhaps India’s most celebrated and controversial artist, remains at the center of a debate in India regarding obscenity in art. Born to a Muslim Bohra family in Pandharpur, Maharashtra, he was raised in the city of Indore. At the age of twenty he left for Bombay, intending to pursue a career in the arts. His first years in that bustling cosmopolitan center were difficult. Working as a billboard painter and a children’s furniture and toy designer, he struggled to maintain a painting practice during his spare time. Then, in the late 1940s, he was asked by F. N. Souza to join the newly formed, Bombay-based Progressive Artists Group (PAG). Founded following India’s emancipation from Britain, the PAG was deeply committed to breaking the grasp of Bengal’s nationalist schools and forming an Indian avant-garde. As a member of the group, Husain mined cubist, expressionist, and local modes to create his own vocabulary of darkly expressive forms.

Although Husain traveled far from his humble beginnings, design remained central to his vision; as seen here, he often placed his strongly outlined figures at the center of the composition. Known for recontextualizing religious-cultural iconography, Husain painted numerous abstractions of the Virgin Mary, Hindu goddesses, and even Mother Teresa, often veiling the figures or otherwise hiding their faces. In Virgin Night the female form is resolutely contoured yet inaccessible, present yet removed. In her hand she holds a hookah pipe with a spider perched on it, and the light casts a shadow that obscures her face. Perhaps derived from the artist’s yearning for his own mother—who died when he was two years old—the mother figure reappears frequently in his art, her face always hidden from the viewer’s gaze. Such iconography sparked great controversy. In the 1990s Hindu nationalist groups disturbed by the artist’s paintings of nude goddesses started anti-Husain campaigns that still rage on. In 2006, unable to sustain the pressure of legal complaints and threats on his life, Husain left India, living out his last days between Doha and London.

Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 39 3/4 x 29 1/2 in.
Credit Line Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection
Donor Gift of Abby Weed Grey
Object ID G1975.158

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Collection Years: 1964