Irfan Hasan blends centuries-old Eastern miniature painting techniques with Western portraiture.

Pakistani artist Irfan Hasan’s watercolour paintings “explore the boundaries of form and content” while drawing upon inspiration from Europe’s Renaissance and Neoclassical masters.

Irfan Hasan, 'Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time' after Agnolo Bronzino, 2015, opaque watercolour on paper, 50 x 70". Image courtesy the artist.

Irfan Hasan, ‘Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time’ after Agnolo Bronzino, 2015, opaque watercolour on paper, 50 x 70 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Irfan Hasan’s work is populated with voluptuous nudes and intimate character studies, exploring cultural and social topics considered taboo in Pakistan. In the style of some of Europe’s most famous artists – such as Rembrandt, Rubens and Bouguereau his subtle work is executed in an opaque watercolour technique with Indo-Persian roots.

Hasan was born in 1982 in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and financial centre. From a tender age he was interested in the arts. As was relayed in the online magazine Images, his schoolwork may have suffered due to his extracurricular activities but the results left a lasting mark on the artist and his work:

He mentioned playing truant from school to go to old book markets in Karachi where he spent hours copying Western artists to acquire his draftsmanship. This experience left a deep impression on his young mind; he is still inspired by art of the classical Western era and its figurative works focusing on human beauty. This inspiration is shown in his paintings time and again.

Irfan Hasan. Image courtesy the artist.

Irfan Hasan. Image courtesy the artist.

A different path

As his skills and interest progressed, it became clear that his path was a creative one. In an interview in Missing Slate, Hasan said he began looking into a full-time career as an artist, instead of the field his parents had initially selected for him:

I wanted to be a painter since childhood. I remember that I used to draw and paint religiously. Initially, my parents wanted me to be a doctor so I chose medical [courses] during my matriculation. I thoroughly enjoyed making the diagrams, but wasn’t interested in actually studying biology.

Irfan Hasan enrolled in the renowned National College of Arts Lahore (NCA) and successfully graduated with a BFA in Miniature Painting with distinction in 2006. His work has been shown in India, New York, Pakistan and London, and he has been awarded the Best Young Painter Award (2007 and 2008) from the Punjab Arts Council (Lahore) and the Artist Residency Award (2010) from the Commonwealth Foundation, England. Hasan currently resides in Lahore, where he is a visiting faculty member at his alma mater.

Irfan Hasan, 'Target Kissing' (diptych), 2013, opaque watercolour on paper, 46 x 31". Image courtesy the artist.

Irfan Hasan, ‘Target Kissing’ (diptych), 2013, opaque watercolour on paper, 46 x 31 in. Image courtesy the artist.

As a graduate from NCA Lahore, Hasan joins an eminent and internationally recognised group of miniature painters such as Imran Qureshi, Shahzia Sikander, Faiza Butt and Aisha Khalid, all of whom combine traditional techniques with contemporary “conceptual practices” to form a genre known as neo-minaturism.

Irfan Hasan, 'Damien Hirst as Maa Kali', 2013, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, 27.5 x 22". Image courtesy the artist.

Irfan Hasan, ‘Damien Hirst as Maa Kali’, 2013, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, 27.5 x 22 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Age-old techniques 

To capture his subjects, Hasan uses a traditional Indo-Persian opaque watercolour technique known as ‘GudRung’. The artist applies washes of colour that are a mixture of watercolours, zinc chalk and gum arabic onto paper and then finishes the composition by first using a larger brush known as a ‘Tapai’ and then a three-hair squirrel tail brush known as a ‘Pardakht’. This technique provides incredibly detailed results, as the recent press-release for Hasan’s solo show at London’s Grosvenor Gallery noted:

This technique allows the artist to create gloriously realistic depictions of his subjects in lifelike flesh-tones, and the opacity of the paint gives wonderful depth and contours to the images.

Irfan Hasan, 'Nicolaes Ruts' after Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 2015, opaque watercolour on paper, 15 x 20". Image courtesy the artist.

Irfan Hasan, ‘Nicolaes Ruts’ after Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 2015, opaque watercolour on paper, 15 x 20 in. Image courtesy the artist.

In the flesh

As his compositions demand a high degree of proficiency in creating realistic skin tones, it is imperative that Hasan gets it right. To do this, Hasan constantly “tests” the gradations of colour on his hand, imbuing his practice with a “deep significance of the human form”.

In his work, Hasan often boldly utilises the nude, an image that is not publicly or widely accepted in Pakistan and, for the most part, is not exhibited in professional venues. Despite this, as discussed in Images, Hasan does not stray away from the human form in all its vulnerability and majesty:

Hasan is not shy of showing human flesh, power, dramatic emotions, and aggressive masculinity along with signs of love, beauty, passion, eroticism and death in the same piece of art.

Irfan Hasan, 'Young Greeks at a Cock Fight' after Jean-Léon Gérôme, 2015, opaque watercolour on paper, 38 x 98". Image courtesy the artist.

Irfan Hasan, ‘Young Greeks at a Cock Fight’ after Jean-Léon Gérôme, 2015, opaque watercolour on paper, 38 x 98 in. Image courtesy the artist.

East and West, old and new

In addition to his interest in classical, modern and contemporary Western artists, including Lucian Freud and Andrew Wyeth, Hasan has been influenced by Eastern miniaturists Kamaluddin Behzad (Afghanistan), Abdur Rahman Chughtai (Pakistan), Reza Abbasi (Iran) and Ustad Haji Mohammed Sharif (Pakistan). Also of particular note is contemporary artist Mahmoud Farshchian (Iran), whose brand of “political satire and personal angst” has provided fodder for Hasan’s own riffs on contemporary life. This synthesis of classic and contemporary, according to Saatchi Art, is a trademark of Hasan’s work:

Irfan’s work reminds one of a Shakespearean comedy in which the bizarre and the absurd are satirical personifications of contemporary figures in power. Whereas Shakespeare’s critique was external to himself, looking to society for his characters, Irfan insists his work is personal, hence acknowledging himself as part of the society he mocks. With Irfan, society on the one hand pervades each individual members’ psyche and on the other, extends beyond political and cultural boundaries to the greater humanity.

Irfan Hasan, 'Maulana Wei Wei', 2014, opaque watercolour on paper, 15.4 x 11". Image courtesy the artist.

Irfan Hasan, ‘Maulana Wei Wei’, 2014, opaque watercolour on paper, 15.4 x 11 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Entertaining engagements

Hasan is known to be tireless, working with students during the day at NCA Lahore and then painting at his studio late in the night. As the artist told Shameen Ashad in an interview with The Missing Slate, being an artist entails a lot of hard work and mental “engagement”:

At some point of our career we go through extreme anxieties, frustrations and loneliness. Artists think differently, their ideas and imagination are usually different from the rest of the society. It is actually tough to bring out all your creative energies onto a surface. It needs constant mental and physical engagement. Apparently people think that it’s an easy job, but honestly being an artist is the toughest thing. Sometimes, I feel as if artists are like entertainers or jokers. They have to entertain the audience even if they don’t want to.

Irfan Hasan, 'Equality Before Death' after William Adolphe Bouguereau, 2015, opaque watercolour on paper, 50 x 70". Image courtesy the artist.

Irfan Hasan, ‘Equality Before Death’ after William Adolphe Bouguereau, 2015, opaque watercolour on paper, 50 x 70 in. Image courtesy the artist.

When asked in an article for Art Now Pakistan in what direction his work was heading, Hasan responded:

I think the next step for me is to perhaps study the digital universe with animation and special effects.

Lisa Pollman

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Related Topics:  Classic/Contemporary, emerging artists, miniatures, Pakistani artists, art in Pakistan, painting, artist profiles

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Brittney

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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