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Transnational Slade: Khalid Iqbal

By Liz Bruchet, on 9 June 2014

Khalid Iqbal
The second in a series of guest posts by Amna Malik

The Transnational Slade project is interested in the links between past students at the Slade and the impact they went on to have internationally after graduation.

Khalid Iqbal is an important example of the kind of impact Slade students were to play in their countries after studying in London. Often described as a pioneer of realist painting in Pakistan and particularly the landscape tradition, he studied at the Slade from 1952-1954 and returned to Lahore to work alongside Anna Molka Ahmed, a British artist resident in Lahore, who was invited to set up the Department of Fine Art in Punjab University. Iqbal was born in Simla on 23rd June 1929, in Kashmir under the British colonial rule of India. He grew up in Dhera Dun on the foothills of the Himalayas, and during the war was joined by a number of largely European students studying at various English public schools. His arrival in this part of India had been the result of his father’s posting in the Indian Military College. Surrounded by the natural beauty of Kashmir and then the Himalayas that might be thought to determine his subsequent career as a landscape painter, he was nonetheless inspired by a fellow student to embark on his study of art, interrupted by Partition in 1948. The ensuing bloodshed and rioting, particularly in Kashmir, led Iqbal and his family to migrate to Lahore in the Punjab.

Lahore after Partition, however, was a very different place to the cosmopolitan city of culture it had been before 1948. Many of its most vibrant artists, writers and playwrights had left for India, a number of them with Marxist leanings had settled in Bombay. The Punjab as a region had prospered a great deal under British colonial rule, with Lahore as its capital city, its Mughal heritage evident in its organisation as a garden city. By the 1930s it had become the centre for recruitment of Indian officers into the British army. This mixture of cultural and military power gave it a pre-eminence that made it central to the advocates of a Muslim-ruled nation during debates over Independence. However, its cultural eminence was severely diminished in the post-partition years. Khalid Iqbal’s decision to study at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1952 was partly the consequence of the shortage of adequate artists left to teach in Lahore. Attending the Mayo School of Arts between 1947-1948 under the guidance of Sheikh Ahmed, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from FC College in 1949 and gained a Diploma in French from the Oriental College in 1952.

Iqbal’s decision to come to the Slade to study was partly because of the transformed nature of the cultural world of Lahore in the immediate aftermath of Partition. Many artists of his generation in Pakistan studied in Europe in the hope of then returning and reconstructing the cultural life of Lahore, and more widely the newly formed nation. In this respect, their practices and choice of aesthetic approaches were varied but frequently tied to nation building. In Lahore this process led to what came to be known as the Lahore art group, of which Iqbal was a member, a vibrant but short lived group of artists who regularly met and exhibited together in the 1960s. We know from Stephen Chaplin’s recent interview in our Slade Oral Histories archive that Iqbal’s initial plans on arrival at the Slade were to make a close study of Impressionism and explore painting from nature, an aspect of early modernism in the mid to late 19th century that had largely disappeared.

In the early 1950s in Britain residues of the landscape tradition remained in the work of John Piper and Graham Sutherland but was radically altered by the twin influences of Cubism and Surrealism. Those most committed to it had turned to abstraction, famously in the example of Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, residing in St Ives on the Cornish coast. It was perhaps Iqbal’s good fortune that at the point at which he entered the Slade, its Professor, William Coldstream, was to embark on a lengthy and sustained revision of its teaching and structure, which was to continue well into the 1960s but had only just begun when Iqbal arrived and still privileged an empirical approach to the depiction of the external world. Stephen Chaplin, a former Slade student, and author of the Slade Archive Reader, recalls meeting Iqbal and remembering his seriousness of purpose. In her monograph on Iqbal, Khalid Iqbal, A Pioneer of Modern Realism in Pakistan (2004), the art historian Mussarat Khan explains that Iqbal was very fond of Constable and even made a visit to Dedham and the surrounding areas of Essex, often described as ‘Constable country’. Yet, she argues, despite his concern with landscape painting, and winning the Slade’s annual Steer Landscape prize, he was not inspired to make landscape paintings of the English countryside during his Slade years.

On graduation Iqbal returned to Lahore and began painting the outskirts of the city and the wider rural areas of the Punjab. We know from the vast literature on landscape painting that it is often associated with the sovereignty of vision. Indeed, the canonical examples of landscape painting in Britain have been viewed as important ways in which national identity was constructed. Yet, they are also images of private estates owned by an aristocratic elite and Iqbal’s decision to inaugurate a landscape tradition of the Punjab might be understood as a subtle reversion of that relationship of power, under the newly established state of Pakistan. To embark on a picturing of the rural parts of the country was also to authorise the new ruling elite yet his landscape paintings rarely include portraits of owners. If anything they are either empty or hint at the reconstruction of newly established buildings. There is no hint of the Mughal heritage of Lahore whilst his portrait paintings appear to be either artist-friends or ordinary people in traditional dress.

It might be useful to remember that during colonial rule the Mayo School of Arts was a school for technical draughtsmanship that trained its students to create templates of industrial and architectural design. In the immediate post-war period it emerged as a place to study the miniature tradition that is modelled on a master/apprentice form of learning. The empiricism of the English painterly tradition continued in William Coldstream’s own paintings was perhaps an opportunity for Iqbal to inaugurate a democracy of vision, whereby the optical impressions created on the artist’s eye was the basis from which his creativity might emerge, rather than one that was based on pre-existing models that subsumed the processes of seeing and making sense of the world. It is this latter, democratic vision, drawn in part from Coldstream’s example, that continues to flourish in Iqbal’s images of the Punjab.

Please tell us if you know any more of Iqbal’s years while he was at the Slade or his early years as a Lecturer at Punjab University in the 1950s. We’re looking for photographs, recollections or stories about Iqbal, letters from him if you have them and are willing to share them, and any knowledge of exhibition catalogues from his early period of the 1950s or where we might get them. Please do share your memories of him as a teacher, colleague, friend. Comments can be added publicly through the Slade Class Photos website, or you may write to: slade.enquiries@ucl.ac.uk or Slade Archive Project, Slade School of Fine Art, UCL, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT.