Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ismail Gulgee - - An Era of Art and Islammic Calligraphy in Pakistan

Ismail Gulgee (October 25, 1926 – December 14, 2007) Pride of Performance, Sitara-e-Imtiaz (twice), Hilal-e-Imtiaz, was an award-winning, globally famous Pakistani artist born in Peshawar. He was a qualified engineer in the U.S. and self-taught abstract painter and portrait painter. Before 1959, as portraitist, he painted the entire Afghan Royal Family. From about 1960 on, he was noted as an abstract painter influenced by the tradition of Islamic calligraphy and by the American "action painting" idiom.

Initially, he went to Aligarh University to study civil engineering before heading off to USA for continuing his higher education. According to, Gulgee started to paint while acquiring his training as an engineer in the United States at Columbia University and then Harvard. His first exhibition was in 1950.

Gulgee was a gifted and consummately skilled naturalistic portrait painter who had enjoyed (according to Partha Mitter) "lavish state support" and plenty of elite commissions in this capacity. Nevertheless, he was perhaps best known worldwide for his abstract work, which was inspired by Islamic calligraphy and was also influenced by the "action painting" movement of the 1950s and 1960s (Mitter notes that Elaine Hamilton was a strong influence in this direction). This is perhaps a natural enough stylistic combination, since in both Islamic calligraphy and action painting a high value is placed on the unity and energy of gestural flow. As with the works of other action painters or abstract expressionists, Gulgee's canvases were often quite large. He was also known for using materials such as mirror glass and gold or silver leaf in his oil paintings, so that they were in fact mixed media pieces.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see external links): "Gulgee's calligraphy paintings are abstract and gestural interpretations of Arabic and Urdu letters. His sweeping layers of paint explore the formal qualities of oil paint while they make references to Islamic design elements." [1]

Beginning in the 1960s (if not earlier), Gulgee also created sculptures, including bronze pieces that were (like so many of his paintings) calligraphic in form and inspiration, and sometimes specifically based on verses from the Quran [].

His paintings were bright and full of color, but the paint was put on with great sensitivity, and paintings vibrate with intense feeling. Areas sing with luminous, thin color; thick blobs of paint pulsate with fiberglass tears, the brush swirls strong and free. The total effect used to be very free, yet considered and well thought out. They work enormously well, because it was all orchestrated with great care and concentration.

His son Amin Gulgee is also a famous artist.

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