The story of how M. F. Husain’s equine glass sculpture came into being is colorful – and an artistic reflection of humanity and sustainability
You can’t take the horse out of Husain.
From his first few paintings of horses in the 1950’s, to the Horses of The Sun exhibition that was held at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art recently, Maqbool Fida Husain’s love for the animal was evident across his repertoire of artwork.
During his stay in Qatar, Husain portrayed horses in the ambience of Arab and Islamic civilization. His allusion to horses can also be seen in some of the works he did for a series of paintings titled 99 Beautiful Names of God, or Al-asma’l-husna.
So when the artist designed his final and perhaps most unusual artwork to date, the Seeroo fi al Ardh, it was only natural that horses would figure prominently in his efforts to capture the spirit of innovation throughout Arab history. This time round, however, the equines wouldn’t emanate from Husain’s meter-long brush, but from the furnaces of the Ars Murano workshop in Venice – as glass sculptures.
It wasn’t merely their reputation for design and quality that made Husain choose Ars Murano. The artist wanted craftsmen who could follow his design without adding their own interpretation to it. And equally, the final pieces had to be sustainable and ecologically friendly. Ars Murano fitted the bill.
Ars Murano’s master craftsmen Renzo and Matteo Vianello - a father-and-son duo – and their colleague Marina Raffaeli helped Husain bring the horses to life.
“The artist was pleased to hear that the chemical combination we use to create our artwork does not contain any lead,” says Matteo.
“Most other brands outside Murano Island have at least 20 percent of lead in them. Additionally, each art piece is made and polished completely by hand, minimizing the use of mechanized processes, and hence the use of electricity “
Matteo says that, after their initial conversations with Husain, they were left in no doubt as to the magnitude of the project.
“We always knew this project would be different,” he says. “Other reputed artists in Murano had created similar-sized horses before, but in frosted glass. This was the first time that horses of such dimensions were produced in polished glass, giving the pieces the clarity and shine that you would normally associate with crystal.”
Husain was keen that the glass horses would not only represent the progress of civilization, but also reflect the values that humanity stood for. With this in mind, he designed them in different colors.
Blue symbolizes trust, the sea and the sky. Red stands for fire as well as passion and strength, while green represents life, harmony and ambition. Amber, similar to saffron, a color reflective of India, depicts energy, boldness and self-awareness, and white portrays the balance of wisdom, free from binding or bending.
For the first time since our studio was set up, we had to break down our front door to carry a glass sculpture out.
When it came to making the glass horses, though, the Ars Murano artists couldn’t cast them in a single mold due to their size. Instead, they had to make parts of the horse in separate block molds and then assemble them – a mammoth task, considering that each horse had around 40-50 pieces that needed to be perfectly joined together. In fact, when the first full-size statue was finally ready, it weighed around two tons.
As work progressed, Matteo recalls how they were amused – and slightly alarmed – at discovering one of Husain’s habits.
“We work with glass. And glass breaks,” says Matteo. “I still remember our feeling of alarm when we discovered that Husain walked barefoot. This meant that we had to sweep our workshop often to ensure the studio floor was free of any shards – it was a task that we diligently carried out so that he wouldn’t hurt himself.”
When Ars Murano finally completed the sculptures, they were pleased with the results – only to find that they were too big to be carried out of the workshop door.
“For the first time since our studio was set up, we had to break down our front door to carry a glass sculpture out,” Matteo explains. “Even the journey to the airport was nerve-wracking. The streets of Venice are narrow and bumpy, which doesn’t help much when you’re trying to shift five glass horses that each weigh around two tons.”
When Husain saw the first horse, the sheer delight on his face made us forget the difficulties we had just faced.
Husain’s stay in Venice to personally oversee the production of what would be his final installation is also reminiscent of one of the very first jobs he held: as a toymaker in a small company in Mumbai.
The Ars Murano craftsmen say they cannot forget the artist, for all his quirks and perfectionism – and for his reaction when he saw the very first glass horse that they made.
“When Husain saw the first horse, the sheer delight on his face made us forget the difficulties we had just faced,” says Matteo, “He hugged the horse as a child would a toy, saying it was far more beautiful than he imagined it would be. And he promptly decided to make five horses instead of the three that were initially planned. That’s Husain for you.”