My favorite painting: Nigel Prince

Nigel Prince, director of Artes Mundi, in a haunting image of Anwar Jalal Shemza.

Nigel Prince on The wall by Anwar Jalal Shemza

“Shemza was one of my art teachers at school when I was a teenager. An elegant, friendly and encouraging man, it was only years later that I realized the importance of who he was, when, as a recent graduate of an art school, I saw this painting in the 1989 exhibition ‘The Other Story: Afro- Asian Artists in Postwar Britain’.

‘Typical of the period following his graduation from the Slade, The wall is a modest but intense painting. Commanding a sense of space far beyond its scale, it is painstakingly constructed from simplified forms inspired by Islamic art, architecture and early literary influences, especially calligraphy, combined with the western abstraction.

“The surface is structured by a geometry and pattern created with its characteristic use of repeated circular and square shapes. To me, this epitomizes the formative effect he and the others were to have on my future development and interests. ‘

Nigel Prince is the director of Artes Mundi

Charlotte Mullins on The wall

Anwar Jalal Shemza was 28 years old and already a successful artist in his country – a “champion of modernism in the worlds of art and literature of the new nation of Pakistan” in the words of Nigel Prince – when he left for London. In 1952 he had established the Lahore Art Circle and was the author of several novels and radio plays. In London, however, he was an anonymous student and he felt uprooted and detached until a trip to the British Museum offered him new direction. There he studied Islamic art from different periods and merged the formal concerns of European modernism with the spirals of calligraphy.

Drawing inspiration from Islamic art, Mughal architecture, and the soft geometric abstracts of Swiss-born Paul Klee, Shemza created paintings that spoke of plurality and the fusion of ideas. The wall was from her “City Walls” series, painted while still a student at Slade. On a crumpled gold background, two asymmetrical shapes overlap. Both are decorated with geometric boxes filled with arabesques. It could be an aerial view of buildings, layered layers of textiles, or a literary puzzle.

Shemza was increasingly interested in abstract patterns derived from life. He wrote: “One circle, one square, one problem, one life is not enough to solve it. He moved from London to Stafford, north of Birmingham, in 1962, where he taught art. During his lifetime his work did not get the visibility it deserves, but it now sits at the heart of the postwar British art narrative.

“His generally powerful brushstrokes and beautiful juxtaposed colors impart a warm and evocative feeling of pleasure and nostalgia.”

“I love the work of William Nicholson. His still lifes are incomparable.

Robert Macfarlane chooses his favorite painting for Country Life.

Nicola Shulman chooses her favorite painting for Country Life.

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