Friday, February 15, 2008

Hussaini: An Aviation Painter Par Excellence

Hussaini : An Aviation Painter Par Excellence

The history of human flight started in 1783 when Joseph Michel and Jacques Etienne Montgolfier, sent aloft Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent in a hot air balloon. They rose to about 6,000 feet and traveled more than one mile. Powered flight took another 120 years. Wilbur and Orvil Wright successfully flew their airplane, The "Flyer", on December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk, NC,USA. 

Aviation is primarily a twentieth century phenomenon but aviation art has centuries of history.Artists had illustrated flight long before a hot-air balloon or the Wright brothers , Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th century created detailed sketches of a flying machine, "The Ornithopter", with bat-like wings. . There are many illustrations, woodcuts and drawings from medieval times portraying flight. However, aviation art came into its own after the First World War.

Aviation appeals to many aspects of human nature - challenge, excitement, adventure, exploration, mastery, serenity. Images of airships and airplanes took the fancy of the youth and sold newspapers, books and magazines. Illustrations of World War I dogfights, increased aviation art's popularity even more. Though, photography competed with illustration after the invention of roll-film by George Eastman, it could not compete when it came to define and express pure beauty. Artists could paint imaginary situations,depict scenes,embellish a situation, change the landscape, or add dramatic lighting. Early photography was hardly capable of achieving all that. Aviation art had arrived.

During Second World War the Aviation Artists became an invaluable part of the war effort. Writers, journalists and photographers documented the war, but it were artists who rallied people through patriotic magazine covers, advertisements and posters of aircraft and heroic youthful pilots. Dan V Smith's "Keep Em Flying," painted in 1942 , featured a formation of bombers set against pastel clouds and a rippling U.S. flag.

It is argued often by art purists that aviation art is a kind of commercial art. To be fair to the purists aviation painting emanated from popular illustration but is far from ubiquitous commercial art. Aviation painting has elements of impressionist landscape as well as expressionism of action paintings. Add to it, the necessity of a sense of movement, obviously it is a complex and difficult craft. An aviation painter combines the vision of an abstract painter, the sensitivity of an impressionist and the skillfulness of landscape artist with a historian’s keen sense and understanding of history.  It is the combination of painter’s ability to convey a sense of drama, tell a story and frame a composition that pulls the viewer in.

There is really more to aviation art than the depiction of mechanical flying objects. Aviation artist Gerald Asher said, “the most exciting aspect of creating aviation art is the sense of freedom the enhanced perspective of being above the earth rather than on it and being able to move the horizon where you want it, literally adds a new dimension to the work". Many aviation artists agree that the degree of difficulty involved in creating aviation art is unmatched.

Although aviation underwent many changes during the last century, the look created by World War II artists continues to be the mainstay of aviation art. Most of the pioneering artists are realists using a colour palette ranging from bold to subdued and they composed paintings on the diagonal, creating dynamic movement by pointing the airplane's cross shape, wings running perpendicular to the body, toward one of the canvas' corners.

Few in Pakistan know about a world class internationally acclaimed aviation painter Masood Akhter Hussaini. It is not surprising for a country where few can or willing to spend time on appreciation of art ,crafts and literature. Group Captain SMA Hussaini joined Pakistan Air Force College Sargodha in 1963. Alumni of Pakistan Air Force School/College Sargodha are known as Sargodhians. This writer has honour of being a Sargodhian as well. We are from the same house, `Saber' in Hussaini's time.When I reached college the house had been renamed “Rafiqui” to commemorate one of Pakistan’s greatest fighter pilots.

Hussaini graduated from PAF Acedemy Risalpur in 1971 but his heart was somewhere else. I wouldn't say it was his good luck I would rather put it in this way that it was fortunate of Pakistan Air Force to not only discover but also utilize his extraordinary skills. Saying Hussaini was a born painter would be an understatement. Over the years he painted the history of PAF with elegance and passion. His style is close to one of the pioneering aviation artist, Keith Ferris. Both create a romantic feel. Airplanes are set against pastel skies and luminous clouds. Hussaini has been conferred Tamgha-i-Basalat and President's Pride of Performance Award in recognition of his contribution as the Aviation Artist.

Keith Ferris is acknowledged to be the most important aviation artist in the world .His panoramic 25 ft by 75 ft mural of Boeing B-17 bombers "Fortresses Under Fire" is a popular attraction at Washington’s National Air and Space Museum. . A large body of his work is in government and private collections world over. Keith Ferris admires Hussaini's skill and talent. Bob McCall the founding member of American Society of Aviation Artists (ASAA) said," His (Hussaini) paintings are charged with a special energy; how impressed I was with power and beauty of these images."

Fighter aircraft are stunningly beautiful. Like a shark, they are sculpted fit for purpose. Sharks evolved over eons. Humans moved from Wright brothers’ elementary flying machines to Stealth fighter in about hundred years. It is a statement of human ingenuity and energy.  Few in the world can paint fighter aircraft better than Hussaini. He is a visual storyteller since his overt as wella s dormant imagery is inextricably linked with history of Pakistan Air Force. His palette is warm, his lines are dynamic and his compositions are dramatic. In his skillful hands, flight technology is poetry in motion and the lethal shape of a fighter aircraft becomes beautiful. It becomes exceedingly difficult to accept that these beautiful pictures of beautiful machines are all about killing people.  

Had Hussaini not committed himself to aviation painting he would have been a great landscape painter, arguably the best from this part of the world. Most of his paintings are brilliant landscapes. His paintings "Battle of Tejgaon" 2'ftx3'ft AHQ Islamabad; "The Last Encounter" 2'ftx3'ft AHQ Islamabad; "Paybills" 2'ftx3'ft Ministry of Defence, Rawalpindi; and mural size "Riverine Assault" 12'ftx14'ft Naval HQ,Islamabad are all extraordinary landscapes. He is very careful about the time period he sets in his paintings. I first flew over Jamrud Fort in 1984, even at that time the surroundings were much different than what Hussaini has painted in "Red Dragons" 6'ftx4'ft AHQ,Islamabad. The painting is set in 1967 and his representation of time period and attention to detail are astonishing.

Hussaini’s early work has expressionist rawness and impressionist finesse. I saw his brilliant early painting " Hercules Bomber" 2'ftx3'ft in Headquarters Air Defense Command in mid eighties and was instantly awe-stricken by its biomorphic composition, bold colours and uncanny rhythm. It was a painting of a C-130 on bombing mission during 1965 war."Attack on Okha"2'ft x3'ft is another outstanding chiaroscuro of his experimental days. My favourite Hussaini has to be “Halwara” which he painted from the perspective of Sarfraz Rafiqui H.J. It has been composed on the diagonal and painted with poignant blue palette.

Surprisingly in the recent time Hussaini's canvas has "grayed" moving closer to image registration and event description. Gone are the bright vibrant colours and dramatic compositions.But I am sure he will inshallah come out of this phase.  It is very normal for great painters to go through these kinds of artistic phases.  Picaso’s blue phase can be an example which lasted almost five years. During those years Pablo Picasso painted principally monochromatic paintings in shades of blue and blue-green.

I have a very special bond with Hussaini ; a bond of respect and love. For me, he has always been a source of positive energy and encouragement. I remember his delight when I presented him a copy of my first published book. Later on, when he told me that he liked it, I was ecstatic. We had many sessions in his studio located at PAF Base Chaklala. We did couple of television programs. We talked history, painting,photography, and, of course, beautiful women. There were a lot of good jokes. Those are prized moments of my life. .

Although his batch mates might not agree, Hussaini is a true sufi. He is a very contended man.He simply loves what he does. For a man of his stature, prominence and substance his humility is amazing. Hussaini always dismissed my one, nagging objection that he "invented" or "glorified" some of the events in his paintings, but then the first casualty of the war is often truth.


  1. Remarkable!we are proud to have such a phenominal writer amongst us.

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