Gulgee, Ismail

Posted Nov 1, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version Bookmark and Share

Ismail Gulgee is an award-winning, globally famous Pakistani artist born in Peshawar on October 25, 1926. He is a qualified engineer in the USA and self-taught abstract painter. Before 1959, he painted the entire Afghan Royal Family.

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 is a gifted and consummately skilled naturalistic portrait painter who has enjoyed (according to Partha Mitter) “lavish state support” and plenty of elite commissions in this capacity. Nevertheless, he is perhaps best known worldwide for his abstract work, which is inspired by Islamic calligraphy and is also influenced by the “action painting” movement of the 1950s and 1960s. This is perhaps a natural enough 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 are often quite large. He is also known for using materials such as mirror glass and gold or silver leaf in his oil paintings, so that they are 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.”

Gulgee has since the 1960s also created sculptures, including bronze pieces that are (like so many of his paintings) calligraphic in form and inspiration [].

His paintings are bright and full of color, but the paint is 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 is very free, yet considered and well thought out. They work enormously well, because it is all orchestrated with great care and concentration.

Paintings are often commissioned, or go abroad and therefore only reach relatively small audience. He has had exhibitions in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

For more information on Ismail Gulgee, go to;