The viewer who explores "Contemporary Paintings From Pakistan," which goes on view today at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, will feel both pain and pity. The Hirshhorn, one suspects, had the best of motives when it offered to exhibit these Pakistani painters. In doing so, however, it has done all but the best of them a distinct disservice.
The weakest works on view -- those '50-ish abstractions, those huge-eyed, dark-haired women peering over flowers -- are second-rate or worse. Had they been produced in London or Madrid, in Fairfax or Bethesda, they would never be displayed in a museum on the Mall. They are far out of their league there. They can't stand the competition.
International exhibits just as poor as this one are seen here all the time. One knows how such things happen. There are politics involved, and misplaced generosity, and much wishful thinking. General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, president of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, plans to be here in December on an official visit. Not coincidentally, Dr. Khalid Said Butt, director general of the Pakistan National Council of the Arts, arranges a simultaneous exhibit to show to the Americans the new painting of his land. The Hirshhorn agrees to host it. The painters represented, in a sense, are pawns.
Many of them no doubt yearn, as do so many other artists of the Third World, for a Washington exhibit, for international exposure. They get it -- and are crushed.
Much that's half-familiar -- some trace of Persian miniatures, and of New York abstract painting, and of Islamic calligraphy -- appears in this exhibit, but most of this seems second-hand. Colin David's half-naked woman in blue jeans looks like somebody one might find on the cover of a paperback. Naseem Cheema Rauf's flower paintings look like objects from a sidewalk show. The strongest works displayed -- Ali Imam's gray self-portrait, painted with a palette knife, or Zahoorul Akhlaq's large and nearly abstract grid that flickers with small images, an embryo, a dog, a farmer on a buffalo -- cannot save this exhibition. It closes Dec. 26.
Another international disservice, less excusable, has been done to nine contemporary artists from Finland by Meridian House International, 1630 Crescent Place NW. Meridian House exhibits, and this one is no exception, are hideously installed--on pianos, patterned carpets or mustard-yellow walls. At least the Hirshhorn tries. If Meridian House is unwilling to set up a reasonable exhibition space, it ought to get out of the international art exhibit business. The Finnish show may have its virtues. It's impossible to tell. It closes Jan. 6.