Painting that exalts the eye and the spirit
Under the rule of tolerant Muslims, Indian artists of the Mughal Empire (1526-c. 1857) developed a very distinctive aesthetic. Court, epic, spirit: 15th-19th century Indian art at Luhring Augustine, in collaboration with Francesca Galloway, shows how varied their painted subjects were. The works, loosely organized around the three title themes, encompass battle scenes, such as “Battle between the Iranians and Turanians” (1450) and portraits – “Bust Portrait of a Prince, Probably Muhammad Sultan, the son of Aurangzeb” (1670) is a good example. The exhibition includes a magnificent large still life, “Irises on a Gold Background” (1669). A number of scenes depict sacred Hindu themes. In the exquisite “Lakshmana Gathers Elephant Flowers to Make a Garland” (1799-1810), for example, three of the figures sit on delicate purple ground against a lush dark green background, while a fourth picks buds of a flowering tree. on the right. The catalog explains that here Rama, boosting Sugriva’s confidence to fight his brother, Bali, asks Lakshmana to pick these flowers so that he, Sugriva, is visually distinguishable from his brother.
Are there works of art from anywhere in the world more beautiful than these Indian miniatures? Using intense, flat, unpatterned colors, employing shallow and generally perspectiveless stage sets, artists typically composed by addition, juxtaposing figures who often seem to exist almost without knowing each other. And some of the subjects are wonderfully fantastic. What happens in “A prince, an ascetic and drug addict sadhus(1790), attributed to Pemji, in which a huge crowd is gathered before these three named figures and their companions, seated in a delightfully elaborate setting? The very detailed description in the catalog identifies the smoking ascetic, addressed by a young prince, who holds a parrot and is accompanied by his armed guard. He explains that in the foreground are ascetics, “apparently stoned, either by smoking drugs or drinking”. bhang.” While helpful, this description doesn’t unveil the visual mysteries – what the hell is going on here? I really don’t understand, but I love the elaborate setting, in which the architecture and vegetation frame the scene. In the simpler work “A Man of Stately Presence” (1700-1730), a man dressed in a green striped garment is seated in front of a golden background on a white cushion placed on a flowered fabric; an orange and yellow border frames the image. Colors flash against each other, inspiring prolonged aesthetic ecstasy.
Looking at these small images, originally book illustrations, is exhilarating. And describe them, which inspires enchanting memories of the Indian paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that I reviewed a decade ago (“Indian Painters, 1100-1900”, Burlington magazine, January 2012), is totally enjoyable. I particularly enjoyed “Amir Hamza Clings to Rukh’s Legs to Bring Him Home Across the Sea” (1565), attributed to Dasvant, which shows the golden-feathered bird carrying Hamza across the blue sky blade. The colors are translucent and the composition, dominated by the mythical bird trying to peck Hamza as he clings on for life, is brilliant in the way this bird covers most of the picture plane. Many artists seem attracted to allover patterns. In “Battle between the Iranians and the Turanians” (circa 1450), a folio page from the Jainesque Shahnama, the frighteningly fighting characters make up a design as minutely detailed as that of a large Persian rug. Also consider “The Death of the Demons Mahodara, Devantaka, and Tristas” (1790), in which the battle between demons and humans takes place against a pale green setting that complements the orange, yellow, pink, and blue bodies of the struggling characters. . And in “Battle between Khwaja Qazi and Aba-Bikr at Uzgend in 1493-4” (1589), the group of heavily armed men attacking the castle paradoxically composes a beautiful decorative ensemble.
Why are these Indian miniatures so dazzling? I have no idea. Maybe a neurologist can explain how using naturalism with all the detail in a flat space catches the eye. It may be tempting to compare them to familiar examples of the Euro-American canon—their intense color with that of Alex Katz or David Hockney—but that would be doing a disservice to these works which are notable for their small scale and integration of the decor. , and revealing in itself. While “Madhu ragathird son of Raga Bhairava” (1630-50), which depicts two seated figures on the left and one on the right, has an affinity with Henri Matisse’s “The Conversation” (1908-12), in that the two show frontal confrontations (that of Matisse with his wife) against a blue background, where color is used to erase conflict, the figures in the older painting seem – like those in many of these miniatures – to have no visible inner life, for they live so intensely in The mythological stories may not be familiar to some viewers, but even without grasping the subject “Krishna’s wives honor the sage Narada and Krishna carries his vina for him on his arrival in Dwarka” (1720), for example, the dispersion of these four characters on an intense red background, framed by a wide yellow border surmounted by a blue curtain, is irresistible.I left this sober spectacle in the middle of the afternoon, but I felt visually completely satiated , as if I was But so high that my feet could barely touch the ground.
Raja Ram Sharma, a contemporary Indian artist born in 1963 who was trained in this style of art, makes modernist versions of these “old master” works. He depicted landscapes, as well as architecture and, in some cases, riderless horses (but not people), in colors less assertive than those of pre-20th century Indian paintings at Luhring Augustine. In stark contrast to the wars and, at times, drunken revelry of earlier works, it presents dark scenes showing deserted places in a style that evokes the modernist grid. Today, the exuberant fantasy is often replaced by a sense of mystery, similar to that found in Giorgio de Chirico’s early cityscapes. Sharma’s concurrent exhibition at Victoria Munroe Fine Art is worth seeing for anyone interested in this artistic tradition, as it reveals that the tradition lives on.
Court, Epic, Spirit: 15th – 19th Century Indian Art continues at Luhring Augustine (17 White Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through March 24. The exhibition was organized in collaboration with Francesca Galloway, London.
Raja Ram Sharma: contemporary Indian miniatures continues at Victoria Munroe Fine Art (67 East 80th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through March 12.