At the center of the Peabody Essex Museum’s recently expanded South Asian Art galleries are five large paintings from M.F. Husain’s 1971 series on the Mahabharata epic about a family divided by war. In one painting, a yellow line slices the composition, bisecting a female nude. In another, two silhouettes mirror each other’s gestures, but one is black, the other fuchsia, and arrows beneath them point in different directions.
They are a powerful metaphor for the 1947 Partition that split the subcontinent into Pakistan and India and, here, Husain’s paintings underscore the break between the two sections of this inaugural installation. The first consists of 19th-century works that merchants, officers and sailors—members of the East India Marine Society of Salem—brought back as souvenirs; the second presents a lively and varied selection of mid- and late-20th-century works that Chester and Davida Herwitz collected from the 1970s through the 1990s.
The aim is not to chronicle a history of South Asian art—there is no chronological order or mention of, say, the Company School or the Progressive Artists Group. Instead, Siddhartha V. Shah, the museum’s curator of South Asian art and director of education and civic engagement, wants us to experience the works from many perspectives and doesn’t hesitate to reach out and occasionally give us a little shake. /free access link to full review/
Clothes as Canvas
1 March 2021 ~ The Wall Street Journal
Claiming the spotlight in the center of a large gallery, the “Worcester Wedding Kimono” captivates the eye with its pattern of large interlocking octagons in a variety of rich reds, spring greens and soft yellows. They are stylized maple leaves, inspired by the local landscape over different seasons—but they were not meant to be the centerpiece of “The Kimono in Print: 300 years of Japanese Design,” which explores the ways fashion and printmaking have intersected in Japan. The kimono, commissioned by and for the Worcester Art Museum, was supposed to have appeared in a concurrent show organized in conjunction with Chiso, a kimono-making workshop in Kyoto in operation since 1555.
Covid-19 disrupted that plan, and the museum’s curatorial team deftly adapted. They transformed “Kimono Couture: The Beauty of Chiso” into an online presentation about the history and making of kimonos, each installment pegged to a piece that would have been on display. The final section centers on this garment, the only one to travel here from Japan. In its new venue, surrounded by a selection of some 60 woodblock prints and illustrated books, most from the museum’s permanent collection, the kimono underscores the extent to which these garments act like canvases. Nobody has ever crimped, pleated or ruched their fabric; nobody has ever significantly altered their basic T-cut. All decoration and artistry takes place on their surfaces. In this case, Imai Atsushiro, Chiso’s senior designer, devised the composition, and a team of specialized artisans transferred it onto jacquard silk using five dyeing techniques, embroidery and gold leaf. /free-to-read link to full review/
The Math Behind Mesmerizing Islamic Patterns
30 January 2021 ~ The Wall Street Journal
Scientists analyze the world’s complexity to identify its underlying universal laws. Mystics immerse themselves in life’s complexity to experience a spiritual unity. And Arab artists from the eighth to 10th centuries combined both impulses as they began designing ever more elaborate geometric patterns. Richard Henry, a respected teacher in the field, describes the resulting art form as “the beauty of heavens brought down to earth.”
Whether a carpet with motifs that seem to flow beyond the fabric’s edges or walls teeming with interlocking patterns whose figure-ground relationships are at times ambiguous, Islamic geometrics both excite the eye and calm the spirit. As explosive as some designs feel; as random as some shapes appear; and as overwhelming as the juxtaposition of ornamentations can be, undergirding each—like an unseen safety net—is a mathematical structure.
Stepping into the South Asian galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (which reopened on Jan. 8 after being closed due to Covid-19), we walk between two large figures that artists in South India carved around 1560. They don’t immediately register as pillars, so prominently do the sculptures protrude. One portrays a handsome young man sitting under a tree looking rather pleased with himself. He is Rama, god and hero of the Ramayana epic, flanked by his wife, Sita, and the ever-loyal monkey king, Hanuman, carved in relief on either side of the monolithic pillar. Opposite him stands a bearded man with the haunches of a beast, leaning forward, club raised to do battle. Yet this “man-beast,” or Purushamirukam, feels more theatrical than menacing with his mound of neatly coiffed hair, delicately arched eyebrows, and loads of jewelry. He isn’t about to attack; he’s enacting a story.
This feeling of performance intensifies as we take in the pillared temple hall—or mandapa—that fills the rest of the gallery. Rows of slender columns demarcate three sides of a rectangle within which 10 more life-size figures, bejeweled from headdress to anklet, face one another across a broad space. Above them, lions look down from the capitals and a partial frieze of reliefs illustrates scenes from the Ramayana while, on the slender columns and the sides and backs of the figural pillars, a plethora of mostly smaller reliefs beckon. They include baby Krishna dancing with delight, a ball of butter cupped in each hand; an architect-priest with his measuring stick; musicians, dancers, animals; and, twice, a pregnant woman sitting, head resting in her hand. She is likely Sita in a fraught scene from an addendum to the Ramayana. (Photographs and a video on the museum’s website can’t capture the carvings’ impact but provide useful aids.)
To 16th-century South Indians, these reliefs and monumental figures conjured verses penned by revered saints and episodes from epics and local folk tales. To gather in a mandapa, then, was to take part in a festival, attend a performance or join a social gathering, all in the company of divine, literary and royal personages. But while the configuration in the museum follows basic conventions for mandapas, it does not replicate a structure that once existed. It can’t. Its 60-plus blocks of carved granite were lying in a pile of rubble when Adeline Pepper Gibson, Philadelphia heiress and lover of art, purchased them from a trustee of the Madana Gopala Swamy Temple in Madurai in 1912.
There is no record of when the mandapa was dismantled (most likely to make way for new construction), nor any information about its original configuration. Darielle Mason, the museum’s curator for South Asian and Himalayan art, knows there was “a logic to each element” and thought-out relationships among figures, but holds little hope of ever re-creating what an architect-priest was thinking centuries ago. Her research has, however, convinced her that almost everything Pepper purchased was part of a single mandapa; that it was probably open on at least three sides, as suggested by the gallery’s sky blue walls; and that Rama and Purushamirukam belong with the others who stand in the center, inviting us to come close.
Nothing—no strip along the floor, no pane of glass—gets in the way of our admiring the skill it took to carve into hard granite the delicate ridges of a robe, the smooth swell of a belly, the curl of a lip or each graduated bead of a necklace. There is a sense of incipient movement, whether it is a slightly bent knee or the start of a bow. We recognize Hanuman by the long, sinuous tail; a demigod by a small, sharp fang; and the bird-god Garuda by the broken-off quills and feathers of wings. Two of the figures hold gourds, marking them as sages, and four appear to be saints. Then there is the muscular, mustachioed warrior standing atop diminutive pachyderms who, like Purushamirukam, holds a mace poised midair. He is Bhima of the Mahabharata epic, a man with the strength of 10,000 elephants, emerging from stone into our world like a superhero.
It is astonishing to think that, until relatively recently, art historians paid little serious attention to this period in South India’s art history. Crispin Branfoot, a reader at SOAS University of London, has helped give proper due to an artistic genre that flowered in Madurai from the late 16th to the 18th century. Anyone interested in finding out more about its genesis and development will enjoy “Sculpting Devotion in South India,” a talk Mr. Branfoot gave in 2019—accessible on the museum’s YouTube channel —and photographs of Madurai’s Meenakshi temple on Mere Pix Media’s website that illustrate a later stage with horses rearing, gods dancing, and characters interacting in full-blown vignettes.
The pillars’ configuration does not reflect Ms. Mason’s latest findings—it was set up in the late 1930s and, given the tonnage of stone involved, is unlikely to change anytime soon. But that in no way diminishes the impact of witnessing an exuberant art form where heroes, saints and gods stepped out of pillars to astound us with their power and their myriad tales. (read online)
‘Hands & Earth:’ A Kiln-Fired Culture
10 December 2020 ~ The Wall Street Journal
In Kato Tsubusa’s 3-foot-tall sculpture, “Object,” you can feel the ceramist stretching, slicing and pinching the thick slabs of white porcelaneous clay that rise into a soaring, ragged peak—and sense the slow pouring of pale celadon glaze so that it flows down the sides and pools at the base like melted snow. In Maeta Akihiro’s white porcelain pot, however, the artist’s hand is invisible. After shaping the small mouth, tapering the base, flaring and faceting the body, the artist ran a blade over the surface, erasing all traces of his fingers and palm. The result is a work whose heft and purity of form exude calm.
Such contrasts abound in “Hands & Earth: Perspectives on Japanese Contemporary Ceramics”—and so do affinities, subtle connections and jaw-dropping displays of mastery. Of the 35 ceramists featured, seven have been deemed Living National Treasures, many have received prestigious awards, and all have met with critical success…. /free-to-read link to full review/
Abroad at Home: Into the Worlds of Islamic Architecture
17 October 2020 ~ The Wall Street Journal
There, in my mailbox, crammed among magazines, bills and fliers, was a travel brochure. An ill-conceived bit of marketing perhaps, but one that inspired a trip—without leaving my apartment. Since I’ve been reading a lot lately about Islamic architecture and design, compiling a wish list of destinations proved easy; the challenge lay in selecting among those well-suited to my mode of transportation: online panoramic images that allow us to look up, down, turn around and zoom in.
A virtual tour by AramcoWorld magazine offers an ideal start: It’s hard to imagine visiting Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock with a more expert and engaging guide than Oleg Grabar, a groundbreaking and widely influential scholar of Islamic art who died in 2011…. read full review
The Staying Inside Guide: Immersive Painted Worlds
23 June 2020 ~ The Wall Street Journal
Staying inside may dictate where we plant our feet, but it doesn’t prevent our minds from traveling. Tapping into this special ability, artists in China developed landscape painting as an independent genre in the 10th and 11th centuries, creating works that invite viewers to wander through magnificent, believable fictions.
Unlike European landscapes, which came into their own in Italy some five centuries later, Chinese landscapes don’t usually wow us with color or read well from a distance. Whether they fill large hanging scrolls or smaller horizontal ones, hand-held fans or leaf-through albums, they are meant to be experienced close up in a prescribed progression—vertical compositions from bottom up, horizontal ones right to left.
For an engaging introduction to a tradition that has nourished the spirit of countless generations of art lovers, watch Part 2 of the BBC’s “The Culture Show: The Art of Chinese Painting” on YouTube. It picks up the story after 1104, when the Song Dynasty Emperor Huizong, himself an artist, established the first imperial school to educate would-be scholars in painting. From an artisanal occupation, the medium became an art of self-cultivation and landscapes the genre most commonly used for self-expression. Such scholar paintings “became more expressive of [their] individualism,” says Chia-Ling Yang, senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, each a realistically drawn “mind image.”
They created these using brush and ink, the tools of calligraphy, scholars’ premier artform. This connection is crucial, and Maxwell Hearn, head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Asian department, explains it effectively in “How to Read Chinese Painting,” an illustrated lecture at the Cleveland Museum of Art (accessible on that museum’s YouTube channel).
Mr. Hearn describes calligraphy’s graphic qualities—dynamic, emotive, gestural, three-dimensional—and the ephemeral “balance between making something look naturalistic and something that has this abstract force that carries the vigor, the energy of the writer himself.” Walking us through a landscape by Zhao Mengfu from about 1310, Mr. Hearn points out the “center-tip brush for the outlines [of trees], the sharp calligraphic flourishes of the pine needles. So he’s transforming nature into calligraphy.” And, he adds, “if calligraphy is an autobiographical record of the movement of the hand, he’s just made himself into pine trees and rocks.”
There is also often a subtext whose decoding requires knowing about the artist and his circumstances as well as the earlier paintings and vocabulary of symbols he draws upon. Doubling as portraits of endurance, evergreens might voice the determination to survive a hostile ruler or the hope of reuniting with a friend.
Just as important is a landscape’s ability to capture the power of nature, so that a viewer sitting indoors can experience the quiet of a garden or the wonder of a mountain range. A 2018 CUNY TV report (on YouTube) about a Met exhibition, “Streams and Mountains Without End: Landscape Traditions of China,” shows the variety within the landscape genre. It features Joseph Scheier-Dolberg, the museum’s associate curator of Chinese painting and calligraphy, describing how viewers enter lyrical scenery, move through space and time, perch on promontories to drink in the vastness of space.
For a deeper dive, dip into a couple of the lectures in “A Pure and Remote View: Visualizing Early Chinese Painting,” a comprehensive series by scholar James Cahill (1926-2014) and available on the Institute of East Asian Studies’ site. Lecture 4B, “Tang Dynasty Landscape Painting,” ferrets out the origins of the landscape genre, singling out elements that became standard features. These include figures or other signs of human presence, compositions that embody “a kind of bleak grandeur,” and lines or strokes tailored to specific purposes, a theme he pursues in lecture 7A on the early Song dynasty, the golden age of landscape painting.
Finally, a recurring theme in discussions of Chinese painting is the practice of copying old masters, and in a talk at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, artist Arnold Chang helps us understand its importance. In “The Persistence of Tradition in Contemporary Chinese Painting” (available on YouTube), he describes mimicking a past master as a way “to understand how a great artist made something from nothing” so that one can then do this oneself. He sees the process as an enriching “transhistorical aesthetic dialogue.”
Try them. As Mr. Chang promises, “The connection that you make between the original, seen through your eyes and transmitted through your hand and onto the paper of your copy, will give you insights that you can’t gain by any other method.” (read online)
Astrolabe Tech Made… not so easy
May-June 2019 ~ AramcoWorld magazine
Let me start with a confession: I am no engineering whiz, but I like to know how things work. I studied religion, and I often write about art, which is how I became entranced by astrolabes. Their beauty is mesmerizing, but their efficacy as an instrument leaves me perplexed. Imagine a medieval lass trying to ferret out the secrets of a smartphone, or even a dumb phone. Well, that’s how I feel, and I don’t like it.
So I’ll set myself a task: I, a Brooklynite, am going to find my way around an unfamiliar city—Boston—using an astrolabe. To get started, I ask Sara Schechner about this. She is a historian of science with a special interest in the history of astronomy, and she curates the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard University. “It can’t do that,” she says. “Astrolabes,” she explains to this liberal arts major, “aren’t navigation devices. They’re early computers.”…. read the whole article and watch the accompanying video(there’s no firewall!)