Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Triumph of Style


Even if we returned skillfully and victoriously to those wondrous paintings of Tamerlane's time . . . in the final analysis, all of it'll be forgotten, I said mercilessly, because everybody will want to paint like the Europeans."

My Enishte believed the same, Black confessed meekly, yet it filled him with hope.

—Orhan Pamuk, My Name Is Red 

We had two hours to cover the ground.  Even before we stepped into the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit Wonder of the Age:  Master Painters of India 1100-1900, we knew all was lost.  In the fond hope I’d mistaken the closing date, I braved the gift shop attendant’s dour demeanor and inquired.

“It closes January 8th," she said.  “It’s already been up three months.”  I wanted to respond in our defense that we don’t live here, but of course there was no point.  Our time was short, and we had much to do.

I made my choices ruthlessly.  I steeled myself to view a small sample in each room, with blinkers on as to the rest.  I sailed through, registering a color here, a line there, stopping at random before whatever caught my eye.  But what was I seeing?  Was I seeing anything at all?

My mate came in from the next room and whispered:  “Don’t miss the one with the cats.”  I’d already missed it, but I went back.  There indeed, not one cat, but two; one lapping milk from a toppled pitcher, another intent on a scrap.


The painting’s permanent home is the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar. The painter’s name is Farrukh Beg.  The painting, dated 1615, is called A Sufi sage, after the European personification of melancholia, Dolor.

Next to it was the engraving that inspired Beg’s work:  Dolor, by Raphael Sadeler I, after a drawing by Maarten de Vos.

That drawing, in turn, “was inspired in part by Dürer’s Melancholia I.”

I was put in mind of Orhan Pamuk’s novel My Name is Red.  Pamuk sets his readers down among miniaturist painters in sixteen century Istanbul, one of whom was murdered to conceal “an appalling conspiracy against our religion, our traditions and the way we see the world.”

The controversy raging at the time concerned the corrupting influence of “Frankish” painting—the use of perspective, elements of portraiture, and the like.   As the painter Enishte Effendi explained,
After beholding the portraits of the Venetian masters, we realize with horror . . . that, in painting, eyes can no longer simply be holes in a face, always the same, but must be just like our own eyes, which reflect light like a mirror and absorb it like a well.
Whether change in India provoked a such a deadly argument, I don’t know.  But change there was.  In India, painters had seen “themselves as part of a crafts tradition that drew from a common pool of pictorial ideas and established iconographies, and therefore considered it inappropriate to identify themselves as a picture’s creator.”  The Met exhibit turns this on its head by focusing on “individual artists and their oeuvres through an analysis of style.”

In My Name Is Red, style, to the painter known as Butterfly, was “imperfection,” to be avoided at all costs.  “‘[S]ignature’ and ‘style’ are but means of being brazenly and stupidly self-congratulatory about flawed work.”

Yet, in the face of commerce and interchange among societies, stasis necessarily gave way to change.  So, too, in the Met exhibit, we learn of Basawan, who, as the result of exposure to European art, introduced perspective and naturalistic trees and rocks.

A Muslim pilgrim learns a lesson in piety from a Brahman (1597-98)

We learn of Aqa Riza, who “favored the Iranian refined decorative approach over Akbar’s earthy naturalism . . . . which ultimately resulted in his loss of favor . . .”.   “[I]n the context of Mughal painting of the early seventeenth century, his work appeared inherently conservative, indeed archaic.”

A youth fallen from a tree (1610)

The trajectory from Pandit Seu is instructive, too:  one son, Manaku, followed his father’s “stylistic approach—precisely observed figures combined with a continuing preference for a flat application of color.”

South wind cools in the Himalayas (1730)

Pandit Seu's other son, Nainsukh, moved away from his father's style, borrowing, among other techniques, from the naturalism of the Mughal painters.

A Troup of trumpeters (1735-40)

And in the nineteenth century, the artist Shivalal depicted a hunting party crossing a river in a flood, which Met commentary speculates was “inspired by innovations in panoramic photography . . . . It is a surprisingly modern work, painted in the last decade of the century, which boldly asserts the validity of painting in the age of photography.”

Maharana Fateh Singh's hunting party crossing a river in a flood (1893)

Even so, the introduction of photography signified the beginning of the end: “the appearance of the glass-plate camera . . . effectively marked the end of the art of court painting in India.  A vogue for the hand-painted photograph provided an interregnum phase, but by the 1870s, the camera had replaced the palette.”

It’s the age-old story:  change is Janus-faced, yielding up dazzling gains and irrevocable loss.

<<<>>>

For music, I give you A. R. Rahman's Ghanan Ghanan, from the film Lagaan, set in the time of the British Raj.

Credits:  The quotations at the head of the post and of Enishte Effendi and Butterfly are from Orhan Pamuk's novel, My Name Is Red.  The quotations about the exhibit and its paintings are from Wonder of the Age:  Master Painters of India 1100-1900, the publication accompanying the Met exhibit. The source of the image of the Sadeler Dolor is here; that of the Dürer is here.  The image of the cover of My Name is Red is here.  The remaining photographs are mine, taken from postcards of the exhibit and the exhibit publication.

19 comments:

MILLY said...

This looks like a wonderful exhibition. How quickly the time passes in such situations, so much to see so little time.
My favourite is the Hunting party crossing the river in a flood. Thank you for another interesting
post.

I once spent 5hours in Vienna airport, the apple strudel was first class!
Best Wishes for 2012.

Britta said...

Dear Susan,
"change is Janus-faced, yielding up dazzling gains and irrevocable loss" - this is a beautiful bracket around your post. To gain something - here e.g. perspective - something else must be given up - here e.g. the colourful naivité. By the way: I like "South wind cools in the Himalayas" very much and think it almost astonishingly modern!
So you had only two hours to see all that splendour?
When you write: " I steeled myself to view a small sample in each room, with blinkers on as to the rest. I sailed through, registering a color here, a line there, stopping at random before whatever caught my eye" I thought: that is a metaphor for Life - which offers a banquet and we sail through, registering a color here, a line there".
You could glimpse at a wonderful exhibition. Thank you for sharing!

Suze said...

Susan, I clicked the link on the music as soon as I entered your site and listened as I read.

As always, I was deeply impressed by more than one statement. To quote back a few:

'in painting, eyes can no longer simply be holes in a face, always the same, but must be just like our own eyes, which reflect light like a mirror and absorb it like a well.'

And if the painters quoted below are to be believed (which I quite do,) eyes are channels, windows and tears in an invisible fabric which allow the invisible to pool into a shared experience.

'In India, painters had seen “themselves as part of a crafts tradition that drew from a common pool of pictorial ideas and established iconographies, and therefore considered it inappropriate to identify themselves as a picture’s creator.” '

This is something which makes very good sense to me, if only in part. I think, for utter lack of a more impressive articulation, that we are co-creators, potential partakers of the divine nature and (again, potentially) little Christs -- which I employ to mean 'anointed ones.'

' “‘[S]ignature’ and ‘style’ are but means of being brazenly and stupidly self-congratulatory about flawed work.” '

Hmm ... perhaps it is kinder to think of them as badges in a sea of mirrors of the divine light?

Rubye Jack said...

It's rough when you have to rush through an exhibit such as this, but you feature some great works here.
You don't agree that the camera replaced the palette do you? I find it hard to imagine that they wouldn't have co-existed. I agree -- the one with the cats must have been worth spending some time with.

Mohamed Mughal said...

The comments to your post are as colorful and thought-provoking as the post itself. Congrats on having such a thoughtfull following.

David said...

Fascinating paradoxes behind so much beauty. The Sufi-Saedeler-Durer link is one of many surprises. I'm assuming the exhibition highlighted the West-East dialogue, but you've brought so much of your own perception to it.

My own personal favourites are those watercolours of Mughal princes with falcons.

Friko said...

What a pity that you only had two hours to rush through the exhibition; what kind of post would you written if you had had more time.

As it is, it's fascinating and has whetted my appetite for much more exploration of my own.

wanderer said...

Just wonderful, you know, full of wonder, thank you. It would have taken me forever to discover those cats. My eyes are hypnotised by that marvelous tree, its whorling branch ends reminiscent of peacock feathers.

And that 1730 Manuku Seu "South wind.." Could that have been painted yesterday by one of our indigenous artists? I find it way ahead of its time. (Or is it the other way around?).

And the relationship of the advent of the camera to the role of the painter fascinates me. One is left to wonder what truth there is in either (Ms Sontag has thoughts on this), and without the unshackling by the camera, would painting have been so freed as to deliver us, say, Rothko. And even more (ridiculously) hypothetical, imagine no photography and what the astronaut whose sole mission was to document would have delivered us.

portraitsofwildflowers said...

You quoted the statement "the appearance of the glass-plate camera . . . effectively marked the end of the art of court painting in India. A vogue for the hand-painted photograph provided an interregnum phase, but by the 1870s, the camera had replaced the palette." In response, Rubye Jack asked: "You don't agree that the camera replaced the palette do you? I find it hard to imagine that they wouldn't have co-existed."

I wondered about that too, because in the 1870s photography was only a few decades old, and all of it was still in black and white; most of it remained so until well into the 20th century. Given how colorful the paintings you discussed were, I don't see how artists in countries with those traditions could have put them all aside and settled for the monochrome world of photography. And think about what had already happened to European painting in the 1870s: didn't that influence artists in the Middle East too?

Lou Freshwater said...

More than a little perturbed at myself for not even knowing about this. However, eternally grateful that you brought it to me in such a lovely way.

Andrew said...

I have just had a lovely browse around your blog....Thanks for sharing.

klahanie said...

Hi Susan,
Informative, intelligently written. I will let you off in regards to spelling in 'American' :)
Seriously though, despite your lack of time, the visual and the musical accompaniment, was perfect to set the ambience.
Thank you for sharing and at this rate, I might just become a bit more cultured. And that is not a reference to cottage cheese.
Take very good care.
With respect, Gary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan .. I love the post and the 'sadness' expressed that you were there on the last day .. but at least you got to see the Exhibition.

I've jotted down the book - and hope to read it sometime .. sounds very interesting about so many aspect of lives we know little about.

Thanks - excellently written - cheers Hilary

Susan Scheid said...

Milly: Always nice to see you, and congratulations on completion of your gorgeous year-long drawing project. The hunting party is fine, isn’t it? As for Vienna—5 hours in the airport, eh? That apple strudel needed to be first class!

Britta: Ah, a metaphor for life, so true. Puts me in mind of the wonderful Dickinson quote you chose for the head of your blog: "To live is so startling, it leaves little time for anything else." I agree with you, too, that the Manaku painting seemed very modern. Interesting how, at the time, the style was perceived as conservative, while Nainsukh’s was seen as cutting edge. (I do love those trumpeters, though.)

Suze: Interesting the quotations you chose. I wonder what you would make of Pahmuk’s novel? It’s a fascinating book. I loved his juxtaposition of the two quotes I used at the head of the post. Two worlds collide, right there.

Rubye Jack: No, I don’t agree that the camera replaced the palette, though certainly photography changed the direction painting took (wanderer’s comment speaks nicely to that, I thought). As I understand what the writer is saying, it’s the “art of court painting in India” that came to an end with the advent of photography. And, absolutely, the painting with the cats was rich beyond rich.

Mohamed Mughal: Thank you for stopping by, and I do agree, the comments are wonderful and greatly enhance my little post.

David: While this exhibit focused more on the research that identified painters and their workshops, recovering them from anonymity, certainly, as in the Dolor sequence, you can’t get away from the East-West dialogue—and who would want to? Some years ago, the Met had an exhibit, “Venice and the Islamic World,” where the East-West connection was front and center. It was spectacular, too.

Friko: I can only say I was very glad I snapped up an exhibit book. I realize, though only in retrospect, that I should have gone to the exhibit as soon as I arrived in town, bought the book, then gone back. At least I got there—and, as you say, it whets the appetite for more exploration. (Though set in Istanbul, the cross-currents are all there in Pahmuk’s book. Have you read it? I re-read it in conjunction with preparing the post and marveled again how he brought that time and place to life. I loved living inside the world of miniaturist painters and their controversies.).

Susan Scheid said...

wanderer: Thank you so much for stopping by. I agree with you (and Britta), that the Manaku seems very contemporary. So interesting, isn’t it? The relationship of the advent of the camera to the role of the painter fascinates me, too. (An astronaut without a camera is hard to imagine—but then again perhaps we’d have journals like those of the great explorers of old.)

portraits: Interesting point, that photography at that time was still in black and white. It is hard to understand how anyone would have given up the richness of those paintings for what photography had to offer, particularly at the time. I do remember leaving the exhibit wondering what happened next. More worlds yet to explore!

Lou: Hello there! So good to see you over here. It was a remarkable exhibit. Glad I was able to give you a glimpse of my glimpse, at least.

Andrew: Thank you for stopping by, and I enjoyed my peruse of your blog in return. As another blogger once wrote to me when I found him and he me, “let the conversation begin!”

Gary: Demeanour, demeanor—reminds me of that Cole Porter song: you say potato, I say potahto—you know the one? It is amazing how different our “englishes” are, isn’t it? I’m glad my lack of a “u” it didn’t put you off enjoyment of the post and accompanying music. By the way, if you haven’t seen it, Lagaan is a great piece of entertainment. The very best of Bollywood.

Hilary: This particular exhibit book was very useful. Sometimes, I find, they’re not as good as they should be, but this one was fascinating first page to last—and am I ever glad I have it.

How nice of you to carve time out to dip back and catch up with several other recent posts. It was interesting to look back on the various books I’d read about Vienna. I hadn’t realized Vienna had been with me for so much of the year—all by the happenstance of various recommendations. As for Monty Python, you may have noticed you weren’t alone in your view on that. I did hesitate about posting it. I set it aside a few times, but every time I came back to it, it made me laugh, so up it went. Simon’s cat, though (shoreacres put me on to that) was a “no-brainer”—straight-ahead fun. The playlist was a challenge, but fun to do, giving me a little trip down memory lane of my year in music.

Jayne said...

Susan- I'm here by way of Suze. This is a triumph of a post. You've introduced me to a whole new world of beautiful art, and it's history (as well as a book I now want to read). And to think, these works of art were thought of as sort of a collaborative craft, with little credit to the artist.

Thank you for sharing this. So much careful thought and time went into this post. I'd have thought you'd spent at least an entire day at the Met. (Isn't it so hard to leave that museum?)

New follower, Susan. Looking forward to reading more here. :)

Susan Scheid said...

Jayne: Thank you for stopping by and for the follow (which as you may have seen, I've reciprocated). I will have my hands full living up to your kind praise, I must say. I hope you enjoy your own explorations--and I look forward to our continuing conversation in the year ahead.

Mark Kerstetter said...

The 'south wind cools' picture - with the patchwork cliff-sides and the serpents - looks very contemporary to me, even more so than the 'hunting party' one.

Oh, 2 hours in the Met, there's a sort of torture! I think I'd confine myself to one or two galleries.

Thanks for the glimpse into a vast world.

shoreacres said...

I'm particularly fond of Beg's A Sufi Sage. The kitties are a nice touch, but I'm intrigued by the links to the Sadeler and Dürer pieces.

The date of the painting, 1615, reminded me of a soon-to-be-published book I want to get my hands on. It's titled "1616: The World in Motion", and is by Tom Christensen, director of creative services at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. You can get an overview of the book here, as well as links to the author's page and so on.

Sometimes the vertical view is best - as in the Beg/Sadeler/Dürer connection. But I suspect the "horizontal" view has its value, and I'm curious to see if Christensen's book doesn't help to put a good bit of unfamiliar art into a more accessible context.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...