East meets West – in 17th Century India

Bichitr, Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings from the St. Petersburg Album, 1615-1618.

Last week, I came across a miniature painting, Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings, from 17th century Mughal India which perfectly portrays the meeting of East and West and the beginning of the blending of cultures and influences which eventually led to the world becoming a smaller place. The miniature was painted in the Mughal court, from where it went to Persia after the invasion by Nadir Shah in 1739 where the back floral motif was added to the painting.  After this, the painting reached St. Petersburg in Russia (I am not sure how this happened – I will need to research this further).  It is now at the Freer Gallery in the Smithsonian Museum of Asian Art. 

Bichitr (b 1585), a Hindu court artist lived and worked in the court of Jahangir where he painted the Mughal emperor and the happenings in his court.  Between 1615 and 1618, he painted this watercolor, gold leaf, and ink miniature masterpiece which shows Jahangir granting audience to four men who are lined up in the order of importance Jahangir is showing them. 

Jahangir seated on an hourglass throne

Jahangir – the second Mughal emperor of India was the son of the Great Akbar is seen seated on an hourglass throne.  Jahangir liked to be glorified in paintings, and was responsible for the flourishing of Italian Renaissance style painting in his court. Jahangir has a halo of both the sun and moon behind his head, which symbolizes his exalted status.

The hourglass was most likely brought to court in 1584 by an English goldsmith

A connection with Europe is seen in the hourglass which was a European invention.  It has been painted from a gold hourglass that was most likely brought to the court in 1584 by an English goldsmith William Leedes.  Similar European hourglasses from this period are found in museums across Europe.  Two cupids (puttos) at the base of the hourglass are a direct influence of Christian iconographic devices in European art.  Another European influence is the grotesque looking three headed figure at the base of the footstool that is eerily reminiscent of gargoyles.

The Ottoman King – The second person in line is an Ottoman King (though exactly who is unknown) from present day Turkey who stands patiently waiting his turn with his hands folded in deference.

King James – Bichitr painted King James I (1566-1625) of England from a portrait by John De Crtiz (left) which was given to Jahangir by Thomas Roe, the first English ambassador to the Mughal court.  Thomas Roe traveled to Ajmer in 1615 in order to secure trading concessions for the East India Company.  John De Critz (1551–1642) was a Flemish painter who came to England from the Netherlands and was appointed Serjeant-painter to James I in 1605. While the King customarily rests his hand on his sword in de Critz’s painting, it is hovering in a conspicuously non-threatening manner above the sword in Bichitr’s painting. Both kings who wait in line to be seen by Jahangir are from far flung empires showing us that the world has always been interconnected. 

Bichitr: Portrait within a portrait

Self-portrait – The person closest to us (who ironically is the smallest) is the artist himself who has forgone perspective for the sake of aggrandizing his patron Jahangir. That Bichitr had been influenced by Italian Renaissance perspective is evident from the small portrait within the portrait in which he has painted himself with two horses and an elephant (all gifts to him from Jahangir).  He shows his utmost gratitude to Jahangir by bowing deeply before his king.  The portrait within the portrait is made with depth perspective and shows the artist’s skill and the influence of Italian techniques in his work.

This brilliant miniature from the early 1600s shows us how interconnected and small the world was even then.  It is a perfect blending of Persian and Hindu cultures, of European and Turkish influences, and of religious iconography and symbolism – showing us that the world and its peoples have always traveled the globe seeking new people and places.   

The Scientist Artist

English artist Joseph Wright of Derby (1734 – 1797) was the scientist artist, a master of chiaroscoru – of capturing candlelit nocturnal scenes of fascinating science experiments, a master at capturing the varied human reactions to these experiments. At the same time, his paintings tell us he is an enlightened thinker, a philosopher who is questioning the morality of these experiments, the wisdom in tampering with nature, and in interfering with God’s will.

In An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768), he captures the essence of childhood wonder, the passions of youth, and the wisdom of age in the motley group of people that that are viewing the experiment. But for the rudimentary scientific experiment, this could be happening today – and the human element of the painting would remain unchanged – which I think is what makes Joseph Wright of Derby’s work so timeless.

A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (1763 -65), The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus (1771), and The Iron Forge (1772) (clockwise). In addition to showing the artist’s mastery with the use of chiaroscuro or candlelit effect, they stand as a record of the scientific progress being made in the Age of Enlightenment.

Camille Pissarro – Haussmann’s Gift to Paris

While Haussmann created the City of Lights, Pissarro painted it as it glowed in this light from morning until night, from spring until snow.

Haussmannization of Paris

Paris at the dawn of the 19th Century was a very different city from the one that closed out the century – a medieval, overcrowded, dark city with narrow streets was transformed into an light and airy city that radiated out of the Arc de Triomphe with wide boulevards flanked by Chestnut trees and beautiful buildings made of white Lutetian limestone and adorned with carvings and wrought iron balconies. The two people responsible for this transformation were Emperor Napoleon III (nephew of the Napoleon) and Georges-Eugene Haussmann.

It was a match made in heaven for these two – they gutted the city with little regard for its present or past residents and displaced 350,000 residents and over 6 million graves. And while people complained endlessly about the endless construction and the endless cost – out of all this finally arose the beautiful City of Lights we know today.

It is to the brilliant Prefect of the Seine, Baron Haussmann, that Paris owes much of its beauty. The buildings that line the wide boulevards are called Haussmanns and are one of Paris’s most defining features. Each apartment building was five stories high, with a nonnegotiable uniform exterior façade – its height in proportion to the width of the boulevard. The interiors could vary according to the owner’s preference.

The ground floor had high ceilings and was for retail stores and offices, the first or mezzanine floor had low ceilings and was for storage for the first floor. The most desirable floor was the second floor or the noble floor, which had beautiful windows and wrought iron balconies. The third and fourth floor had smaller balconies and windows. Each building has a uniform 45-degree mansard roof.

Artist Gustave Caillebotte seemed to love the newly transformed Paris as well!!

Matryoshka Dolls

For my birthday, one of my friends gave me a set of Russian Matryoshka dolls.  They are absolutely beautiful, and I love opening them one by one to take out the smaller doll from inside the bigger doll – there is something so satisfying about the smoothness with which the dolls come apart and reveal their secret – I’m not surprised they are so loved by Russians and everyone else. 

My beautiful birthday present has a set of 10

The Matryoshka dolls, also called babushka dolls or nesting dolls, are made of lime, birch, alder or linden wood. Once the logs are cut, they are left to aerate for two years before the wood is ready to be carved.  Highly skilled artisans carve the doll, starting with the smallest doll that cannot be taken apart and working their way to the biggest doll in the set.  Once the carving is complete, the doll is covered in glue to smooth out the surface and get it ready for painting

The dolls are mostly painted in Russian folk art form and depict a delightful village life. In one popular version, the dolls look like Russian peasant girls with colorful scarves (or babushkas hence the name), and are wearing sarafans (pinafore dresses) and carrying baskets, flowers, or a scythe. Sometimes the set is a complete family with children, sometimes they depict Russian nobility, sometimes they are painted to represent the time period or some newsworthy event – for example in 1909 to celebrate the anniversary of Russian dramatist Nikolai Gogol, the dolls were painted like characters from his books.

Traditional Russian Nesting Dolls

The first Russian dolls were carved in 1890 by craftsman Vasily Zvyozdochkin and painted by Sergey Malyutin.  They were both folk artists who worked under the patronage of Savva Mamontov, a wealthy industrialist. The dolls gained global exposure when Mamontov’s wife presented the dolls at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris where they won the bronze medal.

The dolls were named after the Russian name “Matryona,” which was a very popular name in Russia in the late 1800s.  The name is derived from the Latin word “mater” for mother, and since the motherly name fit the dolls perfectly and the name stuck.  The most number of dolls in one set is 48, and it was made in 1913 in the city of Semyonov. My set has 10, as does my sister’s set which is actually Czech not Russian.

Though considered quintessentially Russian, the first nesting dolls are from Song Dynasty in China (1000 CE) where the smallest doll would be holding a grain of rice.  From here they went to Japan where the seven luck Gods were made as seven nesting dolls, with Fukurokuju the Japanese god of happiness as the biggest and the other six nesting inside.  It is speculated that it was these Japanese dolls which served as the inspiration for the first Russian dolls.

“Our Life” in Tiles

Art on buildings, among other public places, was a big thing for socialist countries – and in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz is one of the most iconic and largest of these artworks. It wraps around two floors of the East German Ministry of Education’s “House of the Teachers” building like a bandage.

Artist Walter Womacka (1925 – 2010) was chosen by the East German government to make this mural – and the large-scale socialist realism mosaic built in 1964 is now a protected landmark. Its popularity probably stems from the colorful folk-art vibe which is so much softer and fun than hardline socialist propaganda art.Womacka called his mural with 800,000 tiles “Our Life,” and that’s precisely what it depicted – various aspects of life in East Germany that the government wanted to showcase.

This section of the mural depicts worldwide friendship and harmony

(All images courtesy Instagram and Haus des Lehrers website).

Soup Tins & Comic Strips(II)

Andy Warhol, Coca Cola 5 bottles, 1962

Pop Art gave America some of its most well-known and beloved artists and iconic paintings, and proved to be a form of self-affirmation for a young nation still looking to old European masters for inspiration and approval. Andy Warhol (1929-1987), whose name has become synonymous with Pop Art is the leading figure of this movement. His creative peak was between 1962 and 1968, when he produced a series of paintings which proved to be the high-point of the pop art movement.

Having had a previous career in advertising, Warhol favored commercial techniques, and was keenly aware of the way imagery could be manipulated. His soup tin and head of Marilyn Monroe with which he has become inextricably linked are considered pop art icons. In Marilyn Monroe (1964), Andy Warhol painted twenty-five images of Marilyn Monroe emphasizing how easily the image can be mass produced. A closer look, however, reveals that each head varies slightly from the next, “here the eye shadow is darker, there the hair is lighter, in another place the lips are smudged.” (John Sandberg, Art Journal). In Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962), by removing soup tins from the supermarket aisle and placing them in a new setting, Warhol changed the way America looked at art.

Roy Lichtenstein, Whaam! 1963
Roy Lichtenstein, Drowning Girl, 1963

Another groundbreaking pop artist, Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) looked to comic strips for inspiration right down to the Benday dots used in cheap comic strip printing.  With Whaam! (1963), Lichtenstein took a highly charged subject matter and shows it in a completely detached emotionless way.  According to Tate Modern, this was commercial art in a fine art context.  In the melodramatic Drowning Girl (1963), he copied a comic strip right down to the dots. 

Peter Blake, Beatles Album Cover

British Pop Art, though inspired by America was less brash.  It seems softer and bordered on nostalgia. Peter Blake (b. 1932), a member of the avant-garde British pop artist Independent Group, whose original claim to fame was the co-creation of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, is a leading figure in British pop art. In one of his most well-known works Self-Portrait with Badges (1961), Blake pays homage to tradition with the badges, and to popular culture, particular American culture, with baseball shoes, denim fabric, and the magazine dedicated to Elvis Presley who had just become famous in Britain (Tate Modern).

Peter Blake, The FIrst Real target, 1961

In The First Real Target (1961), in true Pop Art fashion, an everyday item becomes an item of visual interest.  Moreover, by alluding to American pop artist Jasper Johns, who is known for painting targets, Blake acknowledges the appeal and influence of American pop art and popular culture. 

The Pop Art movement faded away by the end of the 1970s, but left its mark on the art world. It made ordinary, recognizable objects into visual art and paved the way for artists to explore the nature of art which in turn led to experimentation and art movements such as Postmodernism, Photorealism, and Neo-Expressionism.

Ia short span of less than two decades, Pop Art unchained the fine art, highbrow shackles that had chained art for centuries, and made it fun, vibrant, colorful, relatable, and democratic. The movement’s most enduring legacy, however, is that it has made the world a little less rigid, and a little more tolerant and open-minded.  It showed the world that there is more than one way of seeing things, and in so doing, forever changed the way the world looks at art.

Magritte, Kierkegaard, & de Saussure

If you name me, you negate me. By giving me a name, a label, you negate all the other things I could possibly be.” Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855).

Rene Magritte (1898–1967) was a Belgian surrealist artist who is known for challenging the viewers’ preconditioned perceptions of reality.One could wax and wane endlessly about the philosophical underpinnings of his pipe painting, Treachery of Images (1929). Or the way I understand it – Magritte was saying two things here – this is not a pipe since you can’t really stuff some tobacco into it and smoke it as you would a pipe. The second is that it’s not a pipe because it’s an image of a pipe. And really the word pipe can be changed at any time to say for instance pig – in which case – this would still no longer be a pipe. So the word and the image are simply representations of the real thing, and not the real thing.

The Interpretation of Dreams 1935

Words and images are human representations of the real live tangible thing which we can touch and experience. They have names because we gave them these names – there is always a disconnect between the real thing and the way we see and name something – perhaps that’s why the images are also painted through a window.

Key to Dreams 1927 …the sky, the bird, the table, the sponge

The paintings are depictions of the challenges put forth by the influential Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) who clearly saw that the relationship between a thing and its name are totally arbitrary. The word gets its meaning from existing within a context of the system of naming that exists and has existed for centuries. Magritte challenged this same arbitrary relation in these paintings.

The Key To Dreams, 1930 …. the acacia flower, the moon, the snow, the roof, the storm, the desert

So Magritte, Kierkegaard, & de Saussure come together to help us understand and challenege, and find new ways of looking at old things.

Ragged Old Flag

On this Flag Day, I wanted to honor the flag with this poem by Johnny Cash.

Ragged Old Flag

I walked through a county courthouse square
On a park bench an old man was sitting there
I said, your old courthouse is kinda run down
He said, naw, it'll do for our little town
I said, your old flagpole has leaned a little bit
And that's a ragged old flag you got hanging on it

He said, have a seat, and I sat down
Is this the first time you've been to our little town?
I said, I think it is
He said, I don't like to brag
But we're kinda proud of that ragged old flag

You see, we got a little hole in that flag there when 
Washington took it across the Delaware
And it got powder-burned the night Francis Scott Key
Sat watching it writing say can you see
And it got a bad rip in New Orleans
With Packingham and Jackson tuggin' at its seams

And it almost fell at the Alamo
Beside the texas flag, but she waved on though
She got cut with a sword at Chancellorsville
And she got cut again at Shiloh Hill
There was Robert E. Lee, Beauregard, and Bragg
And the south wind blew hard on that ragged old flag

On Flanders field in World War one
She got a big hole from a Bertha gun
She turned blood red in World War Two
She hung limp and low a time or two
She was in Korea and Vietnam
She went where she was sent by Uncle Sam

She waved from our ships upon the Briny foam
And now they've about quit waving her back here at home
In her own good land here she's been abused 
She's been burned, dishonored, denied, and refused

And the government for which she stands
Is scandalized throughout the land
And she's getting threadbare and wearing thin
But she's in good shape for the shape she's in
'Cause she's been through the fire before
And I believe she can take a whole lot more

So we raise her up every morning
We take her down every night
We don't let her touch the ground and we fold her up right
On second thought, I do like to brag
'Cause I'm mighty proud of that ragged old flag

(Images Courtesy Smithsonian.com, US Govt and War Archives Websites)

Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose

Ye Shepherds tell me
Tell me have you seen,
Have you seen My Flora pass this way?
In shape and feature's beauty queen,
In pastoral, in pastoral array

A wreath around her head
Around her head she wore
Carnation, lily, lily, rose
And in her hand a crook she bore
And sweets her breath compose.

The Wreath, Joseph Mazzinghi (1765 - 1844)

Expatriate American artist, John Singer Sargent, was invited to stay and recuperate from a head injury in the Cotswold village of Broadway by his friend and fellow American expat artist Edwin Austin Abbey.  Here a group of artists would gather around a piano and sing the popular song, and spend glorious evenings together either playing tennis or going on boating expeditions on the Thames.  It was during one such boating expedition, when the natural light of the day was fading, that Sargent saw some Chinese lanterns hanging amidst trees and lilies in a garden. This vision of that exact purple twilight moment in the day when natural light gets replaced by artificial light captured Sargent’s fantasy, and he spent the next few months trying to capture that light, the result of which was the absolutely spellbinding painting which he titled Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose.

He chose two sisters, daughters of a fellow artist for the painting because they had hair of the exact color he was looking for.  Every evening, Sargent would stop his tennis game, and wait in the spot with his models for the light to be exactly like he wanted and paint for a few moments.  He repeated this every evening from September to November 1885, when the light changed completely with the changing season.  He then resumed in the summer of 1886 and completed the painting in October 1886.

Lantern with illuminated ridges. Courtesy Tate Britain.

The painting is simply mesmerizing. In it Sargent has captured the twilight moment when natural light is replaced by artificial light, the innocence of childhood with the intense childlike concentration at the task of lighting the lanterns, the beauty of the late summer foliage in the darkness of the leaves and the maturity of the flowers, and the glow in the white cotton-linen dresses of the girls.  The young girls themselves are surrounded by a garden that forms a protective cocoon around them, the eye goes upward with the growing size of the flowers, and the age old Japanese technique of the increasing size of the flowers as the eye moves upward has the effect of bringing the background forward. At the same time the eye moves along the curve of the lantern string, stopping with the two central figures, where balance is achieved with the two girls facing each other.  The glow of the lanterns, some brighter than others, illuminate their faces and dresses, and the ridges of the lanterns. The painting draws you in – into the world of the fleeting light of dusk, and of fleeting childhood summers.