Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Garden and Cosmos

The British Museum are currently showing Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur, an exhibition previously at the Smithsonian.  The paintings have been loaned by the Mehrangarh Museum Trust and I should think images are copyright, but you can see some online here. The exhibition begins with a striking painting of Markandaya's ashram and the Ocean of Milk, its two halves prefiguring the predominant themes of later rooms - one shows activity in a lush landscape and the other a peaceful floating figure in a semi-abstract vision of the sea.  This makes it sound a bit like the Western equivalent of splicing together a Douanier Rousseau jungle and a Whistler seascape, which would look horrible... Laura Cumming has written a good description which will give you the idea:

'On the left, two distraught pilgrims have arrived at an ashram in a sylvan landscape of sage, peach, sherbet and every shade of green where the trees quiver with strange fruit and long-haired ascetics dream in leafy bowers - the dream of their leader, cross-legged in the middle consoling the pilgrims, being so vast it takes up the whole of the panel on the right.  And what a vision it is: the universe before consciousness and matter, the infinite nothingness before time. This is not portrayed as a void, or even the obliterating darkness William Blake imagined. The anonymous Indian master, also working in the late 18th century, has painted instead an expanse of deep indigo blue roiled by electric silver whorls: not quite water, not quite air, but some quasi-element between the two. The effect on the eye is stimulating yet faintly hypnotic - you might even call it cosmic.'

Unsurprisingly there are no independent landscapes or garden views in the exhibition - nature is a backdrop to scenes of court life and mythology.  But I think the curators rightly stress the importance of flowers, trees and running water in these scenes painted for the rulers of an arid land - Jodhpur is on the edge of the Thar desert.  Here is a description from the exhibition wall texts that I noted down, describing a series of paintings of sacred sites from 1827: 'Lush groves with starburst leaves, silver rivers and coloured peaks pervade these monumental paintings.  Jodhpur artists emphasised the otherworldly intensity of these sacred landscapes through colour, surface seen [do they mean sheen?] and the hypnotic repetition of motifs.'  Outside the British Museum there is small 'Indian landscape', which provided little respite today from the fierce city sun.  Relief from the heat came inside, where we were able to enjoy the paintings of Bakhat Singh (1725-1751) in his fort-palace at Nagaur (its lush gardens surrounded by flowering forest), bathing with beautiful women or savouring a moonlit evening.

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