Things posted to Tumblr: Gandhara bodhisattvas

I’ve been enjoying posting stuff to A London Salmagundi, and I find the convention of posting pictures without commentary rather liberating, because I am a relentless tweaker of my own prose and constitutionally incapable of being brief. But sometimes I find myself wanting to explain why I think a particular image is so interesting or beautiful. So this is the first of what may be a series: ‘things I posted to Tumblr’.

These bodhisattvas are from the part of the world that US foreign policy types refer to as ‘AfPak’; the top one, the older of the two, is from Hadda, now on the Afghan side of the border; the other is from Peshawar in Pakistan. But when these were made, and for over a millennium, it was the location of the Gandhara kingdom.

I only know that because I just looked it up on Wikipedia. But what I did already know was that these are in a tradition called ‘Greco-Buddhist’. This is art from a place where two worlds meet. Alexander the Great conquered the area from the Persians in the 4th century BC; hundreds of years later, the Hellenistic influence was still powerful enough to result in works like these.

That top one, from 1st-3rd century AD, is particularly extraordinary and particularly beautiful, I think. The style is recognisably Greek; the hair, the sculpting of the features. But the face looks Indian, and he has the long ears of the bodhisattva.

The other, slighter later (3rd-5th century) is less remarkable, less strikingly classical; more what one expects a bodhisattva to look like. But it’s still a lovely thing.

Just the existence of Greco-Buddhist art was amazing to me, because Alexander the Great and Buddhism lived in completely different parts of my brain. It’s like reading one of those counter-factual novels — what would modern Britain have been like if the Nazis had won the war? —  except, you know, it’s actually real. There really was somewhere where Buddhist monasteries were decorated in the style of ancient Greek temples.

The fact that the resulting art is beautiful just makes it even better.

» The Hadda bodhisattva at the Musée Guimet; the Peshawar bodhisattva at the V&A.

‘The Kingdom of Ife’ at the British Museum

I went to the BM to see the exhibition of art from the medieval west African kingdom of Ife (now in Nigeria). Ife is most famous for some extraordinarily high quality naturalistic heads cast in brass or copper, although the exhibitions also has various other pieces, including terracotta heads in the same style, jewellery, animal pieces and so on.

These heads are of such high quality that one of the first Europeans to see them felt they couldn’t possibly have been made by Africans: instead he hypothesised that they were evidence for the lost civilisation of Atlantis. Which is, umm, a bit cringeworthy. You know you’ve got a bit of a blind spot when you think that Atlantis is a more likely explanation than a previously unknown African kingdom with a strong metalworking tradition. Its especially embarrassing because while it sounds like something some Elizabethan explorer might have come up with, it was in fact… in 1900. Yikes.

He was at least right that these are genuinely remarkable objects, superbly crafted and of great beauty. In fact if you judge art by how much it looks like the thing it portrays — the Daily Mail school of art criticism — there is something extraordinary about this little flowering of naturalistic sculpture in a continent dominated by various kinds of highly stylised art. Certainly that was the Western press reaction when the bulk of the work was found; references to an African Donatello, to African sculpture standing comparison with the great works of Greece and Italy, and to these sculptures being a great mystery of African art. Because, of course, there is no higher ambition than to produce work which fits tidily into the European tradition, and it is inherently mysterious that Africans should be able to do it.

I’m being a bit glib, but actually the exhibition had me examining my own preconceptions about art (I haven’t reached any conclusions yet). Although these days we are all much quicker to see beauty in ‘primitive’ art, not least because its profound influence on Modernism helped change our expectations of what ‘fine art’ looks like, I think most of us have at least an implicit sense of a hierarchy which sees exquisite representational art as, if not better, then more developed or more sophisticated than the highly stylised carvings which we normally associate with Africa. And so these Ife heads seem to carry a significance beyond their beauty.

But the emergence of naturalism really require any special explanation? I guess it might need a society wealthy enough for some people to work as nearly full-time artists, but beyond that maybe all it needs is a shift in fashion. In fact, perhaps representational art is the kind that needs least explanation, since the logic of ‘making things that look like other things’ is so straightforward.

All such questions aside: it’s a marvellous exhibition and if you’re passing through London in the next three months you you should go and see it.

‘The Sacred Made Real’ at the National Gallery

To quote their own blurb:

The Sacred Made Real’ presents a landmark reappraisal of religious art from the Spanish Golden Age with works created to shock the senses and stir the soul.

Paintings, including masterpieces by Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Zurbarán, are displayed for the very first time alongside Spain’s remarkable polychrome wooden sculptures.

By ‘polychrome wooden sculptures’ they mean things like this, Christ as the Man of Sorrows, 1673, by Pedro de Mena (I’ve had to take the picture from the Guardian, which has a good selection, because the NG has got no images on the exhibition website at all):

Sacred-Made-Real-Christ-a-016

I find this business of coloured sculpture intriguing, because of course if you’re aiming for verisimilitude it makes perfect sense; and yet, largely by historical accident, we have come to expect sculpture in the fine art tradition to be in the bare material, whether marble, bronze or whatever.

These works looks especially foreign from a Protestant perspective. And yes, I know I keep going on about being an atheist, but I’m clearly a Church of England atheist when it comes to my religious sensibilities. And the Protestant aesthetic of whitewashed churches and plain glass is explicitly intended to contrast with this kind of art; it is sculptures like these that are processed through the streets of Seville in Holy Week by masked penitents, which must be the apotheosis of the bells and smells side of Catholicism. Protestants over the years have found that either tawdry and vulgar or solemn, dignified and mysterious, according to taste, but one way or the other it has a fascinatingly exotic quality for those of us brought up with the tea and biscuits kind of Christianity.

My initial reaction to these sculptures was ambivalent; there was something spooky or creepy or just a bit odd about them. And I don’t mean the gore; the head of John the Baptist where the cross section of the neck looks like something from the butcher’s, or Christ bruised and dripping with blood. No, even the statues of saints and the Virgin seemed a bit creepy at first encounter. St Ignatius Loyola, with his dark robes, looks like something that might lurch out of the dark at a carnival ghost train.

I’m tempted to invoke the uncanny valley, but actually I think it’s mainly simple unfamiliarity. The sculptures only seem like something from Madame Tussauds — something other than fine art — because of my expectations. Eventually, once I had been in the exhibition for a while, that sense of novelty wore off a bit; and eventually I was able to stop overthinking it and start to respond to the works as pieces of art.

And once that happened I did start to appreciate them and find them quite effective. They are not my new favourite thing, and I’m still not sure I’d say I really like them, even. But I’m certainly glad I went. Thought-provoking stuff.

There are also some fine paintings in the show as well, incidentally, by Velázquez and Zurburán particularly; but those were more familiar and less interesting to me, except in the way they provide a context for the sculptures. It is interesting, for example, that although they are recognisably part of the same religious culture, the paintings are immediately and obviously ‘art’, while my reaction to the sculptures was so much more difficult.