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.


Physical tumbling

I went along to the V&A today to check out the second phase of their new ceramics display. The first phase was arranged by technique and theme; the new bit is by place and date. Some of the displays have helpful information, but much of it is effectively the collection being stored in plain view: all-glass cabinets with shelf after shelf of ceramics packed five or six objects deep.

It means that they’re not always as easy to see properly, and there’s no accompanying information, but it’s a way of making as much of the collection visible as possible: over 26,500 pieces in the new section, apparently.

I’ve actually spent a lot of time recently browsing the V&A’s collection online find things to post to A London Salmagundi. It was a healthy reminder that, although it’s marvellous that they are making such an effort to digitise their collections, and no matter how endlessly fascinating it is searching through museum collections online, there’s nothing quite like being close enough to appreciate the actual physicality of an object: the textures, the way it catches the light.

Or even more basic, the size. I posted this picture of a porcelain goat made by Meissen in 1732, and it’s a striking image; but nothing about that picture prepares you for the fact that it is over two foot long. Nearly life size — for rather a small goat, at least. Apparently it weighs 25kg.

Unfortunately the technology is not yet there for me to have a physical tumblelog. Although having an image blog is a kind of curation, I can’t, sadly, actually choose real objects and put them in front of my readers.

I suppose the closest I could come would be if the V&A gave me a long display case and the licence to roam the museum, picking out objects. Then I could put each new choice at one end of the case and shift all the rest a few inches further along; and as each one reached the other end, I would take it out and put it back where it belonged.

In fact, if anyone from the V&A is reading this: have your people call my people. Let’s see if we can work something out.


Salmagundi update

A London Salmagundi, my Tumblr, has now been running for five months and accumulated over 1200 posts; if you haven’t been visiting it, this is the kind of thing you’ve been missing.

Photos by Pierre BonnardHausa horsemen in quilted armourC19th corseta hornet mimicGiovanni di Paolooptical illusionmermaid plateSong dynasty vaseelephant skinaubergine shoespaper mosaicknitted cuttlefishbrass knucklerhino beetleSwedendubibissand arttaxidermycitternset designweimaranertype specimentarget practicebidisbleeding tooth funguscricketersdiamond minemantuagood luck charm


Announcing Salmagundi

I’ve got a new little side project, Salmagundi, which is a Tumblr-powered short-form, scrapbooky type blog-thing where I can post assorted bits and pieces — photos, links, amusing cat videos — that I find on the internet. A web-log in the original sense.

Which probably means I’ll stop the automatic link posts here, and keep this blog for longer text-based pieces, although I won’t actually make that change until it’s been working for a bit.

I think it looks quite spiffy on a Mac; it’ll look slightly less spiffy on a PC, not least because it relies heavily on Helvetica Neue Light. And on any version of Internet Explorer older than IE8, you’ll just see a message telling you that your browser sucks. In your face, Microsoft.

There is a link to it (Tumblr) in the sidebar on the right. Or you can subscribe to the RSS feed.