How enduring?

Print edition : November 15, 1997

Only a few exhibits in "The Enduring Image" stimulate debate and can in any real sense be called works of art.


THE exhibition organised in collaboration with the British Museum, which comes to India under the rubric of "The Enduring Image" is one whose very title is suspect. The titletakes its cue from the concept of "timeless images" constructed by art historians like Stella Kramrisch, a category to include all ritual objects, crafts and even mass-produced decorative and utilitarian repositories of design, as art. Such a view of world art, which still relegates Amerindian, African and Asian art works to ethnographic museums half-full of bric-a-brac, refuses to impart any recognition of originality or inventiveness to them; those are supposed to be the quality only of European art. This view is, to say the least, outdated.

By the curator's own admission, the exhibition is a response to that "remarkable exhibition", "In the image of Man," mounted in London during the Festival of India, in which India included priceless works like the Didarganj Yakshi, with its exquisite polished surface, and which came back irreparably damaged. In return, we have received some 320 "prize exhibits" - or so the publicity tells us.

Jaina Goddess. Sandstone. Probably from Malwa, India. Early 10th century. Height 106.5 cm. Traditional iconography.-PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The majority of objects in the show are second- and third-rate works and cannot in any real sense be called "works of art". The head of Hercules, ostensibly from the foot of Mount Vesuvius, and dated between the first centuries B.C. and A.D. is merely a Roman copy of a Greek original of 325 B.C. Britain has enough Greek originals to send, and a panel from the Elgin marbles could have replaced this bulky head. The other 'Greek' item, a poor bronze Hermes, again from Southern Italy, possibly the stand for a tray of offerings, is a copy, dating back to between 200 B.C.-100 B.C., of Greek originals of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. Britain, which has plundered Greece of some of its finest sculpture, could have done better than this.

Funerary relief bust of a woman. Carved limestone. From Palmyra, Syria. 1st-2nd century A.D. Height 50.5 cm.-

The large Egyptian sculpture, the head of Amenophis III, 1390 B.C.-1352 B.C., is a piece broken off a larger sculpture and, as such, qualifies as no more than a fragment of a work of art. In the same way, instead of an original miniature by the English painter, Nicholas Hilliard (1537-1619), we get a medallion of Elizabeth I based on a miniature; another relatively poor medallion of Mehmet II of Turkey, by Bertoldo di Giovanni, has been sent instead of the original by Bellini.

Head reliquary of Saint Eustace. Hammered gilt silver plaques, pinned to a wooden core; the crown and the base with plaques of gem-set filigree with granulations. c 1200. Height 34 cm. A typical ritual object.-

From Japan, we are treated to an anonymous Bodhidharma when the British Museum could easily have sent the far more important Shoriken Crossing the Sea on a Sword by Motonobu Kano (1476-1559), the son of the legendary Masanobu (1453-1490), a couple of whose landscapes are also in the Museum's collection. In fact, Motonobu's importance lies in his bringing together the drawing traditions of the Tosa and Kano families and giving his art far greater versatility than mere repetitions of the Kano School.

Two of a set of four figures. Porcelain with underglaze blue and coloured enamels. Made at Arita in Kyushu. Late 17th-early 18th century. Height, man: 36.5 cm; woman with hair comb: 39 cm. Craft products.-

Among the colour prints, we do have an example of the work of Kitagawa Utamaro (1754-1806), who represents a period of decay in the history of Japanese art and is certainly ranked below Harunobu and Kujonaga in the annals of Japanese printmaking, but we are not shown even one work of Hokusai (1760-1849), the genius who put Japanese art on the world map and whose evolution has been compared with that of Rembrandt or Turner. He was an artist who could say at the ripe old age of 75: "When I am 80 I shall know more; at 90 I shall have got to the heart of things; at 100, I shall be a marvel; at 110 every line, every blot of my brush will be alive!" Today, 237 years after his birth, his legacy remains alive. Surely this exhibition could have included a work of his.

Among the works from Africa, we are shown five Benin plaques but not the world famous Ife Queens' heads, or those of the kings, which are believed to be portraits. These are only door-decorations. Here too, major works of art are avoided. Among the Egyptian funerary works too, we have nothing that is exceptional, although the British Museum has many Pharaonic artifacts.

Dish painted with an idealised woman labelled "Divine and beautiful Lucia". Tin-glazed earthenware - majolica. From Umbria, Italy. Dated 1524, twice on the rim. Diameter 42.2 cm. A typical design object.-

The Indian collection is disappointing. The Amravati sculptures were already here for us to see, on loan from the British Museum. There are other fragmentary pieces. But the prize piece is a multi-headed Ganesha "with Lakshmi on his lap". The figure of the consort is clearly that of Siddhi, but the catalogue makes much of Ganesha becoming the equivalent of Vishnu in this particular sculpture. It is evident that where few works of art are shown, rarities must be manufactured. It would have been far better to have brought sculptures like the Dhar Saraswati here rather than these inconsequential works, which are put to shame even by the 12th century Western Chalukya Mohini in the corridor by which one enters the museum.

This exhibition cannot, by any stretch of imagination, be said to be one of works of art. It fails patently to match up to the show of exquisite Renaissance paintings and icons sent to us by Russia a few years ago. But it would be wrong to dismiss it out of hand.

One of five royal door-plaques. Brass. Benin, Nigeria. 16th century. Height 51 cm.-

There are a few exhibits that stimulate debate and should not be overlooked. There is the image of a woman with a flattened forehead, arms akimbo and legs stretched out, from the Cyclades, dating back to 2600 B.C.-2500 B.C., whose stylistic influence appears to have affected West African sculpture as much as West European contemporary art. Then there is the Pharaonic statue of Tjeti, of 2345 B.C.-2181 B.C., whose body shows a remarkable suppleness of form, just as the limestone funerary bust from Palmyra in Syria has a poignancy that is as spontaneous as the cry etched out by her side, "Attai, daughter of Al'a, alas!" An equally fascinating object is an Italian painted dish, dedicated to "the divine Lucia, the beautiful"; obviously an admirer's gift - but even this is so executed that it borders on the mass-produced.

The majority of exhibits seem to be baubles: ritual objects, jewellery, elements of design like the Roman helmet that looks like a fox-hunter's cap in Britain today, or votive hands, feet and other parts of the body from ancient Egypt that can still be found to be in currency at shrines like that of the Agam well near the ruins of Pataliputra. Or simply-designed jewellery that can be found to be the same in many parts of the world even now. These are not works of art. These are objects above which art rises, declares its supremacy over and transforms.

The exhibition does, in fact, also appear to carry a colonial message. There is the Porus medallion of Alexander, "depicting Porus as an attendant on his favourite elephant", and the image of a European slaver that is said to "depict the worshipful attitude of the Edo people to White Traders, who were seen as the messengers of the gods." These descriptions are fanciful. The demand of Porus to be treated as a King is recorded in history and my own experience of Nigeria brings to mind the traditional response of Africans to the white skin. They found it offensive and associated it with leucoderma and death. As such, the portrait of a European trader on a door was to make it repugnant or an object of fear, rather like the birds eating eyes out of human heads in the Ise door-lintel in the same exhibition. It is curious that the famous mechanical tiger mauling a British soldier that was commissioned by Tipu Sultan was not brought over, despite the fact that it is perhaps a better representative of the sentiments of those who had to bear the brunt of colonial rule and a more "enduring image" than the temporary triumphs of conquerors. Perhaps we will have to wait a while longer for the ghosts of the Empire to be laid. Till then intellectuals involved in such bilateral efforts would do well to keep their eyes open, as they appear not to have done this time.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor