Yes, it’s THAT good: Garden and Cosmos at SAAM
I’ve put off writing about Garden and Cosmos, the Indian painting exhibition at the Seattle Asian Art Museum for quite awhile now. It isn’t because I haven’t seen it yet. I guess it’s because I have feared the very act of framing the experience would be to profane it.
Jen Graves at the Stranger responded to the show by gushing, which may well be the only appropriate response:
It is amazing to remember that people can paint like gods. It is amazing to recognize life on a piece of paper.
Amazing, indeed. Until they were discovered in a cabinet three years ago, basically no one knew the monumental paintings in Garden and Cosmos existed. Designed and executed for the pleasure of the ruling Maharajas, the nucleus of the show chronicles three distinct generations of court painting in Jodhpur, the capital of Marwar in Northwestern India. The earliest paintings portray royal characters at play in opulent garden settings. The later paintings display the mystical influence of the Nath sect. Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that it is this later, mystically-inspired material that really gets me going.
Paul Richard, the art critic for the for the Washington Post—who apparently couldn’t be bothered to brush up on Hinduism before reviewing the Smithsonian incarnation of the show last fall—described the above painting:
Vishnu, the great god, is sleeping on a silver sea. His bed looks like one of those inflatable plastic mattresses that float in suburban swimming pools, except it’s made of snakes. Welcome to Rajput painting. You’re not in Kansas anymore.
Vishnu’s flotation device is Ananta-Shesha, the infinitely-headed serpent on which the god reposes during the endless, timeless period before/between the creation of the universe(s). In Hinduism—as in most mythological systems around the world—the serpent is a complex and multivalent symbol. Cosmologically speaking, Ananta may well represent the Milky Way―he is said to wear the planets on his myriad hoods and he is instrumental in the churning of the cosmic “ocean of milk” described in the Samudra manthan episode of the Puranas. But he also represents the infinite potentiality of energy and consciousness in all matter. (Having thought a great deal about Trouvelot Figures recently, an infinitely-headed serpent seems to me like a symbol that couldn’t have arisen more naturally from a culture of careful observers…)
As a professional art critic, it is unfortunate but not surprising that Paul Richard lacks a frame of reference for such a profoundly sacred image. As art historian James Elkins points out in On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, sincere piety is one of the contemporary art world’s deepest taboos (though I get a sense this is changing). Seattle artist Gala Bent makes a good point on her blog about the collectivist motivations of these artists, for whom our quaint notion of the artist as a heroic, ego-driven individual would be unfathomable. (I suspect our peculiar relationship with ‘spirituality’ and the tenacity with which we cling to the notion of an individual ego are closely related.)
If you’re in Seattle and you haven’t seen this show, do see it. We’re lucky to have it. After this, it’s off to the British Museum. And buy this exquisite catalog if you can. I predict it will prove an invaluable resource in pinpointing where all the artists in Seattle are stealing their best ideas from for years to come.
Garden and Cosmos is on view at Seattle Asian Art Museum through April 26.