The Enduring Image

Gulammohammed Sheikh

The Enduring Image offers the onlooker an opportunity to journey across time, swimming upstream as it were, or in multiple directions. We could travel back twelve thousand years to construct our own itineraries. It is an occasion that could be likened to sampling from the treasures of pirate ship or boarding a veritable ark loaded with a galaxy of the species of cultures, past and present, to sail a sea of amnesia. One of the greatest repositories of human memory in the world, the British Museum in London, has opened its doors to give us a glimpse into its galleries, archives and store-rooms.

As perennial immigrants, objects in a museum carry with them the scent of the cultures to which they belonged. Each object reverberates with the sensations of decisions taken or altered, moments of struggle or delight, revealing in the mode of fashioning the hand and mind of the artificer. the viewer-user is present in the object's survival, in the savour that made that survival possible. When touched, the object sculpture, may flicker of a signal and bring the presence of other hands and other eyes that had held it at other times. Jewellery, weapons, armour or funerary accoutrements, like Foils for face covering, can conjure up the body image of the persons, living or dead, who wore or bore them. Indeed most artefacts prior to the age of mechanical reproduction were unique and distinct, designed for particular people. In the shift between hand and mind, distinguishing aspects become visible, even, for instance, in the summarily shaped, identical-looking Shabtis (the doll-like effigies of attendants of the deceased) made as part of funerary paraphernalia in ancient Egypt. So, every ornament carries the cast of a face - square, oval, elongated, round like a moon - an arm or waist - slender or broad - suggesting peculiarities of movement; clues for reconstructing the rest of the body. One may visualize the stately neck that fitted into the Bronze Age Torc (or neck collar) from Denmark, the taut limbs that were encased by the bronze spiral bands from Hungary or the upswept coiffure of the lady that bore the Romano-British Hairpin in first century London.

Gold, more than any other metal, cast a spell over centuries and across lands for its material qualities and magical attributes. The third millennium BC Lunula from Ireland invokes the radiant arc of the sun on the neck of the wearer and must have dazzled the eyes of those who saw it. The bulky figural embellishment in gold that the Greeks seem to have loved speaks equally of responsive preferences, for does not jewellery belong to the eye of the beholder ? The Irish-Viking Thistle brooch of about one and a half feet, evokes the image of medieval swashbuckler who needed to carry 'bullion about (his) person'. The ornaments in gold and precious stones from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt would bewitch the viewer, obscuring the space for human frailties with a fabrication of royal and divine radiance. The little Funerary amulets in the shape of human limbs (placed as proxies for dysfunctional limbs in the life after death), however, provide such an opportunity. One could imagine the tiny emblems of leg or afoot, a heart inscribed with a life-renewing scarab, or the forms of stark, staring eyes magically replacing the lost part. A Papyrus scroll disarmingly describes the plight of a royal scribe who survived the ordeal of weighing his heart in the afterlife. Here, as he kneels before the great god Osiris, the conical jar of scented fat he wears on his head has 'melted and stained his fashionable clothes orange'!

A feeling of body -touch pervades all objects of use, domestic, ceremonial or ritual. Few objects were left bare in the ancient or medieval world: figural images were cast, carved, moulded or painted on the body of the object. The repousse Projecta Casket reveals to us the taste in toiletry of a christian lady of Rome in the fourth century AD, while the Anglo-Norman Liturgical comb of c.1100 AD evokes the scent of solemn church ritual. Intriguingly, the reliefs on the casket refer to imagery quite un-Christian in character and the comb, to coded secrets. Containers were often shaped in the body images of human or animal forms: a vessel was a rhinoceros or a buffalo in the bronze wares of ancient China. A stirrup spout bottle of the Moche people in Peru from the mid-first millennium AD was crafted in the striking shape of a human head. Few objects of use, however, display such a sense of the bounteous as the terracotta figures and vessels of jalisco in western Mexico. These are body-like containers, shaped to hold fluids whose aromas and temperatures became a part of their sensuous surfaces. In the exquisite Vaso Vescovali from Iran or Afghanistan, a lidded bowl intricately embellished with animated forms, there is a sublimation of body metaphor. A rarer taste prevails here and images are disguised as pattern, until patient scrutiny begins to reveal a surface populated with body forms. There is a similar game of hide and seek in the Lobed jar and startiles from Kashan, Iran in alternating arabesque with human imagery. however, there were times in the same region when disguise of the image was neither expedient nor a favoured device. The relief image, on the Silver dish from Tabaristan is not only unambiguous but bold: It displays with relish the delights of feasting - a theme not uncommon in Persian poetry. Here ' a ruler in Sasanian costume reclines on a wheeled couch surrounded by attendants, musicians and items essential for an outdoor banquet: a vine hung with ripe grapes, a water-bottle made from the skin of a whole animal, wine jugs in a cooler and a post suspended over a fire'. One could imagine the exquisite silver-gilt dish as an integral component of the display of the feast.

Humour and zest are woven into the forms of a fourteenth century anthropomorphic jug from Worcester and the fifteenth century zoomorphic Aquamanile from Germany, a vessel for washing hands before meals. With every use a different grip of the hand would serve as a reminder of the sculpted imagery. Objects in other materials, like the Chinese stoneware Pillow of the twelfth century suggest meanings outside their ostensible function. With the painted image of a reclining child, the pillow tastes the mind while 'resting' the head. The Head-rests from Zimbabwe on the other hand, conveyed to their owners reminders of their wives' fertility, in the from of public triangles and breasts. A shona male was known to carry his headrest wherever he went, right to the graveyard.

Coins and medals are more impersonal objects of touch. As tokens of money and power they are ancient prototypes of mechanical reproduction, made with the purpose of addressing a mass or group of people, rather than an individual . Lost and found they may acquire an artistic static, apart from their historical significance, when they become rare. The coins from the period of Alexander may be of special interest in the exhibition. Their historical value not withstanding, it is perhaps unrewarding to attempt to divine the character of Alexander 'the Great' from his portrait on the coin. Medals, on the other hand, do reveal individual eccentricities, despite their mainly ornamental function. The medals in the exhibition are for the most part from renaissance Italy and its regional extensions. Designed by Italian artists and architects such as Pisanello, Bramante and the English miniaturist Nicholas llilliard, they offer an opportunity to shift the artist-patron relationship. In the profiles of sigismondo Malatesta of Rimini and Federigo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, may one read off the aspects of their intricate personae that Piero della Francesca sought to capture in his painted portraits ? The medals of sultan Mehmet II of Turkey and Queen Elizebeth I of England invite similar comparisons with their paiantings by gentile Bellini and IIilliard respectively.

From Nigeria there are contemporaneous emblems of power. The sixteenth century Brass plaques of Benin represent the Oba (king) and his court in a dazzling array of regalia and arms. Their rectangular format, unusual in African art, was adopted from pictures in European books. Ingeniously crafted, the sculptural inventiveness of the reliefs has few parallels. Usually representing a group of two or three looming figures who pack the spatial field of the plaque from border to border, they have the aura of martial icons. Enchanted by the glistening frontal extremities of their bodies, ornaments and arms, the figures have a stunning walking-out-of-the-plaque presence, accentuated, in the absence of baseline, by their feet sticking out of the surface. In contrast to such starting emanations of indigenous imagery, the alien figure of a lone Portuguese (The likes of whom sold the metal in which the plaque were cast to local sculptors) with his flared lunch and bow legs seems to dangle in the air like an exotic trophy.

More awesome images of power come from the ancient kingdoms of Mesopotamia and Egypt. The severe naturalism of the stone reliefs from Khorsabad of two men in profile has the incisive characterization of portraiture: their stern, cold looks barely disguised by the flicker of a grin on the face of the beardless one. The full figure of the Winged spirit from Nimrod is like an apotheosis of male power: the weight of his wings or the enlarged muscles of his leg. even his beard- all combine to create a supernatural man-beast-god persona. But the single image that could outweigh all other exhibits in scale and magnitude comes from Egypt. In the massive head, a fragment of statue of Amenophis III. An extraordinary embodiment of spirit with substance of presence of the dead and the living. In its original state at the mortuary temple in Themes, the statue of the god-king with its multiple colossi must have dwarfed all those who came within its 'sight'.

Tools of power and objects of defense - helmets, shields and suits of armour were fearsome embellishments, if not ornaments in the strict sense of the term. While the elaborately sculpted Yoruba wooden Helmet mask from Nigeria performed chiefly iconic and ceremonial functions. The Armlets of the Bronze Age from Hungary and the wrist guard from Burundi are representative of armour ostensibly designed to guard the body, but which the samurai suit of armour of metal, leaguer and leather is an example of this kind. Intended to cover the body from head to toe, it articulates the quantity of weapons it was meant to repel, but also evokes the gait it induced in the warred. Recall the armored men in Akira Kurosawa's film 'Ran'. Portrayed with sharp-edged metallic ferocity in the staccato rhythm of legs and arms in unison. Consider how the violence in the great Meiji Monogatari scroll leaves one askance- wondering at the searing edges of forms: the sweeping rooflines of palaces curving swiftly at the end: the clashing angularity of costumes, raging flames of fire sharp as blades, hypnotic in their lethal beauty. Something of that is visible in the woodblock print of kabuki actors languid together in a Armour tugging scene. The gory decapitation of a giant child monster in the scroll of the Legend of Shuten Hoji, is quickened with black humour. In each of these images of violence, the seemingly incompatible elements of beauty, theatricality or humour are brought to bear as catalysts, reveals its strengths and vulnerabilities by inference. The strength of the guard is in inverse proportion to the vulnerability of the limb it protects.

The linearity of Ukyo-e prints achieved immaculate precision in eighteenth century Japan when the wood-engraver stretched his craft to match the spontaneous brush strokes of the artist. This competitive duel of skills produced laminae of meanings through the chemistry of lines drawn by one hand and cut (or left uncut, to be precise) by another, metaphorically corresponding to the imprints of sears or burnt hair. Looked at closely, the printed lines are made of minute serration's, often carrying the nearly invisible spill of brown on the edge of blade-thin black lines. One could ponder over the shades of meaning that sharpness gives to the lip-line of actor Otani Oniji in Sharaku's portrayal or to the shimmering sensuality of the down on the nape of Utamaro's courtesan.
The Japanese section is enriched by an array of classical and popular sculpture in a variety of materials. Shaka, the historical Buddha reminiscent of the image of an emaciated Buddha from Gandhara. All images are masks in the way they simultaneously hide and reveal the intentions of their makers. For the Greeks and Romans the face served as mirror of the inner self the psyche that secretes and manifests itself in the mask of a 'life-like' portrait. The artist tried to penetrate the posed faced of his sitter by freezing his gaze to arrest a moment the revealed the inner self. The portrait bust of a woman and Head from a stature of Hercules (cat.85) seem to have gathered their personae from the uninterrupted gaze of their viewers, in response to their leaving little room for other interventions. The erect Cycladic figurine has a locked gaze even when the eyes appear to be absent. For the llellenistic sculptor naturalism served as atoll to unlock and seduce the eye of the viewer with the magic of illusion. Sculptures were inlaid with painted eyes to captivate the gaze of the viewer into believing it to be 'real'. Roman painting epitomized the function of naturalism in art: scenic vistas on the walls of their villas expanded or dissolved the 'reality' of interiors, is of special interest. One of the most expressive exhibits is ironically one with least expression depending on the angle at which it is held, and so create diverseThe Greek sculptor who laid the rules for the male envisaged his archetype in the dual persona of athlete-actor, a metaphor for body and soul. Even in ales than life-size format the messenger god Hermes, with a 'sun hat' poetess but without the winged sandals that are his usual attribute, exemplifies this classical legacy. Having shunned clothing (earlier than his female counterpart) the Greek male image here seems to have donned the mantle of divinity: as man and man alone. With the ideals of perfection in both manual claret and physical image, the Greeks left little room for mistakes. Even the painted poultry made for wide popular consumption's amply endorses this pride in unerring skill. Can these , in their quest for perfection and response to popular demand, all the while articulating a parallel ideal of figural physicality, be likened to the Ukyo-e prints of Japan? expressions when an actor holds it in action.

Physicality in Indian sculpture follows a different course of naturalism. Wary of the Illuisionistic demands of muscular and steal protrusions, it structures body forms through limb-rhythms, embodied by an emphatic evocation of living flesh in stone or clay. The frontal physicality here swells in the form of the repeated volumes of undulating mass-as if the image wee growing outward from the surface, to reach out and excise the viewer's sense. The pronouncedly outward thrust of most Indian sculpture, especially the monolithic, has prompted a perception that the spirit of the image is selfmeans that the image, fully formed, was already there in stone: the sculptors task was only to remove its external layers. Yet, it may be observed that the contact the image makes with the viewer is rarely through outward gaze; the gaze generally turns inwards. The exception, however, is the worshipped icon, whose hypnotic spell is cast by painting over or embedding in the image , external eyes. The sculpted image nonetheless continues to address the viewer in unique way. Through animation or equipoise, the face remains tranquil. The spell of sensuous surface in Indian sculpture is often enhanced by an alternating interplay of body and ornament. Not regarded as external to form, the ornament has an integral and definitive entity, participant in the structural formulation of the body. This complimentary indivisibility is explicit in the otherwise disparate images of astounding goddess and a padmapani , from central and eastern India respectively. Other images in the exhibition present other aspects, other views of Indian sculpture. Where as a stunning, multi-armed jaina goddess exudes a quite energy that charges the field of perception, the paneamukha Ganapati , in an unusaual assembly of consorts and attributes, appears like a veritable emanation of divinity on earth. In the most impressive of sculpted reliefs - the Amaravati friezes - the sensuousness of the body and limbs, animated through gestures in undulating patterns of grace, sets the nattative content of the reliefs sparkling with unusual naturalistic candor. This sensuousness was, however, centered upon other players of the jatakas 9stories of the previous lives of the Buddha) the principal dramatize persona not having assumed a corporeal form. And when the physical image of the Buddha takes spa in the subsequent era, it subsumes or rather transforms the body-sensuousness into a distillation of grace. The regal composure of nimble -limbed Malitreya from Nepal, differs subtly in gesture and demeanor from the Buddhapad Buddha.The Sino-Tibetan buddha from the Ming Dynasty of China Ina resplendent aureole is enlightenment personified : physicality alternately emerges and dissolves in the golden aura. On the other hand, the terms of naturalism in the overlap of the Gandhara Vajrapani with llerecules are rather curious. The turbaned and mustachioed image of the compassionate Bodhisattava in the lionskin drape of the Greek hero, provokes thought about the bilateral engagement between East and West in the early centuries of the Christian era.en reticent, leaving room for the viewer-devotee to individualize in it the desired spiritual persona of the divinity.

The alabaster reliefs from pre-Reformation England present a facet of English art, perhaps at it s narrative and native best, which is less know outside England, Hero is a sensibility that shares the ideals of the late medieval, of Gothic, mode of European figuration, but places the imagery in the heart of England. Candid and reticent, confident yet a bit halting, the regional; sculptor of Nottingham depicts the warmly human scenarios of a passion play l in the painted and gilded reliefs that once lined and animated the walls of a church, packed tightly into a narrow vertical format, like apogee from a book of maintainers, the tall and small,. somewhat angular figures, seem to spill pour to the borders suggesting a narrative continuum. Despite the deep carving of the reliefs, the basic form of the panels follows a linear track, like the engravings they often emulated. This linear accentuation is further heightened by assigns of emotional urgency that enhance the gastrula drama of the scene. And the emphasis on the dramatic moment of action brings the stories of the Gospel into the life of people who witnessed lmartydoms in their midst. Consider the physical mien of the tormentors of Christ in the Flagellation, or Emperor Nero's confabulations with an advisor in the martydom of Saint Paul, in which the 'expressionist' eye of the medieval instincts is eloquently revealed. Look at the decapitated head of the martyr (saint Paul) surveying the scene of his execution. Or note the size of the sword held over the neck of Thomas a Bucket Kneeling before the altar (in comparison to an earlier painted version where he faces his assassin). In all these the viewer is included in the crowed witnessing the scene. The message is clear: in freezing the moment when the sword falls, the sculptor/painter conveys the perpetually impending martyIn contrast to the grave portrayals of the Gospel cited above, the glazed ceramic tiles from the little-known town of Tring in England bring in a touch of gentle humour, suggestive of incursions the secular makes into0 the religious , marketing yet another aspect of the spirit of English art. A scene from one of the tiles depicts a school teacher slapping the infant Christ, in much the same way as it would have happened in the less holy setting of an English school. In other scenes represented here those who trouble the infant Christ drop dead, but are also revived by his mercy/ Interestingly, those portrayed dead are shown upside down. Obviously the codes of communication between the artist and the patron of the tiles are quite distill from those of the alabaster panels. Other tile portrayals tell stories of the still less divine kind, like the triangular tale of Tristram, isllde and Mark, in a bardic vein. The tragic sentimentality of this popular romance (see the story in the catalogue entry), inspiring many versions, must have warmed the hearts of many a viewer. There is a lot more to be savored by the viewer/visitor who may discover how images take on new meanings when their contexts change. The Bdhisattava Avalokitesvara, represented in male from in other traditions, assumes a female persona in Chine as Guanyin. Exported to the West for Chine, such images were interpreted as Mary, Mother of Christ! While regarding the androgynous ambiguity of the Seated figure from the former Yugoslavia that belongs to the sixth millennium BC, the viewer may want to gauge the extent of maleness in the refined stylization's of the head of Amenophis III of Egypt. Indeed the gender of a pharonic portrait certainly baffled scholars of the British Museum when they described one as words , power seems not to have been an exclusive preserve of men. The representations of women in power exuded the same aura. Moving from body-image object to the visual abstraction of scripts, to cuneiform tablets like an inverted Braille, or hieroglyphs, whose characters are quasi-images, the exquisite Pen box rom Iraq is an example of the instruments and devices that gave sight to speech. The curious may wonder why divers figures like Mayan ruler or Saint Paul are depicted with speech scrolls issuing from their mouths. It hardly needs reiteration that images came earlier than script. The earliest image in this exhibition goes back to the lake Ice Age. perhaps a flint fashioned by an itinerant hunter had come in handy in engraving the female figure from Courbet in France. mecums, unlike the pyramids, address the living. In fact the images in a museum, even of the dead, are images of undying, of resistance, of defiance of death: they are emblems of the fight4 against fate. Archaeologists juggle with a mosaic of memory but fragments ream fragments forever; large or small, separated from each other and encased in room after room across continents. To assemble these these is akin to the legend of Isis and Osiris. The evil Seth had thrown the body of Osiris on fourteen different islands of the Nile delta. Isis, sailing in canoe in search of the parts of her husband Orison's body, sang her way to piece it together. Her songs implored the inhabitants on the shores for knowledge of the unknown sites where her husband's body lay, inducing them to provide her with clues. As image in Egypt were carved as abodes of the spirit, images the world over perennially with to be inhabited. Now that divinities have departed from our midst and images have migrated to secular sanctums, the space the spirits have vacated beclpns the viewer to occupy it. rdom of Bucket as a metaphor for personal salvation to all its viewers, witness and pilgrims.



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