The Enduring Image

T. Richard Blurton

one will hunger

one will lie.

O you don't you rib
and taunt me
for having a body:

body Thyself for once
like me and see
what happens,

O Ramanantha.

Devara Dasimayya
Trans. A. K. Ramanujan, in speaking Siva,. Harmondsworth. 1973

The state of 'being bodied' of which the tenth century poet Devara Dasimayya sings yearningly in his vacana, with its suggestion of the poignancy and the rewards of that conditions, is the subject of this exhibition. The understanding, the depiction and the delimiting of that body which the poet dares Siva to take upon himself has been the starting point, and the correspondence or lack of it between the Divine and the human - figured or not figured - is a frequently recurring theme. All the works in this exhibition are from the British Museum and are displayed to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Independence. They range from the Late Ice Age in Europe (some 12,000 years ago), to the early twentieth century (African sculptures). Throughout this long period the human image, as a vehicle for the communication of ideas and information, has remained pre-eminent-it has endured, hence the title of the exhibition.

The body, the human image, the human form-these are some of the terms which appear in the exhibition and throughout the publication which accompanies it. They refer to concepts with which Indian civilization has long had a serious concern and which have travelled wherever Indian ideas have spread, through trade, social interaction or religious conversion. The famous monuments of Bamiyan, Borobudur, Dunhuang and Angkor Wat - all at far ends of the India-influenced world and respectively in the modern countries of Afghanistan, Indonesia, China and Cambodia - provide clear evidence of the widespread nature of Indian views of how the body-human and divine - was to be historic times was depicted or written about as an ideal. By the time that this document was incorporated into the Tibetan canon, the ' Universal Ruler' was surely envisaged as a supreme spiritual leader.

Chapter III of the Citralaksana, the largest section of the text, provides the artist with detailed information of the correct size of parts of the body, As well as the ratios between the different parts of the body, as follows:

'The face should be divided into three parts, forehead, nose and chin, each of which should measure four digits. The width of the face is given as the total of 14 digits; the upper and lower parts of the face amount to 12 digits in width; on the grounds of this measurement, the length of the face is taken to be 12 digits'.

Other sections deal with the dimensions of one part of the body - here the eye, according to a list of types:

'As to the width of the eyes which resemble a bow made of bamboo, the measure of three barley grains (3/8 digit) is laid down. The eyes resembling and utpala petal should have the measure of six barley grains (3/4 digit). It is laid down that eyes resembling the belly of a fish should have for their eight barley grains (1 digit). Eyes resembling the petal of a padma have a measure of 9 barely grains (11/8 digits).

After further listing of types of eyes and their dimensions, the text goes on to link these different types with different group of people. Thus eyes which resemble a bow are appropriate for yogis, while those which resemble the belly of a fish are suitable for women and for lovers. Listings of all the body parts and their dimensions fill the majority of this chapter. The earlier chapters I and II are narrative and describe the mythical first painting (or perhaps the first sculpture - the exact meaning of the Sanskrit word citra, according to the editors of the text, is equivocal).

I have mentioned this intriguing text at some length because it clearly demonstrates how, from an early period, an interest in delineating and defining the body was part of intellectual life in India. Further, although the Citralaksana of Nagnajit is probably the earliest, it is by no means the only such text- the encyclopaedic Visnudharmottara Purana was composed only a couple of centuries later and contains a whole chapter on the rules for painting. It is because of this fundamental concern with the human form in South Asian civilization that this exhibition has been structured in the way it has. Indeed one of the most fruitful starting points in its genesis was recollection of the memorable exhibition, In the Image of Man, held in London in 1982 as part of the first Festival of India. This important event, at which great works of Indian sculpture and painting were gathered together, primarily from India but also from the United Kingdom, brilliantly explored Indian art from the perspective of the human figure. It had a great influence on scholars and the general public alike, and reinforced the idea that Indian civilization was, par excellence, the civilization which deliberately makes its definitions through figuration, or at least through invoking the image of the human body. In the Vedas we find the first examples of the correspondence between the body and cosmic features, between the universal body and the different elements of creation. In the Image of Man demonstrated the continuing interest of Indian artists in the human form from those very early times and their skilful presentation of complex ideas through the format of the human body. This theme is taken in the current exhibition and used as a grid and, as it were, thrown across the traditions, not only of India, but of cultures throughout the world and throughout time. The selection of works for an exhibition such as this is a fascination undertaking especially as the choice comes from many different cultures. Leaving aside certain practical details such as the ability of fragile objects to travel, the criteria are linked to different understandings of the human body. Some of these are obvious: sculpture which presents royal power is evident in many civilizations and appears from the very beginning of the exhibition.

The head of Amenophis II impresses on the viewer the power of the ruler by virtue of its sheer size, let alone its original positioning at the entrance to the mortuary temple of the pharaoh, so that even after his death all would know of his greatness. However, a male subject and great size are not the only methods to demonstrate this sentiment, as Nicholas Hilliard's gold material, the legend on the reverse (' Not even danger affects it') and its use as a diplomatic gift all emphasize the power of the Queen. Again material - in this case brass - was associated with kingship and these plaques were made to adorn the wooden beams of the palace of the rulers of Benin. Power is also indicated by the quantity and fineness of clothing worn by the king forms of clothing indicated power and wealth in medieval Africa, just as it does today in fashion-conscious Europe.

Idealized images are another consultant in the exhibition, whether in the afterlife (to appear handsome and youthful, rather than ugly and decrepit in old age) or the imaging of divinities as perfectly realized human beings. In the western tradition the latter is specially linked with ancient Greece and its rediscovery in the Renaissance period, nut other traditions have their own favoured ways of depicting a beautiful, idealized human and the extent to which ideals vary indicates the eventual transience of all such subjective concepts of beauty. For instance, amongst the Maya of Central America a flattened forehead, artificially produced in childhood, was considered a mark of great beauty. In renaissance Italy the most prized feature for women was a pale skin, quite the opposite of today's western concept where a bronzed skin suggests the means for travel and leisure, and perhaps more in keeping with traditional views in India where pale skin implies a life not spent labouring in the heat of the sun.

Others of these criteria can be listed in mind summary fashion bearing in mind the fuller examples given above: maternal imagery, the distortion of human imagery through time and space, portraiture, the artificially changed body sometimes dominates the exhibition, but there is also much else. Although the most obvious way to show the human figure is through sculpting or painting, it can also be suggested in a number of other, subtle ways. For example, armour which confines or shields the body gives us an idea of what that body might have looked like like even though it is not actually seen; examples from as far apart as Bronze Age Britain and late medieval Japan appear in the exhibition; headrest have the same suggestive properties. Probably the clearest way of marketing the outline of the body however, is through the use of jewellery, and the global variety in the exhibition is large. Jewellery functions at a number of different levels-as a means of beautification but also as a method of banking and transference of wealth and a method of communicating status through the use of extravagant quantities of rare or traded materials. In jewellery production gold is often a medium of high value, a fact demonstrated repeatedly by items as varied as the headdress from the Royal Tombs at Ur and the speclacular suite of Iron Age gold lores from Snettisham in Norfolk. Jewellery has been used throughout the world to enhance and to change the appearance of the body; decorated with jewellery the body can be transformed from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Tattoos and searification can have the same function. Connected with jewellery and also often used to adorn the person are amulets. These may be miniature versions of the part of the body which requires protection, or they may be non-representational and worn close to the part of the body which is damaged or needs security. By wearing amulets the body can magically be safeguarded or indeed changed-from malfunctioning to perfect health. In ancient Egypt amulets were frequently placed in the mummy wrapping to ensure the safety of the body in the afterlife,the body of the gods, the body in the afterlife, the body and its organs, part-human bodies and the body differentiated by gender. The topics of gender and sexuality have been written about at great lenght in recent years, particularly with reference to the work of contemporary artists. However they are also subjects which throw light on this exhibition.

Armour and jewellery indicated the shape of the body, not other exhibits describe through the written word, aspects of the human body, texts from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead written in special funerary hieroglyphics. describe the weighing of the describe the connections between bodily- especially facial- variety. Amongst those studious and curious persons whom the first Trustees of the British Museum wished, in the mid-eighteenth century, to encourage to visit the Museum, were artists. The use of the Museum as a resource has continued to this day and many draw inspiration from the collections. Perhaps the most famous this century, in the creative use of the Museum's collections, has been the British sculptor Henry Moore. His acknowledgement of sculpture in the Museum is well recorded, and he considered the two Azande carvings from the southern Sudan to have had a considerable influence on him. He revelled, as did many other artists of the early and middle twentieth century , in shapes and forms which had no pre-existing visual or intellectual imagery attached to them in European culture ; these forms were free, uncluttered with associations and powerful. Figural, but non-realistic figural sculpture, has had an important place in artistic creativity this century and one of the most potent sources of inspiration has been African sculpture. The experience of this different aesthetic encouraged artists to be yet more daring in pursuit of new artistic ideals. It is certainly wrong to think of exposure to non-Western sculpture as the sole reason for the development of cubism by artists such as picasso and Braque, but the combination of this with resentment towards traditions of academic realism in European art, was a powerful catalyst. The difference, the non coventionality of African and Oceanic sculpture impressed itself on European artists, but it is important to note that, paradoxically, amongst their own practitioners and users, these art traditions were often highly conservative, and were closely linked to complex social structures. Further they were, of course, only ever conceived as objects to be experienced in the local context and fortune.

Sir Jacob Epstein is another important twentieth century British artist who has recorded this debt to the Museums collections. Born in New York, he spent his working sculpture from India in the British Museum, though it is difficult to tell from his lyrical description to which specific sculptures he is referring:

'In Indian work of this nature there is a deeply religious element, sometimes amounting to a fury of passion which is elemental in its power... Our European allegories are banal and pointless by comparison with these profound works, devoid of the trappings of symbolism, concentrating on the essential, the essentially plastic.'

Like many sculptors he collected material to provide visual references for his future work and amongst his large collection of non-Western art was bewitching sculpture of a female figure which he clearly greatly admired. In the photograph of him published here he appears standing beside it in an apparently unconscious imitation of the tribhanga pose of the sculpture. After his death the sculpture was acquired by the British Museum where it has been often displayed. It is now included in this exhibition both as a glorious piece of sculpture, and in homage to a seminal sculptor in the history of twentieth century art.

Moore and Epstein were both inspired and energized by the encounter with sculpture from different dtradations. This exhibition provides a similar opportunity for all viewers - it is a microcosm of the collections of the British Museum, thus the visitor may see here, in close proximity, works of art from different times and different broad range, comparisons between other times and places can be made. Comparative study is an activity in which all museums are engaged and which is central to our perception of mankind at the end of the twentieth century. In this context the understanding and valuing of other cultural traditions is an imperative which none of us can ignore.



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