Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Asian Art

Representing almost all schools of Indian sculptural art and three major religions, the works span two millennia, from the second century B.C.E. to the nineteenth century C.E. Excerpted from Asian Art At The Norton Simon Museum.

Norton Simon (1907-1993) stands as one of the great American collectors of the twentieth century. An inspired connoisseur, he distinguished himself as an interested student and discerning critic. In less than thirty years, from the 1950’s until the 1980’s, he amassed what is widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest art collections. Although initially interested in Impressionism, he soon added works from many periods and cultures. The Norton Simon Museum now encompasses European and American art from the pre-Renaissance through the twentieth century, by such artists as Raphael, Rembrandt, Tiepolo, Goya, Degas, van Gogh, C ézanne, Kandinsky, and Picasso, among many others. Even more remarkable is the extensive Asian art collection, consisting of more than six hundred objects from the Indian subcontinent, the Himalayas, and Southeast Asia. This outstanding group was assembled in little more than a decade.

Art and artifacts
The art and artifacts are from a wide geographic area known as the Indian subcontinent, a region now divided into four sovereign countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

Until 1947, when the British left the subcontinent, after dividing it into India and Pakistan, “India” was the English designation for the entire subcontinent. There was a flourishing civilization on the subcontinent stretching especially from the Panjab in the northwest to Gujarat in the southwest and east of Delhi for almost two millennia before the arrival of speakers of the Indo-European language is now firmly established by archaeology. This civilization is known as the Indus or Harappan (named after an early site discovered in the 1920s). The material culture of this civilization, even without a centralized polity, was remarkably uniform across the vast area.

For example, brick was the principal building material of the Harappan peoples, and it remains so today, even in an age of steel and concrete.

Although no monumental sculptures in stone have come to light from any Indus site, that the art of stone carving had reached a high standard is evident from the miniature seals and small objects that have been found. Consisting mostly of animals and plants with fewer anthropomorphic figures, these seals are admirable for their accurate representations, fine carving, and aesthetic quality.

Pots were shaped and painted and sculptures were modeled in terracotta, and a great deal was also likely produced in unfired clay, as it is still done in many parts of the subcontinent. Naturalistic and abstract modeling characterizes the terracotta objects, which has a wide variety of uses, both sacred and secular . Terra-cotta has remained a popular medium well into modern times and was readily available.

The earliest objects in the collection were made neither in stone nor in terracotta but in metal. They are mostly utilitarian objects–ax, spearhead, harpoon–belonging to what has come to be termed as the Copper Hoard Culture. Stretching over the last three millennia before the beginning of the Common Era, this culture was confined to the region known as the Doab, east of the Yamuna River in present-day Uttar Pradesh and in Bihar and West Bengal. Bihar has remained a rich source for copper and iron ores. Knowledge about metallurgy dates far back in time, and, although prehistoric India is yet to yield anything as sophisticated as discoveries in China, bronze was extensively used by the Harappans.

Most stone sculptures in the collection once belonged to religious edifices. Some were structurally functional, such as the early column, lintel, or a doorjamb. The vast majority served particular didactic or religious purposes. While a few may have been used as principal icons within the sanctum, most were either attached directly to a wall or occupied a subsidiary shrine (devakoshtha) within the temple or a niche on the external wall of a temple. Their placement on the wall is determined by cosmological, ritual, and iconographic requirements, clearly enunciated in appropriate texts. Each wall in each of the four directions, both outside and inside, must be embellished with specific images, which are often manifestations of the principal deity of the shrine, members of his of her extended family, directional divinities, or celestial and mythological beings. The temple is both a representation of the cosmos as well as an earthly habitat of the gods.

Because of the strong dependence on architecture, most Indian sculptures are in relief, the depth depending on the exact position or use of the sculptures. Many works in the collection are fragmentary and were probably found underground. Others are more complete, and their shapes indicate that they were likely placed in a sanctum or deep niche, where only the front would have been seen. From about the eighth century increasingly in most areas of northern India, the sculptors cut away the stele around the central figure to impart it with greater volume and depth. The backs, however, were frequently left unfinished or perfunctorily treated. Only in a relatively few instances is the figure completely released from the background so that the representation appears to be freestanding.

Generally in Buddhist dedications most inscriptions begin with the expression deyadharma, which characterizes the gift as “meritorious,” and end with the imprecation that the goal is to attain the ultimate or absolute knowledge (anuttara jnana) for parents and teachers and for all sentient beings, including the donor.

The two Bharut columns as well as the more complete example from Mathura provide glimpses of early Indian architecture. As parts of railings surrounding the stupa, they imitate earlier wooden architectural forms. With different iconography, the Mathura pillar in particular could have served a secular building, such as a palace, which at the time would have been built mostly in wood. Many architectural elements are carved in the niches and the crowning shrine is probably an accurate representation of a contemporary structural temple.

Hindu art of the Gupta period is represented in the collection by a few but impressive sculptures. Only two Buddhist sculptures in the collection are from the Gupta period: the lower portion of a sandstone Buddha and a more complete metal image.

The vast majority of the works in the collection were created between 700 and 1900 by unknown artists. Almost all the stone sculptures were made for temples, but the metal images had wider functions. Some were made for personal use in domestic shrines, others were commissioned as acts of piety and given to temples or monasteries, where they may or may not have received worship, and still others especially the large selection of south Indian bronzes were mostly used for periodic religious processions.

Most Indian objects in the collection are from Tamil Nadu, but there are also interesting and historically important works from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Kerala. The oldest sculptures dating to the early centuries of the Common Era are fragments from Buddhist monuments of the Amaravati region in Andhra Pradesh. Carved from the distinctive white or green white limestone, the sculptures of this school are among the most energized and elegant of the early period. Otherwise, one bronze and possibly a stone represent the art of Andhra Pradesh during the period under review. The bronze depicting Somaskanda is particularly interesting as it may be the only example of a metal sculpture in an American collection from the Nolamba realm.

(Published with permission from the publisher. Excerpted from Asian Art At The Norton Simon Museum Volume 1, Art From The Indian Subcontinent. By Pratapaditya Pal, Published by Mapin in association with Norton Simon Art Foundation and Yale University Press.)


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