An Ancient City in Jeopardy: Saving Mes Anyak

•April 26, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Saving Mes Anyak, a brilliant, upsetting, life-affirming film by Brent Huffman released at the close of 2014, charts the attempt by Afghan, French, Swedish and British archaeologists and labourers to uncover and preserve an ancient city in the face of tremendous adversity (to put it very, very mildly), and focuses in particular on the heroic local archaeologist, Qadir Temori. Mes Anyak, situated in a stark, mountainous landscape in the troubled Logar province, 40 km southeast of Kabul, was once a wealthy Buddhist city the size of Pompeii, brimming with monasteries and stupas adorned with stucco relief sculptures of the Buddha depicted on various stages of his journey towards nirvana. Most of the monuments date to sometime between the 3rd and 8th centuries CE, though the history of the settlement goes back much further. Ancient Silk Road routes once led from the city, which formed part of ancient Gandhara, to modern-day Pakistan, India, China and Iran, making it a lively trading hub. Its location on the busy trade route also informed its artistic production, drawing influences from far and wide.

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Photo credit: Simon Norfolk

In 2007, Mes Anyak and its environs were purchased by a Chinese metallurgical mining company who made a ‘generous’ concession to the Afghan government by allowing excavations to continue for a set period of time. In due course they plan to blow up the ancient city complete with undiscovered secrets and priceless antiquities – despite there being less destructive methods of mining. Ironically, it was the presence of copper that attracted the Buddhists to the area in the first place, and now it is the copper that is expected to spell the end for Mes Anyak. This is not the only challenge that the archaeologists led by Temori face. They receive regular death threats from the Taliban and make an extraordinarily dangerous daily commute from Kabul to the site. Their determination to save their heritage is really inspiring and demonstrates how important tangible, artistic history is for us, and for our sense of belonging and self-worth.

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Photo credit: Simon Norfolk

Many of the finds from Mes Anyak have been transferred to the National Museum of Kabul, but due to space shortages, much is left on site in makeshift sheds. Hopefully these historically important and fascinating artefacts will be digitalised soon, so that we can all enjoy them.

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Gardens and Cosmos Revisited: Paintings from the Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur

•April 26, 2018 • Leave a Comment

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Rudyard Kipling called the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, ‘a palace that might have been built by titans and coloured by the morning sun’. This poetic description aptly captures the character of the colossal stone fortress perched on the top of a rocky hill, towering over the faded blue city below. I visited the fort for the first time in the Summer of 2016. Usually even glittering palaces lose their appeal in temperatures approaching 50 degrees celsius, but not Mehrangarh. Within the fort, the architecture ranges from the solid, sturdy and seemingly invincible, to the fragile, exquisite and richly ornate. The highlight of my visit though, was not the magnificent architecture, the mirrored ceilings or the gilded furniture, but rather a room full of paintings, many of which were displayed at the British Museum exhibition, ‘Gardens and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur’ in 2009. I was breath-taken when I first laid eyes on the paintings and even more astounded when viewing them in the setting for which they were intended. The paintings were commissioned by three consecutive maharajas and range in date from the first half of the 18th century to the mid-19th century. Their scale, most measuring over a metre in length, make them unusual in the oeuvre of Indian miniature painting. The painting itself though, remains deliciously detailed and intricate, every brush stroke made with expert precision.

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Many of the paintings created for the perusal of Maharaja Bakhat Singh (1725-1751) depict typical princely scenes portraying the king frolicking in his pleasure palace surrounded by graceful ladies adorning manicured gardens. The painting below shows the Maharaja immersed in a playful water fight with his wives and courtesans in a palace pond.

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During this period depictions of scenes from sacred texts and epics such as the Ramayana were also created. These are vivid, bold and fantastical compositions. One could wax lyrical about them for days on end. A fascinating aspect of some of these paintings is that they show a sequence of events happening within a single image, in contrast to most compositions which capture a moment in time. The image below imaginatively portrays a sequence of episodes from the Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas (based on Valmiki’s Ramayana). The focal point is the crossing to Lanka, with Rama and Lakshmana leading an army of monkeys and bears across the sea in preparation for battle. Rama and his half-brother Lakshmana are depicted four times. Firstly, they are shown standing on top of a cliff on the left hand side of the painting puzzling over how they will cross the ocean; secondly, performing a sacrifice; thirdly, crossing the causeway built for them by monkeys and bears; and lastly, in wicked Ravana’s kingdom of Lanka. The ten-headed, multi-armed demon Ravana can be seen looking down at the approaching army from the uppermost terrace of his golden palace. Most of the subordinate demons are shown with horns.

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The two images below form halves of one exquisite painting commissioned by Maharaja Vijay Singh between c.1780 and 1790. It is an illustration of an episode in the Durga Charita. On the left we have a hermitage peopled by long-haired ascetics with ash-smeared skin seated within little huts made for one. The leaf covered habitations blend seamlessly into the verdant, hilly landscape. The main focal point of this half of the composition is Sage Markandeya seated on an antelope skin outside his dwelling place. Kneeling before him are a king and a merchant. The two visitors tell the sage of their miseries. The first has lost his kingdom, the other, his wealth. Markandeya soothes their woes by revealing that the world is but an illusion. The reality is depicted in the other half of the image: Lord Vishnu asleep on his thousand-headed serpent Sesha in the vast cosmic ocean. In his slumber the god dreams up the world.

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The paintings below were created for the last of our three maharajas, Man Singh (r. 1803-1843), who could not have been further removed from Bakhat Singh in his approach to kingship and to life in general. Man Singh was deeply spiritual and fell under the spell of the guru Dev Nath and the legendary yogi, Jalandarnath. The Naths became so powerful under the maharaja that they were governing the land by proxy, enforcing law and carrying out retributions. Man Singh went as far as to call his kingdom an offering to the Naths. His devotion to these increasingly troublesome yogis was to be his undoing. Eventually he was overthrown with the help of the British. Below is an ash covered Nath Siddha (a perfected being) in meditation. Positioned along the spinal cord of the Nath are energy centres or chakras inhabited by Hindu deities and Nath Siddhas. The Nath Siddhas are placed above the deities because the Naths believed that perfected beings or yogis were more powerful and more invincible than the gods.

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The triptych below represents spirit and matter. In a startling move away from tradition, the first panel representing the origins of the cosmos and of the formless absolute is painted plain gold. The two deities in the second and third panels represent consciousness and matter.

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Lady Mary Impey and her Calcutta Menagerie

•April 26, 2018 • Leave a Comment
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Shaikh Zain ud-din, ‘Sulphur Crested Cockatoo on a Custard Apple Branch’, 61.5 x 86 cm, 1777.

In 1773 Sir Elijah Impey moved from England to India to assume his role as first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court at Fort William, Calcutta, under the direction of the ill-fated Governor-General, Warren Hastings. Elijah’s wife, the natural historian, Mary Impey, moved with him and soon established a menagerie of Indian and South East Asian birds and animals in their extensive grounds. In 1777 Mary commissioned artists (among them Shaikh Zain ud-din, Ram Das and Bhawani Das) to paint her exotic flora and fauna. These skillful and accurate paintings numbered 362 and became part of a collection known as the Impey Album. Most of the images are inscribed both in Persian and in English by Mary herself. Lady Mary also kept copious notes on the inhabitants of her menagerie which were to prove valuable to later botanists.

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Shaikh Zain ud-din, ‘Pair of Lorikeets on Broken Branches’, 50.8 x 73.66 cm, 1780, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The paintings belong to the Company School of art, in other words, encyclopaedic images commissioned by members of the East India Company to appeal to British tastes. They reflect the then British penchant for studiously and systematically recording everything down to the minutae of daily life in India. The Impey Album is a particularly fine example of this genre of painting, especially the works produced by the artist, Shaikh Zain ud-din, which really need to be seen ‘in the flesh’ in order to fully appreciate their skilful execution and striking beauty.

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A Map of Fort William, Calcutta, 1844.

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Johan Zoffany, Lord and Lady Impey in India with some of their children and staff.
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A Green-winged Macaw’, attributed to Shaikh Zain ud-din, c. 1780, San Diego Museum of Art.

Shaikh Zain ud-din, ‘A Golden-fronted Leafbird Perched on a Peach Tree Branch’.
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Shaikh Zain ud-din, ‘Pied Hornbill’, 1777.
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Shaikh Zain ud-din, ‘Common Crane’, 88.2 x 60.6 cm, 1780.
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Shaikh Zain ud-din, ‘Black-necked Stork’, 83.8 x 60.1 cm, 1781.
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Shaikh Zain-ud din, ‘Black-necked Stork II’, 95.5 x 62.5 cm,  1782.
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Shaikh Zain ud-din, ‘Adjutant Stork’, 96.4 x 58.5 cm, c. 1780.

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Shaikh Zain ud-din, ‘Sarus Crane’, 95 x 61.2 cm, c. 1780.
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Shaikh Zain ud-din, ‘Greater Flamingo’, 89.4 x 62.6 cm, 1781.

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A detail from a painting by Shaikh Zain ud-din, ‘An Ornate Lorikeet on the Branch
of an Indian Cherry Tree’, 1777, sold by Forgelynch in 2014.

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Shaikh Zain ud-din, ‘Exotic Pheasant’, c. 1777.

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Bhawani Das (c.1778-1782)

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Detail of a painting by Shaikh Zain ud-din depicting a Curucui, 1779. Sold at Christie’s.

Shaikh Zain ud-din, ‘An Orange-headed Ground Thrush and
a Death’s Head Moth on a Purple Ebony Orchid Branch’, 59.7 x 80 cm, 1778,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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Bhawani Das, ‘A Branch of a Mango Tree’, c. 1780,65.5 x 45.4 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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Unknown artist, ‘Custard Apple Branch’, 51.5 x 36 cm, c. 1785,
Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
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Black Stork in Landscape’, 90.2 x 68.6 cm, c. 1780, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

It is not known who painted this image of a Black Stork but based on style, scale and date of execution it could be by Shaikh Zain ud-din or at the very least, a pupil or admirer. Unlike most Shaikh Zain ud-din paintings, the composition includes a landscape. I have a suspicion, though, that the landscape with its tiny meandering river is a later addition by someone seeking to ‘improve’ the painting since it doesn’t accord with the scale or accurate rendering of the bird.

The Impeys’ sojourn in India did not end auspiciously. In 1784, the British Prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, passed a bill (called, imaginatively, the Pitt Bill) to make the East India Company accountable to parliament. In theory this was a positive move, though unfortunately the first case initiated following the bill was marred by complex feuds, and general opaqueness.  In 1787, Elijah Impey and his life-long friend, Warren Hastings, were put on trial for alleged crimes of corruption. The principle accusation was for what was perceived by some, including Edmund Burke, as the mishandeling of the famous Maharaja Nandakumar case in 1775, overseen by Elijah Impey. Nandakumar (also known as Nuncomar) had been hired by the East India Company to collect taxes in certain provinces of West Bengal. He and Hastings had never seen eye to eye and eventually a case was brought against Nandakumar for large-scale fraud. Nandakumar was the first Indian to be hanged under British law. Impey was aquitted after it was decided that Nandakumar had been given a just and fair trial, and Warren Hastings was eventually acquitted of all charges several years later. To this day, opinions on Hastings and his character vary dramatically. The result of the case was to prove fairly disastrous to India, as Nicholas Dirks writes in Scandal of Empire … ‘not only was empire hardly abandoned; it was reformed precisely so that the private and idiosyncratic excesses of venality and corruption attached to particular individuals could be transformed into national interest, both metaphorically and literally.’ (Dirks, 2006: 31)

1024px-warren_hastings_by_tilly_kettleTilly Kettle, Warren Hastings.

… Every accumulation of knowledge, and especially such as is obtained by social communication with people over whom we exercise a dominion founded on the right of conquest, is useful to the state: it is the gain of humanity… It lessons the weight of the chain by which the natives are held in subjection; and it imprints on the hearts of our own countrymen the sense and obligation of benevolence. Even in England this very effect is wanting. It is not very long since the inhabitants of India were considered by many, as creatures scarce elevated above the degree of savage life; nor, I fear is, that prejudice wholly eradicated. (Warren Hastings quoted in Marshall, 1970: 189)

Ancient Buddhist terracottas from Mirpurkhas in Pakistan

•April 26, 2018 • Leave a Comment

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One of Mumbai’s jewels is its principle museum, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (previously known as the Prince of Wales Museum). The museum is a veritable treasure trove of pan-Indian sculptures, paintings, objet d’art and fabrics. Among its most exceptional exhibits are the glorious terracottas from the exterior of a stupa at Kahu-jo-daro, Mirpurkhas, in the Sindh province of Pakistan, dating to the late fifth or early sixth century CE. Mirpurkhas is located on the ancient trade route known as the Aprāntapatha which leads along the west coast from the Bolan Pass in the north to Trivandrum in the south. Unlike most museums which tend to relegate terracotta art to some dark corner, or label them ‘minor arts’, the CSMVS has placed some of the Kahu-jo-daro exhibits in pride of place its spacious entrance atrium.

The brick stupa was excavated by Henry Cousens between 1909-1910.  Originally the monument had two terraces, a dome and an entrance to the west. Now only the square basement terrace survives in a ruined state. Around this basement terrace ran a series of pilasters and between each pair of pilasters was a niche enshrining a seated Buddha, eleven in total, although only seven survive (one is in the V&A Museum). Though the Buddhas of Kahu-jo-daro have their own uniqueness, they bear a strong stylistic likeness – especially in the treatment of the facial features – to Buddha images from Mes Anyak and across ancient Gandhara. The relief sculptures were originally painted with coloured slips and traces of this can still be seen in places. The monument was also decorated with terracotta bricks carved with geometric designs, leaves and flowers, and lion heads.

The exquisite Buddhas are seated on lotuses and in the lotus position. The lotus is one of the eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism and represents purity. The Buddhas hold their hands in a gesture which symbolises meditation. Their eyes are downcast and they look at nothing in particular as though thoughtless and detached from their surroundings. Even though the composition is the same, each Buddha is slightly different and this variety adds charm.

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Earlier this month the Minister for Culture, Antiquities and Tourism in Sindh, Syed Sardar Ali Shah, announced his intention to preserve the ancient site of Kahu-jo-daro (at least what is left of it) and build a museum in Mirpurkhas. He also suggested that UNESCO will help them to repatriate the Mirpurkhas antiquities from India and the United Kingdom.

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This terracotta roundel might depict Kubera, god of wealth.
img_6653This same type of beautiful elephant is found on most monuments of the fifth century CE.

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This narrative image depicts Queen Maya giving birth to the Buddha in Lumbini, out of her left side. She is often shown clutching a tree above her head as she gives birth.
img_6806This small fragment depicts a kirtimukha or lion head spewing pearls. It is an image found on most early temples.

The Book of Symbols

•December 28, 2012 • Leave a Comment


When at the British Museum just before Christmas I bought a fascinating book, a Jungian tome on symbols and archetypal images. The text is interesting, though not perhaps as expansive – or as well-referenced – as it could be. More inspiring is the eclectic choice of illustrations sourced from around the world and spanning a period of over 2000 years.  It is rare to see such a diverse collection of images, with most art history books focusing on the West, or on a specific subject matter such as 18th century Japanese art, or Burmese bronzes.  The illustrations in this book are an affirmation of the genius and creativity of man and also of the power of the collective unconscious.

Many of the pictures are not available online but I have made a small selection below. All the quotes are from the book: (Eds.) Ronnberg, Ami & Martin, Kathleen, 2010, The Book of Symbols, Reflections on Archetypal Images: Koln, Taschen

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Hokusai (1760-1849), Amida Waterfall on the Kiso Highway, Japan.

I find this print captivatingly grandiose and delicate at the same time.  The depiction of a waterfall is highly stylised, majestic, and ethereal, its scale emphasised by the inclusion of three small men picnicking on a precipice.

‘The descent of a great mass of water can … overwhelm us.  The waterfall has been imagined as a stream feeding the dark realms of the underworld and circling up to issue again from craggy heights.  It has been suggested the descent of the immutable into an ever-dividing stream that defies capture, cannot be contained, is eternal movement, eternal change, generating life and death … The waterfall itself is an emblem of balance.  Chinese landscape paintings portray the waterfall in contrast to the upward movement of the rock face over which it descends, and the dynamic movement of its rushing waters with the stillness of the rock.’ (p48)

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Uccello, St. George and the Dragon, 1465, Italy.

This bold composition with its vivid colouring is one of my favourite paintings at the National Gallery, London.  St.George, clad in armour and riding a white horse, is in the midst of saving the princess by spearing the dragon.  Behind him is a dark forest and spiralling clouds, contributing to the drama of the scene.  The princess, however, stands, unperturbed, holding the dragon on a leash as though it were a pet dog.

‘Long ago, the dragon began as a winged or flying serpent, expressing the primal harmony between the subterranean and aeriel dimensions … As an image of the unconscious, the dragon moves in and out of psyche’s darkness, showing only parts of itself, evanescent.’ (704)

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“Inside the Bubble of Love,” a detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch, c. 1504, the Netherlands.

Hieronymous Bosch – the first surrealist? An altogether bizarre scene which is on the one hand, distinctly medieval, and on the other hand oddly 21st century with its peculiar juxtaposition of objects and nature, and almost nightmarish in its conception, with giant birds, oversized foliage and small people.  It brings to mind Roald Dahl’s ‘James and the Giant Peach’ which terrified me as a child.

‘The archetypal symbol of a bubble exists in the psyche beyond time and space.  It constitutes an invisible reality imaged by mystics throughout the ages, a round nothingness that is paradoxically the primordial source of all.’ (52) ‘Throughout history, the translucent bubble has inspired contemplation of the infinite and the eternal .. The translucency of the bubble, introduces … the numinosity, etheriality and spirituality associated with the celestial light of heaven.’ (52)

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Kotah Master, Rana Jagat Singh II of Kotah, Rajasthan, c. 1750 – 1800, India.

I was drawn to this painting because I visited the palace at Kota earlier this year (see a previous post).  Today the palace is a little decrepit, with a few splendid reminders of how rich and extravagant this complex once was. This miniature depicts the gardens of the Rajput palace when they were still very much alive and in use.  Looking at this painting is strangely nostalgic, albeit nostalgic for something never experienced.

‘Eighteenth-century patron Rana Jagat Singh II of Kotah, India, cultivated the arts as one might cultivate a fine garden … The Kotah master … has honoured his patron by depicting him enthroned in the center of a flourishing garden, divided into four sections of pink and orange blossoms, lush vegetation and fountains flowing with water.’ (146)

‘In almost all cultures and religions, the garden represents a sacred space, a uniting of the conscious self with its unconscious source.  Muslims speak of gardens as states of bliss and call Allah “the gardener.”‘(146)

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Ogata Korin (1658-1716), Raijin, detail from Gods of Wind and Thunder. Japan.

Raijin is the Japanese god of thunder, here looking rather comical.

‘Stormy of countenance, the Japanese god Raijin makes thunder as he pounds on a great ring of drums.  The crash of thunder can still unnerve us.  While science has explained thunder as the explosive expansion of heated air in lightning’s path, it was in former times the signature of the highest, earthshaking gods: Thor, Zeus, Yaweh, Indra, Baal, Taranis.  Always ambivalent, the gods of thunder and lightning could bring either death and destruction or fertility and new life to humankind and its surroundings.’ (68)

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William Blake (1805), The Descent of Man into the Vale of Death: “But Hope Rekindled, Only to Illume the Shades of Death, and Light Her to the Tomb,” England.

A magnetic example of Blake’s visionary world.  Here ‘death is depicted as an “under” world, to which the spirits of the dead initially descend before Hope illuminates the possibility of an eternal home.’ (432) The underworld is a labyrinth of catacombs into which a steady stream of figures are descending from the hills above.

‘Myth and ritual from the oldest times attest to the transformative possibilities of descent.  It is return to a transpersonal matrix for rebirth, the obtaining of treasured self-knowledge from realms of luminous darkness, or a boon of understanding that brings “up” to collective consciousness the genuinely profound.’ (432)

Earth Day

•April 22, 2012 • Leave a Comment


Samuel Palmer, “The Sleeping Shephard” 1832.

“Those who find beauty in all of nature will find themselves at one with the secrets of life itself.”
– L.W. Gilbert

Van Gogh, “The Sower”

I never tire of this painting with its honeyed hues, mysterious light, and those dark, confident lines.  Despite the intensity of the composition, this is a soft and intimate scene depicting a solitary man, sowing seeds, creating life.  The painting is overwhelmingly tranquil, especially to urban eyes.

Perhaps though the reality is starkly different, perhaps the farm worker is exhausted, living a gruelling existence.

I feel, however, that this work is about the cycle of life and death. The simplicity of the composition makes this message all the more powerful. The almost bare tree has a few leaves emerging.  The sun is rising, or setting.  The earth is barren but will soon be brimming with life, and only then will the man reap the rewards of his labour. It reminds me of Shakespeare’s words:

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.”

The man in this painting is anonymous, his identity is not important.  He is simply another soul acting out his part in life.

There is a reason why Van Gogh’s paintings are so coveted today.  He had the ability to capture or convey something so extraordinarily primal, so dark, and yet so comforting in his landscapes, something that is inside each and every one of us.  Something that we all long to return too.

Claude Monet, “Water Lilies” 1916.

John Constable, “The Traveller”

David Hockney

Cezanne,  “Le Mont Saint-Victoire” 1902-4.  Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Franz Melchers

Gustav Courbet, “The Valley of the Loue in Stormy Weather” 1849.

J.M.W. Turner, “Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory): The Morning After the Deluge,” Tate Britain

Turner: The first impressionist.

John Craxton

Auguste Renoir,  “Springtime in Chatou” 1875.

“And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.” Kahlil Gibran

Gustav Courbet, “The Chateau de Chillon” 1873

Henri Rousseau

Botticelli, detail of irises from “Primavera” c.1478


Inside the Glittering Palace of Kitsch at Kota, Rajasthan

•April 20, 2012 • 1 Comment

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Just your average day bed!

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