I still remember standing face to face with a white Siberian tiger in Darjeeling. Ok it was caged, but the cage looked a little flimsy to me. I had been assured that I was safe and yet when me and the tiger locked eyes I felt a deadly chill running down my spine. These powerful, majestic beasts are predators; they are a threat to man; we are supposed to be a bit scared of them! But in a deferential manner we also admire their startling beauty and strength. Perhaps this combination of fear and admiration is the reason why tigers have long been portrayed in art across many parts of the globe.
Henri Rousseau, Surprised! 1891
Rousseau described this scene as illustrating a tiger hunting explorers! What is surprising is that Rousseau never visited any jungle, though it became his most popular theme. Quite an imagination he had! Despite the fierce subject matter there is a charming playful quality to this painting and indeed to all his large jungle images. Perhaps this stems from his being self-taught and therefore more heavily reliant on the imagination and creativity than on technique, perspective and conventional subject material. This tiger looks more frightened than frightening! Rousseau’s paintings never fail to make me smile!
Maruyama Oyo (1733-95) Japan
This exquisite screen is painted using ink, colour and gold leaf on delicate paper. The image depicts a tiger carrying her cubs across a river. Oyo’s lyrical composition is fine, delicate and powerful simultaneously.
Gan Ku, Tiger Scroll, Japan, Edo Period, approx. 1784-96
As Japanese artists would not have seen living tigers they would have used skins as models. Gan Ku was famous for his tiger images, and this one successfully captures the predatory, fierce nature of the creature.
Rudolph Ernst (1854-1932), A Sultan with a Tiger
Despite the controversy that Orientalist art has caused, especially since the publication of Edward Said’s book Orientalism in the seventies, the talent of many of the artists falling under this title cannot be desputed. Ernst is a well-known Austrian artist who travelled in North Africa and Turkey. This painting, however, is set in India, though Ernst never set foot there. The power of the ruler is suggested by the fact that a tame tiger sits at his feet. Perhaps it pleased the nineteenth century European imagination to believe that all Indian rulers kept tigers as pets. There is a stillness to the painting, both the ruler and his tiger standing silently under the beautiful mehrab arch in the dry heat of an Indian morning.
Bengali chest painting of the Hindu goddess Durga on a tiger.
Here the tiger is the vehicle of Durga, the radiant goddess who destroys demons using the divine weapons she holds in her ten arms (in this image only eight) while never losing her composure.
Jakucho Ito, Tiger, 18th Century, Edo Period
It is rumoured that there may have been a small number of tigers living in one region of Japan during the Edo period but they would have been very elusive. Consequently, Ito copied this image from a Chinese painting. This tiger licking its paws looks more humouros than dangerous. Tigers have a special significance in Japan, especially the white tiger which is revered as a deity.
This wonderful Kalighat image depicts Durga and her lion destroying the demon Mahishasura, who, after performing many penances had been reluctantly offered a boon (blessing) from the gods. He asked that he may never be killed by a man and thus believed himself invincible!
The Kalighat patuas (artists) resided in Calcutta next to the temple of Kali from the early 19th century to early 20th century. They developed a method to create popular images of gods and satirical tales in as little time as possible. Thus this bold, distinctive style arose. Kalighat art is said to be the first truly urban art in the world!