We often think of international trade and cross cultural influences as relatively modern phenomenon, boosted dramatically by the new sea routes between Western Europe and Asia in the early modern period. This, somehow, is particularly true with India – we British almost seem to think of ourselves as the first to ‘discover’ Indian culture in the nineteenth century, when the extensive operations of the East India Company bought great interaction between the two nations. However, trade (and colonial tensions) between Asia and Europe stretches back into the ancient world, with the armies of Alexander the Great reaching India in 327–326 BC. This early interaction between India and the Classical world resulted in the sophisticated school of Gandharan sculpture, which drew inspiration from the remarkable naturalism of contemporary Greek works. This example, an elegant Atlas figure, offered by Luc Decruyenaere, Brussels, shows how subject as well as style travelled from Europe to Asia. Not only do the sensitive modelling of the torso and the naturalistic calm of the face suggest a link with Ancient Greece, the idea of anthropomorphic figures supporting architectural elements is also decidedly classical.
Even in the modern era the British were not the first to establish colonies in India, with the Portuguese first arriving in Goa at the tail end of the fifteenth century, over a hundred years before the first British boats reached the region. Although the Portuguese were primarily interested in the large profits of the spice trade, they also had a secondary interest in converting the population. As a result, local sculptors were called upon to create items for Christian worship, which drew upon established European models. This exquisite ivory carved figure of Christ, offered by Ben Janssens at this year’s TEFAF, belongs to this tradition. The form is instantly recognisable as a piece of Christian iconography, but the style, with the delicate, almond-shaped eyes, and stylised, curling beard betrays it’s more Eastern origin.
Maya Lin’s Here and There at Pace London
Follow the link for my review of Maya Lin’s new exhibition at Pace London. Best known for her groundbreaking and controversial (though now much-loved) Vietnam Memorial in Washington, Lin is an artist who has never shied away from the political. Her latest exhibition is part of her ambitious What is Missing? series of works, which explore mankind’s impact on the environment. Here she offers exquisite, sculptural monuments to the earth’s waterways, from carved marble depictions of disappearing bodies of water, to supple silver sculptures recreating the flow of some of Europe’s best known rivers.
Until 11th May at Pace London.
Whilst at TEFAF in Maastricht I came across this striking 19th century Kota reliquary figure, offered by Entwistle Gallery. Like Christian reliquaries these figures were associated with the worship of venerated human remains – in this instance the bones and other relics of the Kota people’s ancestors. In the Christian tradition reliquary sculptures are best understood as referring directly to the saint in question, as the ornate, anthropomorphic cases often relate closely to particular body parts – with pieces of skull encased in the head of a reliquary bust, or arm bones displayed in a rock crystal ‘arm,’ for example. However, these African reliquaries are not representative of the ancestors themselves, and are better understood as guardian figures, keeping watch over the precious relics. Although reliquary figures are found in many tribal cultures in this part of Western Africa, the Kota ‘mbulu ngulu’ are unique for their combination of wood and hammered metal. This is particularly interesting as the metal was not manufactured locally, but fashioned out of brass and copper pots bought to the region through networks of international trade. Just as Catholics elevate the status of relics through their elaborate cases of rich gold and imported jewels, the Kota people used these exotic materials to enrich their religious art, assimilating these foreign materials into their local traditions.
Social Fabric: African Textiles Today
Follow the link for my review of Social Fabric: African Textiles Today at the British Museum. It’s only a small, free exhibition (in the galleries by the 4th floor print room) but it’s a fascinating topic, and one that deserves more attention in academic circles. On display are a number of kanga, capulana and shweshwe – all types of textiles that have a central part in Africa’s rich and varied material culture. Particularly fascinating is the breadth of topics that have inspired textile designs, from freedom fighters and major political events to the life and times of Michael Jackson.
Here’s my review of Treasures of the Royal Court at the V&A. It’s a great exploration of the material culture and vocabulary of power at the Tudor and Stuart courts. Full of butch posturing, rampant beasts and courtly bling, there are some fabulous pieces on display, from exquisite embroidered fashions to a monumental collection of silver. It’s just a pity that so little is made of life at the Russian courts – it would have been wonderful to see what court life was like beyond Western Europe.
This stunning bronze group of the Virgin and Child, c.1610-20, sold at Christie’s yesterday for over £480,000. Previously undocumented, it is one of four examples of this composition which are believed to be the work of Antonio Susini (died 1624). Susini is better known as a technical assistant and caster to the great master Giambalogna (1529-1608) than as a sculptor in his own right, and it is fascinating to see here a work that he conceived and executed by himself. Although Susini’s work remained under the influence of his master, even after he left to establish his own workshop in 1600, there is nothing derivative or reductive about his pieces. Indeed, works such as this one prove him to be an accomplished sculptor, deserving of his own recognition. The piece shows great technical ability in the detail of the casting, for example in the finely modelled faces and carefully articulated curls of the Virgin and Child. However, Susini was not merely a talented technician, and details such as the drapery, which moves from the heavy, sweeping folds of the over skirt, to the gently fluttering, delicate material around the Virgin’s feet, suggest a real confidence and mastery of the medium. Particularly charming is the contrast between the monumental solemnity of the Virgin, and the vitality of her son, who seems almost about to wriggle from her arms. Such liveliness emphasises the humanity of the Christ child, an idea also alluded to here by the careful depiction of his fleshy, childish physiognomy.