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Surrealism and South Asian art

Prahlad Bubbar’s upcoming selling exhibition of selections from private collections explores the theme of surrealism in South Asian and Himalayan art, painting in particular.

A Fantastical Elephant Driven by Demons Past a Waq-Waq Tree
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A Fantastical Elephant Driven by Demons Past a Waq-Waq Tree (detail). Mughal or Deccan, India, c1625. Brush drawing on paper, 15.5 x 22 cm

The Surreal in Indian Painting: Select Works from the Arturo Schwarz and other Private Collections (4 October to 15 November 2013) presents 24 paintings dated between the 17th and the 19th centuries.

Surrealism in the West is generally credited to André Breton with his first Manifeste du surréalisme published in 1924 although the term surréalism was mentioned by the French poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917.  Artists sought to express creative powers of the unconscious mind through fantastic imagery and apparently incongruous juxtaposition of subject matter.  Of course, art historian Arturo Schwarz (b1924) insists Surrealism is not just an artistic movement but a philosophy of life.  Surrealism as he saw it informed his approach to collecting: half of the works in this exhibition formerly belonged to Arturo Umberto Samuele Schwarz, son of a German father and an Italian mother, born 1924, in Alexandria, Egypt.

Schwarz wrote about Marcel Duchamp, the Surrealists and Dada, Kabbalah, Tantra, prehistoric and tribal art, Asian art and philosophy.  He amassed a vast collection of Surrealist and Dada art including works by personal friends such as Duchamp, André, Man Ray and Jean Arp, a large portion of which he donated to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.  In the 1960s, Schwarz travelled to India where he was deeply taken with the mythology and its imagery, inspiring him to write books on the subject and to collect Indian paintings and sculpture which he mainly acquired in Paris and New York.   He was drawn to the iconography, esoteric subject matter and works that, for him, conveyed a dreamlike quality.

Growing up in Florence, Prahlad Bubbar was also attracted to the art of the Surrealists.  One of the first exhibitions he attended was I Surrealisti staged in Milan in 1989 and curated by Schwarz.  The two met in 2007 and Bubbar was introduced to Schwarz’s collection of Indian miniatures.  This exhibition stems from their friendship and mutual interests.

Indian art regularly inhabits realms of the ‘unconscious’ exploring fantasy, myth and mystical themes.  A Fantastical Elephant Driven by Demons Past a Waq-Waq Tree, a brush drawing of a composite elephant dating to around 1625, is a masterpiece of early 17th century draughtsmanship by an Imperial artist working at the Islamic courts of the Deccan or Mughal Empire.  While it is an exuberant display of artistic virtuosity, it also has mystical undertones, illustrating a belief in the divine unity of all living beings. The vibrantly coloured A Composite Ram from Kota, Rajasthan, circa 1750, sees this tradition played out in a Hindu context, while Lovers in Union, a painting on cloth from 18th century Orissa, invokes the theme once more, their erotic coupling a metaphor for union with the divine.

The exhibition also features significant works from the Tantric traditions of India and Nepal.  Tantra is a complex concept with many facets, but it can broadly be defined as referring to practices based on a group of historic texts called ‘Tantras,’ which emphasise specific rituals, secrecy and the importance of the teacher (guru) in the pursuit of spiritual gain.  A folded manuscript from 18th century Nepal, The Chakras of the Subtle Body, is a manifestation of the seven ‘chakras’, or internal centres of energy, within the ‘spiritual’ body.  The painting is over three metres long and accompanies a Hindu text that outlines specific mantras (sounds or words to aid meditation).

The Yantra of the Goddess Bagalamukhi, one of the ten goddesses of great wisdom – the yantra being her Tantric geometric symbol, painted in Guler, Punjab Hills, circa 1800-20, is a rare example of a Tantric diagram of courtly patronage. Chinnamasta, the self-decapitated tantric goddess, also from a Guler workshop circa 1800-20, conveys the full power and intensity of Tantric imagery through the lyricism of one of India’s most celebrated painting schools.

Other works include Indra Rides His Elephant Airavata, a painting of the king of the gods from the Pahari Hills, circa 1825, and a folio from a Ragamala Series (garland of musical melodies) from Hyderabad, circa 1760.

The Surreal in Indian Painting: Select Works from the Arturo Schwarz and other Private Collections. 4 October to 15 November 2013, Monday to Friday, 10 am to 5 pm. Prahlad Bubbar, 33 Cork Street, London W1S 3NQ.

Author: Editor

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