December 8, 2011

The Quiet Depth of Tantric Paintings



How is it that paintings made by anonymous artists half a world away, as objects for meditation in a centuries old tradition, resonate so intensely in a contemporary mind, eye, and heart? Of course, one reason is that they look so modern; although they are copies of Hindu Tantric images dating back to the 17th century, they fit right in to modernist high art in its minimalist form. I first encountered these works at an exhibition at the Drawing Center in 2004 and was immediately enthralled.




Their simplicity, their modesty, their small size (most are around 12 inches in length), belied the power of their presence. So, when I received as a gift a new book on these works, Tantra Song, from my sister-in-law, the designer Sandy Chilewich, I couldn't have been happier. Thinking about these works in the past week has already profoundly influenced and inspired me; the anonymity of the artists, the fact that making the paintings is a religious practice, as is contemplating them, has reminded me that the quality of attention brought to the act of painting is of prime importance.




The collector of these quietly masterful works is the French writer Franck André Jamme, who has written marvelously poetic texts for the book. He explains that the images have been repeated through the centuries in northern India, that there are a certain number of them, that their "vocabulary...is somewhat similar to that of ragas in Indian classical music". It is rare that a new image emerges. Jamme states that "in such an ego-centered world as ours, I find this anonymity extraordinarily delightful and touching".




Jamme explains that there is no precise symbolism for all these images, although he offers a guide. Above is Shakti in the manifestation of Kali, The Black One, the goddess of time. The three spots, which appear on several paintings symbolize the three gunas: matter, energy, essence. Blue is consciousness, spirals and arrows are energy.




Although I know nothing about Tantrism, I can't help but think that the spiritual origins of these paintings carries a depth of meaning, mysterious but potent, that I feel in looking at them.




I see a tension in the red connected circles, pushing apart or being held together. Jamme calls this a "meditation of the possible and necessary balance of things". I don't see it as quite so calm. The little bit of red at the bottom of the page creates more jump in the image.






The paper used for the paintings is found and worn, but it seems clear that the artists were very conscious of the properties of each sheet – its colors, repairs, tears – and used them to balance the compositions. In the two paintings above you see again the three gunas.




Most of the Tantric images are very simple forms, revealing essences. Here there are multitudinous small arrows, "the endless dance of energy". It is like looking into a sparkling night sky and having a wondrous sense of the enormity of the universe and our tiny place within it.




Fire around the sacred principle, the Shiva Linga. As a secular Westerner the black form doesn't tell me a story, but it is a power; it has both a tremendous solid presence with its uneven paint, and is a deep deep void, containing the compressed energy and matter of a black hole. I love seeing how simple shapes, basic colors, are transformed in these small paintings into the essences of life and spirit. Looking at them, I become more still, I give more pure attention to the world inside of me and out.

32 comments:

  1. I find them astonishing. Strange, with power in strangeness.

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  2. good to see these with your commentary, Altoon. I remember that exhibit at the Drawing Center. using found paper for such work is, well, profound.

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  3. These are incredible. Thank you do much for posting.

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  4. I JUST LOVE THESE! Simple -clear- elegant

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  5. I love them too. thank you Altoon.
    the simplicity of shapes and colors are superb.

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  6. I saw this show recently at the Santa Monica Museum of Art and also purchased the book. Amazing and inspiring little paintings.

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  7. Wow, thank you all so much for your comments. I'm really glad that you like these beautiful little paintings.

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  8. What a treat to see these and read your descriptions and feel your deep
    appreciation.

    Myrna

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  9. Thank you for posting it so nicely.

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  10. I can see why you like them so. They remind me of your little ruglets.

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  11. Thanks again.
    Lisa, I didn't mention this in the post, but seeing the show in 2004 was the inspiration for beginning to do hooked rugs for the wall. I did a variation on the image with the black triangle and red circle. So you are absolutely correct in seeing a link.

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    1. Altoon, I saw this same show and I don't know if I have ever been so touched by art. The energy of the room was so exquisite, I stayed for hours. Thanks for the nice job you did on this work. I read the Jamme's book on a regular basis for inspiration. Alexandra

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  12. Thank you for introducing these to me, Altoon.

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  13. Altoon, I've been soaking in the images from the book too. But loved hearing that the Drawing Show in 2004 was so personally inspirational for you. Now that you say it, it makes complete sense.

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  14. Thanks for this incredible gift Altoon. Although I've looked at tantric images in books for years, I had no idea that such paintings continued to be made. The attention to the paper, "its colors, tears and repairs" as you noted, is exquisite.

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  15. Wonderful showing of powerful simplicity and how universal imagery can be . Thanks for this gift.

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  16. Altoon I too thank you for the positive impact these images spoke to me spiritually and artistically. They have continued to linger in my head since I first saw them- It was such a strong impact that I went and ordered the book you linked to immediately- My goal is to recreate one (to start with) as a tapestry. I will dye the yarn used as background to imitate the paper that evokes a patina - Again, thank you for sharing, inspiring and opening my eyes wider to our big wide world.

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  17. I'm really pleased these images struck a chord with so many of you.
    Sue, it's wonderful that you too are inspired by the images to make a textile. All the best with that project.

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  18. I saw the show for the second time yesterday at SMMOA, as it was the last day, and this viewing was even more revelatory than the first. It was possible to look deeper, to notice the imperfections of the recycled paper as intentionally considered by the creators, even to see which hand created more than one piece (or so I surmised). I wish I could always visit the intimate room where they were assembled, a reminder and an antidote to "our ego-centered world," in Jamme's words. This is my first comment on your blog, so let me say how much i enjoy your thoughtful, articulate and engaging posts.

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  19. thanks so much for your comment, sarajo, and for sharing your love of these amazing paintings. I'm very glad you enjoy my blog posts.

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  20. Very interesting post, Altoon, and I too am stunned by them. I especially love the use of the worn paper with the strong intentional shape giving the paper such weight and power. I'm intrigued. Woods shots lovely too!

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  21. I recently read that looking at art is the closest many of get to meditation. This work is wonderful. I'm going to recommend the book to my fb friends. P.S. I have a whole collection of your sister-in-laws placemats. I love them!

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  22. I'm pleased that you like these paintings, Maggie and Karen. I'm still a bit amazed at how the response to them has been so overwhelming. There is something here that is more than "mere" art.

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  23. I am unfamiliar with these paintings, so thank you for the introduction. The paper certainly plays a critical role in these works. Using found papers and/or gluing them together is something that appeals to me but It is hard to just come across a wonderfully worn and used piece of paper that is still worth painting on.

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  24. Ms. Wis., I do wonder about the papers and how beautiful they are. They must have different papers than the bleached white ones we are used to seeing here, that lend themselves to achieving some character over time.

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  25. Altoon, did you get to see these in person, at Feature in NY? That show closes this weekend.

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    1. yes, I did, Ravenna, while I was in nyc last week. It was a thrill to see them in person.

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  26. I missed it! such a lovely lovely post....thank you so much.

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  27. Eye and mind opening. Thank you.

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  28. wow!!! this is great, great,... great!

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  29. i have a book with a lot of them. I cherish it.

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