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.