The Story of Blue and White Pottery

A blue and white ceramic bowl. (Credit: Pxfuel)

I’m always fascinated by patterns that are able to stand the test of time and space, that are able to transcend geographic and cultural borders as eras and fashions come and go. One example is the Dutch movement in visual arts named “De Stijl”, which I have already covered. It began after WW1 and is found all over the world to this day. An even more interesting case is that of blue and white pottery. Professor Anne Gerritsen of the University of Warick, author of The City of Blue and White (2020) calls it the “ultimate global commodity”. 

If you do an online search on blue and white ceramics, you will encounter similarity and variety. Many collections of plates, vases, bowls and more, show Chinese dragons and landscapes. Some have Central Asian Islamic geometric and floral designs. European styles are also available—Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese. There is a whole batch that is manufactured in the western Indian city of Jaipur. Examples are also available far away in Mexico. Which place and period does this craft ultimately come from? What were the migratory routes like? We can’t really guess by looking at it.

Rows of blue and white ceramics kept with other varieties in Bukhara, Uzbekistan by User “…your local connection”, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, Flickr.

It turns out the origin lies in both China and modern-day Iraq. Chinese ceramics go back to the Palaeolithic era. Earliest pottery was earthenware and stoneware. “Qingbai ware”, a type of white glazed porcelain, became popular under the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Very basic blue floral motifs on white were found upon white pottery in Henan province during the Tang Dynasty in the mid-800s.

Later, as trade routes between China and other parts of Asia were opened, developments emerged. It is believed that the craftsmen of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1517), especially in the city of Basra, inscribed palm trees, garlands and Arabic writing in cobalt blue pigment (mined in Persia) upon Chinese white porcelain. A form of craft was created that combined foreign technology with local taste. (A fascination with blue had existed throughout the region since ancient times. The metamorphic rock lapis lazuli was extracted as early as the 7th millennium BC at the Sar-i Sang mines in present-day Afghanistan. Deep, intense blue had also been used in the jewellery of Mesopotamia and Egypt.)

As China increased contact with the Islamic world, versions of pottery richer than the experiments at Henan became prominent. A centre emerged in the city of Jingdezhen in the northeastern Jiangxi province in the 14th century.

A 17th-century blue and white dish from the Chinese city of Jingdezhen, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

With more commercial and colonial activities over the subsequent centuries, blue and white pottery spread to Europe, Japan, India, etc. The Jaipur branch was developed when the practice was passed on from Mongol artisans via Turkic conquests of India between 14th and 17th centuries. The Dutch East India Company (1602-1799) imported hundreds of thousands of pieces made in Japan and China, which led to a style known as “Delftware”. The pottery reached distant Mexico via Moorish influences in Spain. 

An article on Victoria and Albert Museum website mentions a phenomenon known as “Chinamania” in Britain in the 19th century: “In the 1850s and 60s, antique blue-and-white ceramics were discovered by a small group of artists and intellectuals linked to the Aestheticism movement, who valued ‘Art for Art’s sake’ (art that didn’t tell stories or make moral points, but was enjoyed purely for visual pleasure). Engaged in the ‘search for beauty’, influential Aesthetic artists such as James McNeill Whistler and the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti began eagerly collecting Chinese blue-and-white, sometimes known as ‘Nankin’ or ‘Old blue’, which was seen to embody true beauty in colour, material and form.”

Ewer of Medici porcelain, Italy, c. 1575–87, Met Museum, New York, Public Domain.

A blue and white pottery bathroom set from Jaipur, India on sale on kalakyari.com.

It is quite remarkable how easily blue and white ceramics were able to penetrate and permeate through lands following dissimilar belief systems, climates and lifestyles. Blue, symbolising peace and tranquillity, is the colour of the sky and sea, accessible to all. White, evoking purity and newness, is always acceptable everywhere.

The pattern is also democratic in its availability—found among antiques for royalty to mass-produced objects for the average citizen. Its ubiquity is proof of our common appetite for beauty, and also, to an extent, the same kind of beauty.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard: A Major Name in Rococo Art

The Swing (1767) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Wallace Collection, London.

The word “Rococo” immediately conjures for me 18th-century France and highly ornate architecture. Gilded, flowery design. Cream walls, pastel blue ceilings, trompe-l’œil scenes. Elaborate costumes. Marie Antoinette and her cakes. It’s a style that I have been aware of but barely paid attention to.

Until recently, that is—when the painting The Swing (1767) by French Rococo master Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) flashed before me multiple times on Instagram, and I was driven to search a bit more.

Rococo—with all its extravagance—it turns out, was a reaction against the more formal French classicism or Style Louis XIV. “The Swing”, which is a fitting representation of the movement, is believed to have disturbed the philosophers of the Enlightenment, who wanted art to be serious, dedicated to depicting reason and the nobility of man. When you look at the painting, the quality that is most perceptible is “frivolity”. It freezes a moment of frolic and carefreeness in a seemingly cultured and sophisticated garden setting. The figures, who look as though they belong to polite society of etiquette and ethics, appear to secretly indulge in what might be an impermissible act. The enduring appeal of the artwork lies precisely in this contrast. 

An elegantly dressed woman is swinging happily, one shoe thrown in the air. A young man is in the bushes on the bottom left, looking up at her, one hand reaching out. An older man is behind on the right, pulling the rope, perhaps unaware of the young man. A cupid-like sculpture does a shhhh.

Alina Cohen of Artsy explains: “Baron Louis-Guillaume Baillet de Saint-Julien commissioned The Swing from Fragonard with salacious intentions. Saint-Julien wanted a picture of his mistress that also featured him looking up the lady’s skirt. Initially, the Baron tried to hire history painter Gabriel François Doyen to make the work. Given the sordid nature of the task, Doyen refused. Fragonard had no such qualms—and his career benefited from it. After all, austerity was hardly in vogue throughout Marie Antoinette’s France. With the success of The Swing, Fragonard was able to successfully transition from a history painter frustrated by royal bureaucracy to a favoured artist of the upper class—members of which, ostensibly, were more willing and able to pay on time.”

There are other paintings by Fragonard that are worth engaging with—a set, in fact, titled “The Progress of Love” (1771-73) that was commissioned by Madame du Barry, the mistress of King Louis XV, for her château. They were, strangely, rejected by her. They changed houses and owners and, in 1915, were purchased by American industrialist Henry Clay Frick for $750,000.

The four artworks are The Pursuit, The Meeting, The Lover Crowned and The Love Letters. They are definitely less famous than The Swing—because they are simply less mischievous and almost more moral. But they possess technical and thematic beauty of their own.

The flowers, the trees, the sky—everything is quite enchanting in these scenes. In the first artwork, we see a young man offering a woman a rose. Another female is present in the painting, a companion to the object of affection. Later, there is a tryst. Then, the crowning of the man by the woman with a wreath—signifying commitment. Lastly, the two are together in a bond, and look back fondly at their letters.

Romantic and sexual symbolism is hidden within the garden through the stages of courtship. For instance, in the opening image, the fountain might point at future consummation. In the tryst, the two characters meet below a statue of Venus, the goddess of love. The man’s red stands for passion, the woman’s white for purity. In the final image, they are seen before a personification of friendship, which implies their relationship has matured to a certain warmth and stability and ease.

The way in which the drama of the series unfolds, with depth and exuberance, is quite alien to our current age of superficial dating apps. What we hear of now is an abundance of options for a potential partner, rapid swiping and ghosting, disposability. Flippant, boring behaviours. Fragonard shows us a completely different and much more interesting world. A world of concentration in one person, effort in wooing. Better manners, higher standards, and therefore, more fun, more play.

The Progress of Love: The Pursuit (1771-73) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Frick Collection, New York City.
The Progress of Love: The Meeting (1771-73) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Frick Collection, New York City.
The Progress of Love: The Lover Crowned (1771-73) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Frick Collection, New York City.
The Progress of Love: The Love Letters (1771-73) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Frick Collection, New York City.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Famous Examples of “Preliterate” Art

Cuevas de la Manos (Cave of the Hands), dating back to 11,000- 7000 BC, near the town of Perito Moreno in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. Photo by User “Mariano”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia.

The word “prehistoric” is very popular but when it comes to art made before the advent of settled life and writing systems, I try not to use it. Many believe that history officially begins with scripted records of human life and culture in the Ancient Near East around 6000-4000 years before the present. This somehow implies that the time prior to that period isn’t included in the grand narrative of the human race. But we have so much evidence available of human consciousness and creativity from the deep past…30,000 years ago, 10,000 years ago—not written accounts on tablets, certainly, but drawings and figurines, signs and symbols that speak volumes. All that cannot not be a part of history. That’s why I prefer the word “preliterate” over “prehistoric”.

Here I will examine five famous examples of preliterate art from different parts of the world and what they might tell us about our ancestors. Very little is known about the cultural context of these hunter-gatherer societies. The works may have had a ceremonial or merely decorative function. Despite the lack of clarity, we might deduce something precious about the human condition by exploring them.

The first artwork that comes to my mind is the “Cave of the Hands” from southern Argentina, about 13,000 years old. These stencilled paintings of dozens of hands (the pigments, it is believed, were sprayed through bone pipes) highlight our inherently social identity, how we must band together for safety and survival. They also indicate our desire to be remembered—as in “I was here”.

Another cave I think of is Lascaux in southwestern France, which has paintings of wild animals going back 17,000 years. Some observers have linked them to an idea known as “sympathetic magic”—the term was first used by Scottish social anthropologist and folklorist James George Frazer (1854-1941).

Depiction of horses, aurochs and deer in a painting at Lascaux caves in the village of Montignac in southwestern France, believed to be 17,000 years old. Photo by User “Prof saxx”, Public Domain, Wikipedia.

Sympathetic magic means a kind of procedure aimed at bringing good luck to the hunters. It could have been performed by shaman-like personalities in a state of trance believing that “ritual actions imitate the real ones you wish to bring about”, that by visualising and meditating on big game, a community will be able to encounter and capture them for real.

Venus of Willendorf as shown at the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. Photo by User “Bjørn Christian Tørrissen”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikipedia.

Next, I think of 25,000-year-old “Venus of Willendorf” (Willendorf being a village in northeastern Austria)—a 4.4-inch-tall statuette that was discovered during excavations by Austro-Hungarian archaeologist Josef Szombathy (1853-1943) and others in 1908. This female figurine with plaited hair or headdress and large body could be a mother goddess—that is, a personification of creative forces, fertility, the plenitude of nature found in many cultures, primitive and advanced.

Fourth example is that of the paintings found at the Bhimbetka rock shelters, located in the Raisen district of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. About 10,000 years old, these depict animals like horses, bison and deer, weapons like arrows, shields and swords, scenes of hunting and also, interestingly, dancing. They give us a glimpse into a slightly more developed community. Here we understand that even with a harsh existence devoid of the comforts and luxuries of civilisation, our ancestors could make room for entertainment and take time out for fun.

Paintings in Rock Shelter 8, Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh, India. Photo by User “Bernard Gagnon”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia.
Dancers at Bhimbetka. Photo by User “Nandanupadhyay”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia.
Ain Sakhri Lovers, British Museum. Photo by User “Geni”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikipedia.

Lastly, I have chosen the Ain Sakhri Lovers, a 102 mm high figurine—now at the British Museum—from a cave near Bethlehem, discovered in 1933 by René Neuville, a French consul in Jerusalem. This is the oldest known representation of a copulating couple. It is also a phallic symbol. Like the Venus of Willendorf, it can be said to denote fertility but within a relational framework.

When observed from different perspectives, it looks like different sexual organs—breasts (top), penis (side), vagina (bottom), also testicles. The artwork is about 11,000 years old and belongs to the Natufian culture of the Levant that was known for its semi-sedentary lifestyle even before the dawn of agriculture. Archaeologist Ian Hodder of Stanford University has interesting thoughts on the entwined figures:

The Natufian culture is really before fully domesticated plants and animals, but you already have a sedentary society. This particular object, because of its focus on humans and human sexuality in such a clear way, is part of that general shift towards a greater concern with domesticating the mind, domesticating humans, domesticating human society, being more concerned with human relationships, rather than with the relationships between humans and wild animals, and the relationships between wild animals themselves.

British art historian Neil MacGregor writes that to him the tenderness of the embracing figures suggests not so much reproductive vigour but love. People were beginning to settle and form more stable families and “perhaps this is the first moment in history when a mate could become a husband or a wife”. From this point onwards you must make an effort to continue the species, not in a purely animal way as did those before you, but within the structure of a more definite, committed interpersonal dynamic.

These are only five. Every example of preliterate art can lead to a contemplative or enlightening experience if we engage with it deeply enough.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

The Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii

Interior of the Villa of the Mysteries by User “Raffaele pagani”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Looking into ancient Greek and Roman visual art, I recently discovered a curious location that is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the comune of Pompei, near Naples, in the Campania region of southern Italy. Situated on the outskirts of the ancient city of Pompeii, the Villa dei Misteri or “the Villa of the Mysteries” was buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, excavated around 1909 and restored between 2013 and 2015.

The villa is famous for one particular room—containing dazzling red frescoes that show a religious ceremony. Ancient Rome is known for its murals or wall paintings. This form of art has a long history in the Mediterranean, where the Minoans, a pre-Greek people of the Aegean islands, regularly used it as early as the mid-second millennium BC.

Exterior of the Villa of the Mysteries by User “ElfQrin”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

The frescoes in the villa, dated to 70-60 BC, are believed to depict a rite associated with a “mystery cult” of Dionysus or Bacchus—the god of wine, fertility, theatre, madness and ecstasy. Greco-Roman mystery cults were religious schools reserved for initiates known as “mystai”. The details of membership were not revealed to outside parties.

In the red paintings, we most likely have a bride who is being initiated into the Dionysian/Bacchic Mysteries in preparation for marriage, her elaborate costume being a wedding dress. We cannot know the exact meaning of the paintings. There have been several interpretations.

Frescoes in the Villa of the Mysteries by User “Shakko”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons
Scenes 1, 2 and 3

In the first scene, a boy—standing before a priestess—reads from the scroll. The initiate enters in purplish apparel. She is also shown leaving in darker, slightly different clothes, now with a wreath and a tray of sacramental food.

In the second scene, the initiate, the priestess and an assistant weave a basket. On the right, Silenus plays a lyre. (Silenus is a folkloric figure of the forest who is a man with some features of the horse; he is a companion of Bacchus.)

In the third scene, two more characters appear: a satyr (drunken, male nature spirit) plays panpipes and a nymph (minor female nature deity) suckles a goat. The initiate is in a dramatic pose. She is probably in the process of establishing a close connection with nature, leaving the human world to immerse herself more in her animal side. This psychological shift is needed for regeneration and rebirth in ancient rituals. The initiate is absent from the next two scenes—which means she has undergone “katabasis”, which is a kind of journey or descent. From the country to the coast or down into the underworld.

Scenes 4, 5 and 6

In the fourth scene, Silenus holds a bowl. One satyr looks into that bowl. Another holds a mask (resembling Silenus). This is a strange and intriguing tableau. The bowl could be a vessel of divination, giving a vision of the future—possibly of death. Maybe the death of innocence and childhood that the initiate must submit herself to.

Next, in a damaged part of the fresco, we can see Dionysus leaning onto his mother Semele. In scene six, the initiate appears. She is wearing a cap now and has a staff, signs that she has reached a new stage in the initiation ritual. She is reaching for a long object covered with purple cloth, placed in a basket (perhaps a phallic symbol or a signpost of some sort indicating a new discovery). On the right is a winged figure—Aidos, the Greek goddess of shame, modesty, respect and humility.

Scenes 7, 8 and 9

In the seventh scene, the initiate kneels before the priestess. A female figure whips her, another one dances. It is as though this is some kind of final test of strength, and a cause for celebration is at hand.

Eight and ninth scenes show completion. The initiate is in new clothes, an assistant behind her. Cupid shows her a mirror. Then, she is enthroned, Cupid again by her side.

The logic behind mystery cults is interesting. In a book titled The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era (2009), historian James S. Jeffers writes: “The state religions of the Greeks and Romans proved unsatisfying for some. Those who longed for a sense of salvation, and for a more personal connection with a deity, often looked for them in the mystery religions.”

The appeal of these frescoes lies in the very fact of their being beyond full comprehension. They attract the viewer with their sense of secrecy. They also engage as they exhibit a timeless human impulse—to achieve a kind of maturity, an elevation of the spirit, a connection with the divine in some form.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Aristotle’s Four Causes and How they Relate to Art

A sculptor at work in his studio. (Credit: Pixabay)

A particular topic that has remained very clearly in my mind since my MA days is Aristotle’s Four Causes. Change, motion, contingency, the coming into being of phenomena (and the mechanics behind)—these are subjects that one will find time and again in the ancient Greek philosopher’s voluminous and wide-ranging oeuvre. It is his treatises Physics and Metaphysics wherein he articulates an exhaustive account of “causation”.

The Four Causes are all-embracing in their application and provide a framework within which the proper value of things (from the entire cosmos to a tiny blade of grass) or acts (morality, art-making, virtually anything that is done) could be ascertained or decided. They are, namely:

  1. The Material Cause (the substance out of which or from which a phenomenon is made)
  2. The Formal Cause (the design or structure of the phenomenon)
  3. The Final Cause (the purpose or end towards which the phenomenon is directed or for the sake of which it is created)
  4. The Efficient Cause (the agent or condition that brings the phenomenon into being)

If we consider Michelangelo’s David through this four-fold lens—(a) the material cause would be marble, (b) the formal cause is David the Biblical figure, also a young athletic man, (c) the final cause would be the decoration of the Cathedral of Florence and (d) the efficient cause here is the act of sculpting, also Michelangelo himself.

Close-up of Michelangelo’s David (1501-04), displayed at Accademia Gallery, Florence. (Credit: pickpik.com)

When I think about late modern and contemporary art, and also visual culture broadly through the decades, I feel that somehow “formal” and “final” causes have gradually faded away from the practice of creativity.

The “efficient” and “material” are still around, that is, it is always important as to who has made the art and out of what. But (a) what exactly has been put up on exhibition in what kind of appearance or contour and (b) what are its consequences going to be on the psychologies of those who witness it—I am not sure if these matters are given enough thought today. Sure modern/contemporary art and visual culture have great scope for innovation—and much of it can be terrifically thought-provoking—yet somehow its practitioners find it too convenient to not take the trouble of deeply engaging with the two aforementioned issues.

A very common example of contemporary abstract painting retrieved from Google search that may be taken seriously and easily found on the walls of commercial galleries.

A loss of “formal cause” means that anything today is capable of being passed as very serious art meriting gallery representation or museum acquisition as long as the artist wants to do it that way, no further justification is required —think random splashes of colour on a canvas, an empty room with lights going on and off, a few words in neon. Such fairly undemanding works would have been absolutely unthinkable in medieval or Renaissance West when Aristotelian thought had a greater grip on intellectual circles and wherein cathedrals or manuscripts or frescoes would take years of meticulous research and precise effort. Today the standard for the “formal” constitution of artworks is entirely fluid, no fixed criteria remain.

Additionally, a loss of “final cause” means a lot of visual content is generated for a fleeting moment and within limited (immediately capitalistic) logic with a disregard for its long-term outcomes for the society in general. Modelling and advertising agencies—and the portrayal of women—come to my mind straightaway.

It is hard to have a sensible discussion on social media as to the repercussions of certain depictions of females. Where does the line between liberty/empowerment and objectification/enslavement lie? What is a marketer (of lingerie or cosmetics) eventually achieving by producing countless monotonous images of young women of a particular physique who are, so often, made to look as a mere collection of parts, devoid of personality, agency, thought processes, opinions, even emotions of their own?

Results for a random Google search on “Instagram models”. What’s the point of these images—produced in tons? In what way are they helping womankind as a whole evolve? Could there be more meaningful ways of exploring femininity, confidence, achievement, fashion, luxury and style? Such questions that probe a bit more are suppressed as soon as they are raised because they are perceived as attacks on the liberty of the subjects to “be themselves”.

What effects are these depictions having on young men or school-going girls? What message is it sending them about the capabilities of womanhood? It is extremely difficult to raise these questions in a civilised dialogue today as the wild individual will of the marketer reigns supreme and it won’t take any responsibility apart from profit-making for itself. It also quickly deems any suggestion (to adhere to a different level of quality) an assault upon its freedom of expression. Today the “final” rationale behind visual content isn’t an area many care to explore.

What Aristotle’s Four Causes have to offer is a more thoughtful, richer, challenging, multi-dimensional approach to the production of art or visual content. The philosopher affords recognition to the creator and the substance used. With that, through his emphasis on design and structure, he wants us to think more carefully about how things should look and be presented—so that they can be truly pleasing to the eyes of others and not just cater to own purely subjective whims. Furthermore, with his insistence on teleology, he encourages us to be more reflective about the gradual and ultimate meaning of what is produced—so that it can be genuinely useful and stimulating to the mind. These are suitable correctives for our culture that can be big on self-worship and reckless urgency.

Keeping Aristotle’s framework in mind, the artists and content creators among us may ask ourselves questions of this kind: (1). I am a painter who wants to explore humankind’s relationship with the natural world without being too figurative. Are the strokes and symbols that I am using definite enough to be identified by the viewer or are my themes getting lost and turning incomprehensible in a lack of proper outlines and colours, (2). I am an art/culture/entertainment journalist with a considerable social media presence. How many stories that I am posting tell people something that they haven’t already heard before in some way or another? Say, instead of a banal coverage of the latest Hollywood divorce (which the world does not need to know) could I inform my followers of some beautiful classic of world cinema the experience of which might delight them for years?

And so on…

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Frida Kahlo’s Rich and Expansive Understanding of Reality

Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940) by Frida Kahlo,
Harry Ransom Center, Austin, Texas, US (Fair Use)

There is a quote by Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) that I find very interesting: “They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” The truthful depiction of “reality”—as we normally understand it—in the arts is simply known as Realism. It is a factual representation of the world, one that is free of phenomena that might seem unbelievable or fantastical or supernatural, a reflection of things that exist, of things as they are, as they are seen, heard and felt.

Realism, if you search it out in Google Images, will yield results showing peasants in fields, city-dwellers in cafés, fruits on a table, a family at supper. Lots of brown, yellow, some green. Historically, the movement began in France in the 1840s (around the 1848 “February” Revolution). Fairly enough, it was a reaction to the emotionalism and exoticism of the Romantic period. Realism sought to portray every social class, ordinary life and labour during a time of rapid industrialisation with accuracy, eschewing depictions that were idealised or artificial, and confronting aspects of existence that were uncomfortable or harsh.

A typical Realist scene—The Gleaners (1857) by Jean-François Millet, Wikipedia

On the other end of Realism is Surrealism—having grown out of “Dada” experiments in Switzerland following World War I that revolted against the logic of modern society and capitalism and embraced nonsense. Surrealism, as we know, is a style that merges dream and reality, the rational and the irrational, the conscious and the unconscious, and, as a result, breaks through predictability and patterns. Its strange juxtapositions unsettle our sense of order and expectation.

A good example of Surrealism—The Elephant Celebes (1921) by Max Ernst, Wikipedia

When I look at Frida Kahlo’s work, it seems as an enterprise, that it could be placed between Realism and Surrealism (perhaps Magic Realism is the best term—as some have described it?). She draws inspiration from the events of her own life but her art clearly isn’t all stark and factual, which means we cannot straightaway call her a Realist. Also, it isn’t jarring and beyond reason, so we cannot consider her an outright Surrealist—her paintings retain a certain dreaminess, embellishment, strangeness and otherworldliness but her intention isn’t to create an effect of surprise or shock. Rather, it is an invitation to a deeper immersion in her complex and multi-layered being.

Kahlo is in the middle of extremes. The Realist side of her openly acknowledges the human condition with its travails and tragedies. Having struggled through polio in childhood, a severe road accident, a tumultuous marriage (to artist Diego Rivera) and childlessness, she exhibits her suffering before the world without shame. For example, in The Broken Column, her injured spine becomes an Ionic column.

The Broken Column (1944) by Frida Kahlo, Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico City, Mexico (Fair Use)

On the other hand, her Surrealist side celebrates the human ability to indulge in reveries and hallucinations, and emancipate herself, albeit temporarily, from the weight of life through the sheer thrill of imagination and creativity. In What the Water Gave Me, we find a mysterious association of flora and fauna, a volcano, a dress, images of Kahlo’s German father and Mestizo mother, a modern skyscraper, references to torture, erotic encounters, death and dance. The entire theatre is acted out in a bathtub wherein the artist lies submerged.

What the Water Gave Me (1938) by Frida Kahlo, private collection of Daniel Filipacchi, Paris (Fair Use)

In her visuals, Kahlo revealed a two-fold reality—of the body and the mind. She presented the sensuality, fragility and stamina of her outward physical presence (which was objectively available to everybody) alongside the wild, wide-ranging, sometimes confused, activity of her hidden inward dimension. And she deemed this latter invisible, intangible, volatile domain as true and important as the former (who on earth considers the meaningful thoughts he/she thinks daily under the shower as fake or false or unreal?). In Kahlo’s context, I remember a powerful question asked by Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007): “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Kahlo is enduringly popular in a very special way, I think, because she gave us a reality that was more expansive than the most faithful and exact instances of Realism. That movement showed us peasants toiling in the fields and that alone, it stopped before attempting to explore the drama of their internal faculties. Also, Kahlo’s reality, despite its bits of wild fantasy, had a concrete form and personality that made it more immediately accessible to the viewer than a lot of Surrealism with its bewildering amorphousness. She successfully demonstrated these lines of Neil Gaiman: “Everybody has a secret world inside of them. All of the people of the world, I mean everybody. No matter how dull and boring they are on the outside, inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds. Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands maybe.”

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

The Philosophy of Gardens

The Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man (1617)
by Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder, Wikimedia Commons

Anybody familiar with the great myths, legends and epics of history will know that gardens have long fascinated the human mind—from the tale of Gilgamesh to the Bible to the Odyssey to the Decameron. Repeatedly, we have envisioned the summit of happiness as a garden experience. What is it about them—I have often wondered. Why do they occupy such fundamental, pivotal places in stories that are timeless and especially dear to us?

In his book Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (2008), Stanford professor Robert Pogue Harrison provides an interesting analysis of the phenomenon. Looking at gardens both real and imaginary, he articulates their significance and function, and the reason as to why they have been a source of perennial aesthetic delight to us. According to the author, human beings are not capable of gazing too long and hard at the “head of Medusa”—which is to say at violence, rage, destruction and suffering. And this is not our flaw.

The impulse to look away from the frenzy and tumult of existence is precisely what motivates us to create, to institute mechanisms that can make life bearable, even enjoyable—gardens happen to be one of them. They counter the annihilating and anarchic forces unleashed in history and re-enchant the world. (This restorative role is well on display in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, wherein seven young women and three young men leave behind a plague-ravaged Florence in the summer of 1348 to take refuge in a villa in the surrounding hills.) If not a heaven, a garden is at least a “haven”.

The Enchanted Garden (1917) by John William Waterhouse
based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1313-1375), Wikimedia Commons

In a garden, appearances are lush, bright and colourful. Everything glows, looking as if originating from hidden, mysterious depths. Being itself seems full, an inexhaustible blessing. The cover of flowers and leaves gives the impression of operating as a portal to another dimension, a gateway to some otherworldly source—primal, rich and infinitely abundant. It is for this reason that gardens are often the sites of epiphanies—spiritual or erotic or otherwise.

Harrison adds that although they can quickly cast a spell on us, in truth we long for only a particular kind of garden. Within a garden in which everything pre-exists readily and faultlessly, we can surely succumb to boredom. If history without gardens is a wasteland, a garden severed from history is superfluous, pretty much useless. We want to be able to, to some degree, “engineer” the enchantment a garden provides, we wish to be engaged nurturers.

Even in our fictions, we see ourselves abandoning the gardens that do not present before us the challenge of cultivation. For instance, the garden mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey—on the island of Ogygia where the nymph Calypso keeps the hero Odysseus captive for years. This garden is exuberant but it is too magical and requires no human intervention. No wonder Odysseus rejects Calypso’s offer of immortality and decides to return to Ithaca to his aging wife Penelope—to the more demanding and uncomfortable life of commitments and concerns.

Odysseus and Calypso (1616) by Jan Brueghel the Elder, Wikimedia Commons

We dislike gardens that are too wild and perfect. We also find it difficult to entertain the ones that are too strictly regimented. Here Harrison uses a factual example—the Palace of Versailles, where the iron laws of symmetry can feel somewhat oppressive, whose meticulously manicured lawns are artificial, more representative of monarchical control than democratic participation.

The Gardens of Versailles, Pixabay, Public Domain

Towards the end of the book, Harrison meditates—from a “gardenly” point of view—where do we stand? What is our situation today?

We find ourselves in absurdity. We want to re-Edenise the world through capitalistic forces, we aim towards a kind of abundance. But our frantic cult of consumerism, as it attempts to reach that position of intoxicated pleasure, mounts assault after assault on Creation. “Our action does not so much bear fruit as devour fruit,” the author notes. “Thus we find ourselves in the paradoxical situation of seeking to re-create Eden by ravaging the garden itself—the garden of the biosphere on the one hand and the garden of human culture on the other.”

At this juncture, all we can and must do is slow down, recover the lost art of registering the splendour of nature and learn back, if I may put poetically, our pre-lapsarian (from before “the Fall”) vocation of care.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

The wondrous Medieval Bestiary

In conversational English, the word “medieval” carries plenty of negative connotations. Many of us see that era in Europe as a time of superstition, stagnation and fear that was, thankfully, superseded by a much-needed “Enlightenment” in the 1700s. Although such an impression of the Middle Ages continues to prevail among the masses, serious historians now maintain that the term “Dark Ages” should be applied to just the period immediately following the fall of the Roman Empire (around the years 400-500). The span between the late 700s and 1500, it is understood, brought a considerable amount of social stability, political organisation and educational activity, including the flowering of the first universities.

Cranes take turns at night, watching for enemies, Harley Bestiary (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

For all its flaws and challenges, medieval Europe was a fascinating place and epoch. And medieval men and women, full of faith, adhered to a conception of the cosmos that was theatrical and imbued with sacramental meaning. They constantly looked for proportions and patterns in Creation and believed in the interconnected of all things. In their worldview, matter transcended itself to communicate truths of supernatural importance.

According to the Italian scholar Umberto Eco (1932-2016), the philosophers and theologians of the period believed in a universe that was filled with light and optimism. In both poetry and painting, medieval people portrayed themselves as living in extremely bright surroundings. We can see this in the illuminated manuscripts. Eco writes in History of Beauty (2004) that even though they were probably executed in environments “where the gloom was barely relieved by the light from a single window, they nevertheless brim with light, with a particular effulgence engendered by the combination of pure colours: red, azure, gold, silver, white and green, devoid of nuances or chiaroscuro.”

There is a category of the medieval illuminated manuscript that stands out: the bestiary, known in Latin as bestiarum vocabulum. The bestiary, as the name suggests, was a compendium of beasts, real and legendary, that contained descriptions and illustrations accompanied by moral lessons. Although the document goes back to the 2nd century (the first one was in Greek, titled Physiologus), it became popular only in the Middle Ages. Nature was perceived to be God’s second book of revelation after the Bible, and animal life, in all its variety and adventure, was interpreted through an allegorical lens and investigated for hidden spiritual/religious significance.

Adam naming the animals from the 12th century Aberdeen Bestiary (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Professor David Brown of the University of St. Andrews, Scotland explains in his book God and the Enchantment of Place (2004): “Even today some of these stories survive in the corporate memory, as, for instance, the parallels between Christ feeding us in the Eucharist and the pelican reviving its chicks with its own blood. So too do some of the associations, such as the snake or the ape with evil, the hare and rabbit with lust and fertility or the dog with faithfulness. On the other hand, even those well versed in Scripture might have difficulty conceiving how particular biblical verses were expanded to make the eagle a symbol of renewal, the stag of perseverance, or the lion of resurrection, far less of the lessons without biblical underpinning as in the association of the beaver with chastity, the hydrus with salvation, or the peacock with resurrection. Although in the latter cases ultimately derived from paganism, it would be a mistake to dismiss such borrowings as no more than that, for in the process of adoption they have usually also been thoroughly Christianised… Likewise the strange hybrid creatures that are depicted were far from being cultivated as mere ‘freaks’ but more as object lessons or even as themselves worthy of salvation.”

A manticore from 13th century Rochester Bestiary (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Read an excerpt from a bestiary kept at Bodleian Library in Oxford, translated by historian Richard Barber: “Deer by nature like to change their homeland, and for this reason seek new pastures, helping each other on the journey. If they have to cross a great river or lake on the way, they place their heads on the hindquarters of the deer in front, and, in following each other, do not feel hindered by their weight. And if they come to a place where they might get dirty, they jump rapidly across it. Another peculiarity of their nature is that after they have eaten a snake, they hasten to a spring and, drinking from it, their grey hairs and all signs of old age vanish. The nature of deer is like that of the members of the Holy Church who leave this homeland (that is, the world) because they prefer the new pastures of heaven, and support each other on the way; those who are more perfect help their lesser brethren through their example and good works, and support them. If they find a place of sin, they spring over it at once, and if the devil enters their body after they have committed a sin, they hasten to Christ, the spring of truth, and confess, drinking in His commandments, and are renewed, laying aside their old guilt.”

Such presentations might strike us moderns as too fanciful. But in our disenchanted world where noisy engines have expelled much mystery from the natural world, it is refreshing to encounter such grandeur, luminosity and sense of wonder.

Written by Tulika Bahadur