A Visit to the Boston Museum

Last week, I happened to be in Boston and visited the Museum of Fine Arts. The most impressive section was undoubtedly the one on European paintings, especially the ones by some of the leading lights of impressionism – Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir and Paul Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From. Watching me gaze at Gauguin’s masterpiece for a long time, one of the security guards in the museum actually came up to the painting, read the information next to it and then watched the painting for many minutes. I might add that the security guards were mainly African Americans, while the visitors were overwhelmingly Caucasian.

Also very impressive was the section on Asian history. Three things struck me in particular:
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Ex- Voto Paintings of Mexico

The Spring 2008 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review has a fascinating article by Rosamond Purell on the Ex- voto paintings of Mexico. These have been painted on paper by unknown artists and have adorned the walls of churches. They narrate stories, generally about saints and ‘miracles’. Often, these correspond to some real life events and are followed by a description of the painting in words.

each ex-voto narrates a saint in action, intervening in a near-disaster, accident, or illness that befalls ordinary human beings or animals. Each commemorates the miraculous intervention and expresses the gratitude of the survivors or loving families—husbands and wives, parents and children.

Take this image, for example:

About 1900 in Mexico City, the horse-drawn tranvia gave way to the electric trolley, leading to a rash of accidents involving horses, bicycles, and pedestrians. This four-part drama shows moments in the life of a young woman struck down by a trolley: first as a devout young girl; second, as a fashionable young woman falling in front of the on-coming trolley; and third, as an unconscious invalid in a four-poster bed attended by a praying woman draped in a black shawl. Each scene is set off in a burnished alcove, like episodes from the life of a saint, but the woman’s fate remains mysterious. The legend, though etched in an elegant hand, has vanished into a script as thin and ineffable as a spider-web.

I’m beguiled by these straightforward captions, believing that through their deceptive specificities—names, places, times (sometimes down to the hour of the day of the year)—the story can be decoded. I want to do my research, my homework; I want to get the miracle straight. The text painted on or scratched into the surface with a stylus is frequently faded to near-obscurity by the time I get my hands on it. The names, cryptified by dialect, effaced by rust, or painted over previous scenes, tell me little more than I can already surmise by studying the painted scenes. Yet, something about the scuffed and scratched surfaces of ex-votos conspires to increase their mysteries. Secreted beneath the multiple strata of revelations contained beneath its skin, I know, there lies the essence of personal despair and redemption.

The Dreams of Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990) is said to be based on his own dreams, it is therefore a collection of 8 short vignettes and not a film with a well drawn plot like the Seven Samurai.

The first sequence “Sunshine through the rain”is what Kurosawa is supposed to have had as a child and indeed, this and the second one “The Peach Orchard” are most poignant.

And “The Tunnel” where the ghosts of the men that the army commander has sent out to die haunt him. “You may think you were heroes, but you died like dogs”, he tells the still obedient ghosts.

He is chased by a barking dog with bombs strapped around it towards the end of the sequence. One wonders what personal aspect from Kurosawa’s life comes in in this sequence.

I personally liked the one based on Van Gogh’s painting “The Crows”- a self- portrait of the artist underlining his commitment to art. This one has some of the most ravishing moments in the movie- as the young man wades through some of Van Gogh’s paintings, I understand that this is where Spielberg’s special effects were used- to a most dramatic effect.

The opening scene is also reminiscent of the writer in Shyam Benegal’s Sooraj Ka Saatvaan Ghoda whose memory of his younger days is revived while looking at a painting .

In “Blizzard” it is the super human effort of a team of mountaineers who finally reach their camp after surviving a blizzard- again something that brings out the tenacity of purpose.

Mt Fuji in Red and The Weeping Demon bring out the horrors of a nuclear holocaust- it has to be remembered Kurosawa came from the only country that has experienced the devastation caused by two atomic bombs but also that the peace movement was a major involvement for many before the collapse of the Eastern Bloc.

“Village of the Watermills” is both a requiem to himself as well as a most enigmatic work in the film. If this is a dream that Kurasawa had when he was very old and approaching the end of his life, it is understandable since the sequence shows a blissful village untrampled by technology and where cows and horses are used in place of tractors and candles in place of electricity- “for people grow used to convenience”- an old, 103 year old man lectures to the young man who is passing by the village.

The work is engimatic because no such idyllic, self- contained village has ever existed, a village too has its social classes and its constant struggle with nature. Indeed, Kurasawa must have been aware of this contradiction- for the old man mentions in passing that no one actually lived in the village.

Before watching the movie, I was unsure how Kurosawa would handle a film in color, having been familiar with his work in black and white- and the least one can say is that he has handled it with the aplomb of the genius that he demonstrated in his black and white films. The painting- like frames rescue even the most dreary of the sequences from banality.

If more people had dreams like Akira Kurosawa- and made movies like he did, I would be glued to the cinema.

The Village of the Watermills Part I (from Youtube)

The Village of the Watermills Part II (from Youtube)

Thanks to Rajesh for having prodded me into watching Dreams
Van Gogh’s Painting “The Crows” Source
Akira Kurosawa’s image Source

The Melancholy Woman by Paul Gauguin

This is one of my favourite paintings- it says so much via the inset painting on the wall and the chair, besides of course the expression on the face of the Tahitian woman.

It is the loss of the primitive essence- the chair indicates the ‘modernity’ brought in by the West, and the painting on the wall reminds us of the ‘primitive bliss’ of Tahiti. The woman is caught inbetween. As simple, and as tragic, as that. Speaks for the dilemma of so many in the third world.

More on Paul Gauguin.

My thanks for reminding me of this painting to hamsafar Alok


The Unknown Masterpiece by Balzac

Marx pondered if his magnum opus Das Capital would meet the fate of the painting in Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece, Picasso actually tried to emulate the fiction in his last painting and Cezanne admired this short story.

Considereing that it is a mere 22 pages, it is amazing how much Balzac has managed to pack into The Unkown Masterpiece– there is the question of the relationship between art and life, between love and art and the search for perfection.

Balzac recounts the story of a 17th century painter Frenhofer who, in his search for perfection, spends ten years painting his masterpiece. However, when he shows it to two of his young admirerrs, they see nothing more than a canvas daubed with paint.

The old man, absorbed in reverie, did not listen to them; he was smiling at that imaginary woman.

“But sooner or later he will discover that there is nothing on his canvas!” cried Poussin.

“Nothing on my canvas!” exclaimed Frenhofer, glancing alternately at the two painters and his picture.

“What have you done?” said Porbus in an undertone to Poussin.

The old man seized the young man’s arm roughly, and said to him:

“You see nothing there, clown! varlet! miscreant! hound! Why, what brought you here, then? – My good Porbus,” he continued, turning to the older painter, “can it be that you, you too, are mocking at me? Answer me! I am your friend; tell me, have I spoiled my picture?”

Porbus hesitated, he dared not speak; but the anxiety depicted on the old man’s white face was so heart-rendering that he pointed to the canvas saying:


Frenhofer gazed at his picture for a moment and staggered.

“Nothing! Nothing! And I have worked ten years!

He fell upon a chair and wept.

“So I am an idiot, a madman! I have neither talent nor capability! I am naught save a rich man who, in walking, does nothing more than walk! So I shall have produced nothing!”

Balzac ends the story in a way that one can see the almost King Learish tragedy of the painter- betrayed by his own work, as well as the story of perfection in which the work of art arrives before the aesthetic required to appreciate it has developed.

In either case, it is a story of art as transgression and a tragedy par excellence.

Image: Picasso’s rendition of Frenhofer painting The Unkown Masterpiece. Acknowledgement

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Satish Gujral

Sheela Reddy asks why Satish Gujral’s recent works lack his previous originality:

How did this vibrant and innovative artist, this passionate explorer of art and its materials, get stuck where he is now—struggling vainly against the sticky-sweet web of the P3P? The answer, one suspects, lies in us rather than in the artist who has dominated our art scene since Independence.

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