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God Is In The Details

God Is In The Details

March 02, 2012

An exploration of Ragamala exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

This weekend saw an unprecedented preview of spring, with blue skies, birdsong and sunshine. London was treated to a new wave of exciting cultural shows. With exhibitions being lined up for the months ahead, this was a great excuse to get out and leave the cold and darkness behind.

This season, I was keen to explore events a little further a field and set my sights on the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Visitors to London will find getting to Dulwich via London Bridge the easiest route. Dulwich Village offers visitors a glimpse into a type of London that is a neat fold of the urban and the suburban, very much a town, but dressed in a perfect gown of greenery. Like most outer city galleries, the Dulwich Picture Gallery affords the luxury of space and reminded me most of the picturesque Louisiana Gallery in Copenhagen. Set amid a landscaped surround, the John Soane designed building showcases a series of exhibitions throughout the year. Currently on show are Van Dyck in Sicily: Painting and the Plague 1624-25 and Ragamala Paintings from India: Poetry and Passion, Song. My chief aim was to review the latter, though I soon realised that both exhibitions work equally well when viewed in succession.

Having looked at quite a number of Indian miniatures before, I was keen to see how this particular exhibition was different. Of course, there’s more to Indian art than miniatures, but they do of course form a significant part of its history. In this case, it was their connection to music and song which was at the heart of the show. A Ragamala, described as a ‘garland of ragas’ takes the principles set out in early Indian history and presents these narratives through a series of different manifestations; in this case, typically short poems, songs and of course intricate paintings. One typically sees a connection between the characters within and the divine, certainly the combination of the ‘human and the divine’ is what is said to have inspired the collector Claudio Moscatelli. Therefore if there’s a tale told between Shiv or Vishnu and their respective consorts - then this is exemplified through the Raga and the Ragini - or the hero and heroine. Most of the miniatures however aren’t always straight forward love stories - they demonstrate a range of emotions, either in a poignant, meditative or indulgent fashion.

Ultimately, we got to discussing the quality of the Ragamala miniatures. With very little known about the actual artists, one can only build broad theories on style, except to say that symbolism and detail were foremost in the fifteenth and sixteenth century zeitgeist. Aesthetically, they miniatures are exquisite items of beauty and arguably the detail alone makes them wonders alone. A key thing to note in each is the smaller details - items on the horizon or hidden amongst the scene. Typically, you see lone figures, small plants, animals. One scene is an amazing depiction of outdoor wildlife with monkeys and goats that inspired much discussion.

In the subject of the horizon, or lack thereof, is exactly what marks these miniatures as unique. Sometimes, there isn’t always a horizon, a vanishing point or a sense of perspective. At times, this can make the looking at some of the architecture in the paintings a little perplexing - but one comes to realise that this is beside the point. As with most historical paintings, a willing suspension of disbelief or an understanding of symbolism needs to be applied.

The rest of the collection at the gallery and indeed the Van Dyck exhibition demonstrate a series of artistic styles that evolved in Europe on from the renaissance. It was then, that the renaissance that became the subject of our discussion. We realised that the fleshier, realist style of painting that pervaded European stylistic sensibilities went only as far as the near Middle East; leaving the east to continue developing its detailed and symbolically rich style - Something we continue to see today in applications of architecture and fashion from India and south East Asia.

Finishing the afternoon at the Yayoi Kusama exhibition at the Tate Modern, it was interesting to note, that of the two different exhibitions seen at Dulwich. It was detail, pattern and repetition that were most prevalent in Kusama’s more modern work. Of course this is open to interpretation - but one would imagine that in a hyper real world - meaning is often embedded in the smaller detail.

Van Dyck in Sicily: Painting and the Plague 1624-25 and Ragamala Paintings from India: Poetry, Passion, Song are both on at the Dulwich Picture Gallery till the 27th May 2012.

Yayoi Kusama is on at the Tate until June 5th 2012.

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