Anonymous, Rajasthan, c. 18th century, Ink and colour on paper
“A page from a manuscript illustrating the ten incarnations of Vishnu…”
Ajit Mookerjee, Yoga Art, 1975 Thames and Hudson
I love this image. And have for many years. Actually, it’s less about one painting and more about a book of images. I chose this one at random.
I grew up in a small town in Nebraska. There were no art museums, (Buffalo Bill’s ranch did not count), so there were no paintings to see in the “real.” But I had a wonderful art teacher and we looked at paintings in books and slides. I was entranced with art in this mediated form. Flattened by photography and reproduction, small and democratized in scale. There is something weirdly interesting and “modern” in seeing art through this distanced, endlessly repeating, reproduced, and available form, although that is not quite the case with these images, for me.
When I was in college in Boulder, CO, there was a great bookstore, Brillig Works that carried all kinds of consciousness raising books. You could get your astrological chart done while shopping. I used to go there in between classes and look at art books without purchasing anything. I fell for these abstract images of cosmic configurations – mostly anonymous 18th-19th century Rajasthan paintings but also sculpture, charts, and drawings in the book Yoga Art by Ajit Mookerjee. It had me at hello. I didn’t have enough money to pay for the book so I paid for it in monthly installments, $10 here, $5 there.
I first loved them as images, without knowing anything about them. While many were made to be functional — as meditative aids, not necessarily aesthetic forms — others used elaborate systems of color, numbers, and proportions in metaphoric ways. I still don’t know that much about them; I have never researched them in depth. But whenever I get stuck or depressed, I look at these amazing works about the cosmos and being and perception and form and I feel better. It’s a throwback to that young artist’s belief in the power of art to make you better as a human being. It gets more complicated when you are in the world longer but there has always been something fresh and yet familiar about these paintings, like coming home.
When I finally saw some of the paintings in person at a show at the Drawing Center in 2004 and, more recently, other related works at the 2013 Venice Biennale, they were – as would be imagined – richer with more resonance, surface, thingness. But that glimpse of the true and original did not dampen my adoration of the reproduced images in my book. I didn’t covet the originals because I had my own secret stash of them in the studio. The printed version was and is still oddly vital – somewhere between being a beautiful ghost and the notion that the idea is the image and can be “original” in many forms. Not quite an avatar or a stand-in. Not as cold as a clone. Like a Jasper Johns flag, the image is a representation of the thing and the thing itself. Perhaps because the painting is often a power diagram, a map, or a system of universal forces, it has simultaneous lives in multiple places. Like the number three. III is an idea, and a thing and a representation all at the same time.
These are clearly personal musings and not much in the way of historically informed knowledge. Because the images are alive and non-verbal for me still, the word belief hovers around the edges, although not in any religious way. They are beautiful, complex, expansive. I grok them in my ignorance.
Barbara Takenaga, Harmo, 2013, Acrylic on linen, 42 x 36 inches