November 2012 – October 2014
The Crow Collection of Asian Art is home to a small but engaging group of objects from places that are somewhat obscured by the collective term “Southeast Asia.” The name came into use at the end of World War II to describe a part of the world that had for several generations appeared on Western maps variously as Tonkin, French Indo-China (later North Vietnam and South Vietnam), Dutch East Indies, and various other names and boundaries that have disappeared with the reemergence of independent states, many of which have chosen names to contrast with the colonial period. Burma is officially Myanmar (although Burma is making an internal comeback), Cambodia is Kampuchea, the former Sultanate of Brunei is Brunei Darussalam, Singapore is independent from Malaya, and Malaya is Malaysia. East Timor—which was a Portuguese and Catholic outpost on the island of Timor, claimed by the Dutch after centuries of trade monopoly, invaded by Japan, handed back to Portugal, and then ceded to Muslim Indonesia—is now independent, with claims to large underwater gas reserves in the maritime (always murky) region that separates it from Australia.
Southeast Asia is a part of the world where boundaries continue to change, and the segments of this complex history portrayed in Peninsulas and Dragon Tails suggest the potential for enriched understanding of the modern world through greater familiarity with the region’s past and current cultural geography.
Lacquered wood sculptures of young monks from the Mandalay period of Burmese history conjure the missing object of their devotion, the historical Buddha, who taught renunciation as a path to bliss, even while British colonials expelled the last king and queen, cooled themselves on sultry porches, and oversaw immense plantations of rubber trees on land where there had recently been only forest. A textile from 20th-century Bali reflects ancient associations between fortune, misfortune, time, and spirits, mixed with advice on preferred market days for various goods, local cults, and Hinduism as imported with people arriving from Java. The Crow Collection’s 7th-century sandstone sculpture of four-armed Vishnu, a rare example of early Khmer culture in Cambodia, takes its place alongside several later sculptures from the period of the Angkor sanctuaries. As always, the sculpture seems to occupy more space than its actual measurements would suggest. The scope of this exhibition touches on only a few times and places within the rich and complex history of Southeast Asia and its diverse cultures—ethnically varied, speaking localized languages, writing with different scripts, wearing different clothes, practicing different faiths, honoring different social structures. The objects shown are grouped by the modern countries with which they are particularly identified—Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia. The exhibition includes maps with boundaries of the shifting cultural spheres that produced the objects on view. The importance of geography to culture in this region emerges: the Himalayan mountains of the Eurasian continent branch to the southeast in fingers of land and terminate in the islands of the “Pacific Ring of Fire,” where the earth’s mantle shakes, and the land, rivers, and seas mete out judgments that are repeatedly honored.
Jade is a word applied to many different stones–so many that it is useful now and then to re-claim mastery of the differences for understanding and appreciating Chinese “jade.” This exhibition draws on the Museum’s Collection and generous loans of natural worked stones to encourage just that. Works of art to which the term “jade” has been applied and misapplied are grouped by their discernable distinctions as stones, rather than by style, subject, function, or date they were worked. An exercise in training the eye is presented for the pleasure it affords, along with any practical benefits that may accrue for the collector. The value added of skillfull carving, pleasing shape, fine polish,
The exhibition is dominated by natural and worked stones most commonly prized among collectors of Chinese “Jade”: Nephrite and Jadeite—two distinct materials. Other stones that sometimes pass for “Jade” also appear to serve for visual comparison: Serpentine, Chrysoprase, Agate, Soapstone, Malachite, Opaque Dolomite Marble, and others that abound particularly in snuff-bottles for the delight of the discerning eye.
Nephrite and Jadeite are both legally traded as “Jade” in the international marketplace. Both are geologically identified as metamorphic rocks, materials transformed by heat, pressure, and water from igneous magma flowing into the earth’s mantle. Both are chemically classed among minerals as silicates, that is they are rich in silicon, the second most abundant element in the earth’s outer layer, but they are grouped differently because of dissimilar chemical compositions and physical structures. Among minerals, Nephrite is an amphibole, and Jadeite a pyroxene. Nephrite is not even technically a full-blooded mineral; it lacks a developed physical crystalline structure in which atoms bond into regular, repeating, three-dimensional shapes. The conditions of heat and pressure that transformed igneous rock to metamorphic Nephrite were followed by a phase of rapid cooling that inhibited the growth of crystals. It’s structure is described by minerologists as “crypto- or micro-crystalline.” The microscopic crystal structure of Nephrite is an irreglar felt-like bond of matted chains. Jadeite has a clearly defined crystal structure of octa-hedrally co-ordinated aluminum atoms and 8 co-ordinated sodium polyhedra connected by silicate chains running parallel to the C axis of the geometric form. The grainy structure of Jadeite is denser and harder than the fibrous arrangement of Nephrite: Jadeite is the more difficult, for example to scratch. The interwoven structure of Nephrite is more resistant to breakage, and by definition the tougher of the two compounds.
Sweetness without a tinge of irony is out of fashion. Distance from sweetness is more often invoked as a measure of difference between high and low taste. Sweetness, however, is central to the work of B. G. (Banwarhlal Giridharlal) Sharma, whether in his designs for commercially produced prints, which dominated the Hindu market in the second half of the 20th century, or in his finely painted works in precious mineral colors on cloth, paper, or ivory. His painted works, catholic in subject matter, were individually signed and sold or presented on behalf of the Indian government to international dignitaries.
When Sharma’s subject is the “Eternally Sweet” Hindu god Krishna, as in the paintings and prints gathered for this exhibition, the full colors of his talent and conviction are on display.
This exhibition proposes that visitors set aside habits of viewing that resist sweetness with labels such as “kitsch,” or dismiss pictures that tug at sentiment as invasive. These are pictures that rest on ethics of long cultivation and refinement and address sense awareness with a sophisticated understanding of human nature. They seduce with friendly but frank eroticism. They demand to be looked at, to be communicated with, and to be indulged by our reason.
Compositions ask for acceptance of an amalgam of conventions, and images make use of “realistic” tools—shading, perspective, light shining from eyes that directly engage ours—to portray figures of mythic dimensions, impossible perfections. We are asked to feel sweetness as real, to perform it through visual acceptance, and to give it in return.
This approach to Sharma’s work is guided in this exhibition through texts that accompany each image and are drawn from the rich literature—puranas, poetry, songs, and prayers—sustaining Krishna worship in many languages. This textual material will touch upon the Krishna story or theater (lila) of his human lifetime, the way of life followed by devotees of Krishna known as Pushti Marg, or “Path of Grace,” and the cults around charismatic poet-saints who established the practice of bhakti, or devotion, to Krishna in the sacred region of Braj, described in many of the pictures on view. On this path, access to Krishna is obtained through mutual auspicious looking (darshan) enacted with votive paintings and sculptures and performed through various relationships with images such as those on view.
With reflection on this context, sweetness reclaims flavors of dimensions where it is embraced. Sharma’s depictions of Krishna’s chaste seductions of the cowherd girls, care and love of cows and kin, deep mutual bond with Radha, and honor to duty offer Krishna not as stolen candy but as sweet milk. It is this first nourishment, the promise of joy, and even as license for dessert, that answers to the fundamental human cravings for friendship, acceptance, mother-child joy, protection, communal bonds, love, and rhythms of satisfaction in patterns of everyday life. They are an art addressed to the divine that is human.
The twenty Sharma paintings included in the exhibition are on loan from collector and philanthropist Henry Flood Schoellkopf, who obtained them from the artist. The prints are drawn from the collections of pioneers in this field, Marc Baron and Elise Boisanté, and the Richard Davis Archive at Bard College.
Sri Sri Radha Kalachandji Mandir Hare Krishna Temple is a community partner of this exhibition.
Due to construction, the Members’ Day of Devotion for Friends of the Crow Collection has been temporarily postponed and will be re-scheduled. Check back for more updates.
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