With all of the exciting, newly acquired contemporary artworks going on display at the Memorial Art Gallery over the last couple of years, you might forget the institution also boasts an impressive collection of historic work. The MAG's Lockhart Gallery is a space dedicated to showcasing delicate works on paper from the institution's permanent collection, and is currently exhibiting a fascinating show of marvelous Indian miniature paintings. These vignettes of warmer climates provide a great opportunity to revel in the bright aesthetics and epic tales of Indian culture.
The best 35 of the collection's 62 paintings are on display, says curator Nancy Norwood. "I wanted them all to be of high quality and work together to tell a story."
Norwood worked with Charles Collins, a professor emeritus at RIT, to help identify narrative threads running through the pieces. The topics that emerged — Religious Faiths of India; Krishna and Rama as avatars of Vishnu; Ragamala paintings (works depicting musical themes); and paintings of the court — are explored in text panels, under which the works are grouped.
The tiny works are every bit as intricate and painstakingly made as the work in the Grand Gallery's M.C. Escher exhibit. Viewers can use the provided magnifying glasses to get an intimate look at details that seem stroked onto the paper with a single-hair paintbrush, or study Radha's expression as she shoos a Gopi away from Krishna.
Although the paintings feel fresh in their vibrantly saturated color, some paint has chipped off and is missing here and there from segments of the works. This belies their age — the earliest piece exhibited is from about 1500, while the later ones are circa 1850. Most are from either the 17th or 18th centuries, Norwood says.
Many of the Indian miniatures in the collection were too fragile for display — the paint was unstable, for example, or the paper was friable or torn. Norwood says the MAG typically displays four miniatures on rotation in the upstairs Asian gallery, but it was becoming more and more difficult to find any that had been off-view long enough to exhibit (the paintings are light-sensitive, and only exhibited once every five years for preservation reasons).
"We worked with a paper conservator to evaluate and prioritize the paintings for treatment," Norwood says. The MAG in 2013 applied for and in 2014 received a conservation grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to treat 23 paintings that were of the highest priority.
Once treatment was complete, a show of the pieces was planned for the Lockhart Gallery. "It was a terrific opportunity to both highlight these exquisite paintings and the importance of conservation," Norwood says. "I felt it was important to celebrate their return to 'health' with a stand-alone show that also allowed us to contextualize them more than we could in the larger Asian gallery."
The majority of the MAG's Indian Miniatures entered the collection in 1983 as a gift of Helen Reiff. Her husband, Robert, was a native Rochesterian and a graduate of the University of Rochester, and had a passion for Asian art, specifically Indian miniature paintings. Robert wanted the MAG to receive his collection after his death. The other miniatures entered the collection between 1928 and 1999 as gifts, purchases, or bequests.
Among Norwood's favorites of the displayed pieces is one depicting Shiva, Ardhanarishvara, created between 1750 and 1775. This particular manifestation of the deity illustrates his dual nature, most noticeably in the masculine-feminine split traits.
"I think it is one of the most exquisite paintings in the exhibition," Norwood says. "It also is probably the painting that helped me begin to understand the complexity and depth of the Hindu faith — much more than anything I read while preparing the exhibition. This idea of Shiva as the "Lord Whose Half is Woman," as the unifier of opposites: life and death, creation and destruction, ascetic and erotic, and male and female allowed me to see many of the other paintings in a way that made sense. It's also one of the most intense paintings in the exhibition — the elephants frolicking in the primordial waters are so joyful, and the duality of Shiva's nature so vividly represented."
Norwood says she is also fascinated by the show's intricate painting and drawing of composite elephants. In each of these works, the shape of a pachyderm is built from a menagerie of other beasts clinging to one another by tooth and nail. "The drawing in particular is exquisite," she says, adding that the provided magnifying glasses are essential.
"When you really look at the detail, the sheer skill of the artist is unbelievable. Animals are writhing around, chasing each other, blood on their mouths, all to make up an entire elephant. There's something very, very eerie in those faces. I will always remember this drawing."
The Memorial Art Gallery will close at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve and reopen Wednesday, December 28.