Weblog since 2004 on books, films, art and travel.
Subscribe to the RSS feed.

crown of thorns

Doornenkroon / Crown of Thorns - 1

Doornenkroon / Crown of Thorns - 2

Behold, a modern miracle: Christ in the Drain Pipe, with a crown of thorns that beatifies this standard issue hostile architecture.

Seen in Rotterdam.


Svetoslav Roerich - Pilgrims

One more Roerich, titled 'Pilgrims' - this one by Svetoslav Roerich, son of Nicholas, who continued painting in a similar vein, though perhaps more fully 'Indianized'.

Seen at the Bharat Kala Bhavan, the BHU art museum, Varanasi.

study of mountains

Nicholas Roerich - Study of Mountains

Nicholas Roerich - Study of Mountains 1

Nicholas Roerich - Study of Mountains 2

Nicholas Roerich - Study of Mountains 3

Nicholas Roerich - Study of Mountains 4

The dozen or so versions of 'Study of Mountains' represent Russian painter Nicholas Roerich's mystical visions of the Himalaya peaks at their starkest, barest essence: planes and textures of dizzying color and light. They command the strange fascination of primordial, never-before-seen landscapes.

These paintings are part of a staggering body of work: Roerich painted the Himalayas hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand times, besides writing extensively about their landscape, cultures and religions, and founding a research institute devoted to their study. In the 1920s he undertook an Asian expedition of several years, traversing the Himalayas on all sides, before settling in Naggar, in the Kullu valley, India. He was also the originator of the Roerich Pact, symbolized by the Banner of Peace, an international treaty to protect cultural treasures.

Banner of Peace - Roerich Memorial Trust - Naggar

From his early work inspired by Russian Orthodox iconography, many of Roerich's paintings depict religious scenes, and his later work reflects his growing fascination for Eastern religions, as well as his search for a synthesis of Eastern and Western thought. In the 'Banners of the East' series (1924), for instance, he treated religious and mythological figures from different Eurasian traditions, including 'Tsong-kha-pa', 'Laozi', 'Mohammed the Prophet' and 'Mother of the World'.

His Himalaya paintings often show remote monasteries and solitary pilgrims, heightening the landscape's grandeur and austerity through the contrast with these puny figures and precarious man-made structures. (Besides, in the early 20th century they also had documentary value. Many of his paintings depict real places, actual peaks and passes, and along with his writings served as records of his expeditions.)

But increasingly the explicitly religious symbols seem to become details in the vast empty landscape - an inscription scratched on rock, a temple ruin on a mountain top, a divine shape in a cloud. The mountains themselves now become the subjects of devotion, as Roerich attempts to capture the original awe from which religions sprang.

Thus the series of 'Study of Mountains' can be seen as a kind of culmination of his Himalaya fascination: 'emptied', leaving all human presence behind, concentrating purely on the timeless, forbidding landscape with its jagged peaks, velvety slopes and giddy colors.

Their execution is minimalistic as well. These works were done in tempera on cardboard, and - hard to see on reproductions - often the rough grey board shows through the paint, or it's even left bare to create the texture and shading of sheer mountain rock. In a way they're also studies of color, variations of the typical Roerich palette with no green and slightly jarring blue and pink and orange, and with that striking brightness that reminds of the color explosions in Tibetan art, which always seem the result of the lack of oxygen at such high altitude.

Still, the peculiar power of these paintings is difficult to describe. In his classic horror story 'At the Mountains of Madness' (1931), H.P. Lovecraft repeatedly refers to "the strange and disturbing Asian paintings of Nicholas Roerich", appropriating that "something hauntingly Roerich-like" for his own "mountainous mystery".

Rabindranath Tagore, in a letter to Roerich, declared: "When a picture is great we should not be able to say what it is, and yet we should see it and know."

While Roerich himself wrote in a poem titled 'In Vain' (1918):

Unresponsive, the stones stand dumb.
Cold in the meadows they glisten and
Shimmer. Cold are the clouds.
They fold themselves in a furrow. They pass
Into the endless. They know, they are silent,
And guard.

naggar deodars

Naggar - 1

Naggar - 2

Naggar - 3

Naggar - 4

Naggar - 5

Naggar - 6

Naggar - 7

Naggar - 8

On the lower mountain slope, the village and ancient regional capital of Naggar presides over the Kullu Valley in Himachal Pradesh, surrounded by orchards and forests of majestic deodars, the Himalaya cedars whose name derives from the Sanskrit devadāru, tree/wood of the gods.

rishikesh ads

Rishikesh - 1

Rishikesh - 2

Rishikesh - 3

Rishikesh - 4

Rishikesh - 5

Rishikesh - 6

Rishikesh - 7

The town of Rishikesh lies in the Himalaya foothills, where the river Ganges comes flowing out of the mountains. Since gaining fame in the West as the retreat of a certain British pop group in 1968, the "yoga capital of the world" has seen an ever-expanding spiritual health industry, with gigantic ashrams dotting the river banks. According to Wikipedia (entry sanitized today; its source advertorial is still available) The Times of India, "the place is charged with spiritual energy."

varanasi dawn

Varanasi Asi Ghat - 1

Varanasi Asi Ghat - 2

Varanasi Asi Ghat - 3

Varanasi Asi Ghat - 4

Varanasi Asi Ghat - 5

Varanasi Asi Ghat - 6

Varanasi, formerly Benares, also Kashi, the Hindu holy city has since time immemorial worshipped the river goddess Ganga from its ghats. Not surprisingly, the most auspicious time for puja has always been at dawn, when the heat, dust, noise and pollution have not yet crowded out the river's serenity. Above is Asi Ghat.

mughal flowers

Delhi Red Fort - 1

Delhi Red Fort - 2

Delhi Red Fort - 3

Delhi Red Fort - 4

Agra Fort - 1

Agra Fort - 2

Agra Fort - 3

Agra Fort - 4

Agra Taj Mahal - 1

Agra Taj Mahal - 2

Agra Taj Mahal - 3

Agra Taj Mahal - 4

The Indo-Perso-Islamic culture of the Mughal empire left much celebrated architecture, including the palaces of Delhi's Red Fort and Agra Fort as well as one of the most famous tombs in the world, the "teardrop on the face of eternity" of the Taj Mahal. One striking feature in all their splendor is the use of flower decorations - roses, lotus flowers, flowering trees. Deviating from the starkly abstract arabesques of Western (from the vantage point of India) Muslem art, it allowed an element of almost frivolous exuberance to creep into their devotion.

mumbai slogans

Mumbai slogans - 1

Mumbai slogans - 2

Mumbai slogans - 3

Mumbai slogans - 4

A sample of Mumbaikar humor...

mumbai skies

Mumbai skies - 1

Mumbai skies - 2

Mumbai skies - 3

Mumbai skies - 4

Mumbai skies - 5

Mumbai skies - 6

Mumbai's peninsular, tropical location on the Arabian sea creating some impressive skyscapes...

indian infinity

India is all about infinity - an infinity of gods and myths, beliefs and languages, races and cultures; in everything, and everywhere one looks, there is this dizzying endlessness.

In 'Travels with Herodotus' Ryszard Kapuściński described his first assignment as a journalist who didn't speak English in India, in the 1950s. A book he used to acquaint himself with Indian thought was Paul Deussen's 'Outlines of Indian Philosophy', published in 1907.

"Deussen reproaches Europeans," Kapuściński notes:

"European idleness," [Deussen] complains, "tries to escape the study of Indian philosophy" - though perhaps "despair" is the more accurate motive since, in the course of four thousand years of uninterrupted development, this philosophy has evolved into a system so immense and immeasurable as to intimidate and paralyze all but the most hardened daredevil and enthusiast. Furthermore, in Hinduism the sphere of the unfathomable is boundless, and the rich variety of what lies within it is characterized by the most bewildering, mutually contradictory, and stark contrasts, the boundaries between material things and mystical phenomena are fluid and fleeting, one becomes the other or, simply, eternally is the other; being is transformed into nothingness, disintegrates and metamorphoses into the cosmos, into a celestial omnipresence, into a divine way that disappears into the depths of bottomless nonbeing.