Though we like to think perversity is like a snowball, growing as it rolls down history's mountaintop, when it comes to excess and outrage, the ancients often have us beat.
At the very least, the artworks in Domains of Wonder: Selected Masterworks of Indian Painting show that, in depicting Ray Harryhausen-esque, three-headed, pea-green demons; obliging courtesans; and blood-spilling tiger hunts, there truly is such a thing as finesse. Beheadings and adultery have rarely been as beautifully rendered as they are in this exquisite survey of transportive images from the 14th to the 19th century on view in this Michael C. Carlos Museum show.
Extremes of religious devotion and sexual desire, gory beheadings and beatific calm define the panoply of emotions in Domains of Wonder, a nationally touring exhibition most recently docked at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Sexual jealousy and ecstasy make the work spicier than any dime-store pulp novel and its violence undeniably more artful than the latest Hostel splatter pic. And these sensual extremes are amazingly egalitarian -- experienced by hot-blooded mortals and gods like the Smurf-blue playa Krishna alike.
In dazzling, hallucinogenic colors, these watercolors tackle large-scale emotions in the most impossibly meticulous, diminutive form where you can observe the individual fronds on a fern the size of a quarter or a necklace with pearls as minute as sugar crystals. Like ships in a bottle, these paintings of Indian deities, animals, kings and Hindu tales done by Indian artists for royal patrons or religious texts compress the grand into an absurdly tiny space. The works induce a kind of intellectual vertigo at the juxtaposition of the miniature and the epic.
"Do you see how old they are?" an education-bent mother goads her tween son. But the kid can barely contain himself, hustling his mother to another room to check out a really "scary one."
Figures range from the outrageously stylized -- with the blinding-white, almond-shaped eyes of a Matt Groening cartoon -- to figures so carefully rendered they appear photographic.
The approach to storytelling is mind-blowing. The artists adopt a variety of approaches in their paintings on swaths of cloth or on skinny palm leaves as narrow as shoehorns. One 14th-century work is nearly tiny enough to wrap around a square of Bazooka chewing gum.
An astounding multiplicity of ideas and actions can often be encapsulated in a single painting. "A royal tiger hunt" circa 1749 tells the tale of a tiger's capture, from stalking to killing to transportation of its spent carcass through 16 individual vignettes, an abundant, all-at-once Bollywood storytelling style very different from the solitary, static view of Western oil painting.
Despite some often confoundingly dim lighting in an exhibition that already courts eye strain, Domains is a treasure trove of the sublime and the quite simply bizarre, such as the opening image in the show, weirder than any Pink Floyd album cover. In the 1720 "Fabled beasts in a landscape," five elephants with "wings" like fragile leaves and strangely humanoid, flesh-colored features cavort amid a soothing, bosomy green landscape. Accompanying text describes an Indian belief that these winged beasts, "gaja-simba," when seen in dreams "augur success in all things undertaken."
There are 126 paintings in the exhibition but between the wall text and the lace-work intricate scenes, it would be easy to spend an entire afternoon in the show and feel as if you'd just scratched the surface. When so much in the world feels impermanent, it is often the most soothing antidote to enter the dark, quiet envelope of the Carlos galleries and see that some things last.
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