South Asian history is so complex and layered that making sense of it can take considerable effort. T Richard Blurton’s richly-illustrated India: A History in Objects emphasizes precisely this complexity and diversity—“The variety of South Asia is remarkable in terms of language, script, ethnicity, religion and architecture”— rather than a single narrative throughline.
Royal patronage gave impetus to great works of art. In a period when artists’ craft required years of apprenticeship, when the raw materials included costly powders and rare preparations, when collaboration among a large number of artists was required, the final result is practically a celebration of the presiding monarch. So it is with two manuscripts from the British Museum, covered in Treasures of Herat, Addendum 25900 and Oriental 6810. They represent the apogee of the Herat school of art, under the last great Timurid ruler, Sultan Husayn Bayqara (1438-1506).
The artistic zeitgeist of Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868)—a time characterized by several centuries of social and political stability maintained by the repressive, isolationist policies of the Tokugawa Shogunate—was influenced heavily by the visual culture of the merchant and military classes in metropolitan centers. Sharing a goal to pursue the ephemeral pleasures of life, often through excessive expenditure, their patronage of the arts and popular entertainment espoused an aesthetic renaissance in the metaphysical space they occupied known as ukiyo, or the “floating world”.
In one sense, this book is the story of Agnès Benoit’s decades-long fascination with a princess, whose statue of chlorite and steatite beguiles us from a distance of 4,000 years. Her mysterious sisters began to appear in antique shops in Kabul in the 1960s. In the beginning, we knew little to nothing about the civilization that produced them. They dazzled with their fine workmanship, the elegance of their shapes, the feminine beauty and power they conveyed.
For avid collectors during the gilded age Gentile Bellini’s portrait of a seated Turkish scribe came as a revelation, opening a window onto heretofore unfamiliar elegance, hinting at a connection between their beloved Italian Renaissance and the magnificence of contemporary Ottoman court. This same generation read and swooned over Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam. They traveled to Constantinople, Cairo and Damascus, collecting repoussé brass works, calligraphic tombstones, Iznik tiles and Tabriz carpets. In this rarefied milieu of Calouste Gulbenkian, J Pierpont Morgan and Isabella Stuart Gardner (who swooped up the Bellini), no one was more enthusiastic about the arts of Islam than Bernard Berenson, the high priest of the Italian Renaissance.
The grand churches of Europe are studied as great works of art and architecture. They continue to fascinate believers, historians, and art historians alike. The great names behind these works are hailed as legends and visionaries blending beauty with devotion to give meaning to the rituals that these buildings were home to. Compared to these monuments, what does India, as a land of great faiths and temples, offer as manifestations of art, architecture, religiosity, ritual, and symbols of power—both divine and human?
Katsushika Hokusai is undoubtedly one of the most widely celebrated artists in the history of Japanese visual culture. A Renaissance man active in the late 18th and early 19th centuries during the Edo period (1603-1868), his vivid prints and illustrations remain unparalleled in their dynamic portrayals of flora and fauna, historic events, mythologies, and contemporary urban life in the metropolitan demimonde known as the ukiyo. Even if someone reading is unfamiliar with his impact on the canon of art history, they will likely know his more famous compositions from their omnipresence in pop culture and museum gift shops, such as the “Great Wave off Kanagawa”.