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Understanding the Art of India

Author(s): Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

Source: Parnassus, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Apr., 1934), pp. 21-26+30
Published by: College Art Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/771056 .
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"Symbols cannot be studied apart from the references which they symbolize."
and Richards in The Meaning of Meaning.




Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


knowledge of art which we expect

in "cultured" people and which we supply in our universities, is a knowledge of
certain things about works of art, which
tliings are accidents in them, and not their
essence. \We enquire Iarticularly when aind
where and by or for whom the works were
made; by a mechanical comparison of details we disentangle "influences" and establish a genealogical tree of stylistic sequences, which we call the history of art,
or even the evolution of art. We investigate technical processes, although we have
not in view to become professional artists.
If we study iconography at all, it is only so
that we may be able to attach the proper
labels to objects displayed in the glazed
coffins of our galleries. We do not ask
what the symbols mean; but reducing our
concept of aesthetic experience to the animal level of pleasure-pain reaction, and
thus forgetting our humanity, we study only
the grammar, not the dictionary of art. The
stcudent of Christian art for example does
not investigate the meaning of crucifixion,
the student of Oriental art never enquires,
Why is the Buddha seated on a lotus? but
is content with the bare facts, which he
thinks of either as "historical" or "fanciful," unsuspecting that the secrets of design and composition may lie hidden in the
symbols themselves, and not in our functional reactions to the aesthetic surfaces.
It is true that it is not seriously maintained
that works of art are valid merely as
recognizable likenesses of things: for evidently, things as they are, faces or flowers
for example, are much better in themselves,
as sensibles, than any imitations of them
that could ever be made. It is however
maintained that the work of art is merely
another thing, and like other things which
are ends in themselves unintelligible; this
is expressed by saying that the work of art
is without meaning, or is its own meaning,
and we take a certain pride in thus confounding the plain man who ventures to
ask, What is it about? That may be all
very well with respect to modern art, which
deals either with social problems from a
class standpoint, or more often simply expresses the idiosyncrasy of the artist himself; and is necessarily unintelligible in
exact proportion to its individuality, that
is peculiarity. With respect to Christian
and Oriental arts, which appeal to the intellect through the senses, it is otherwise.
In claiming to be connoisseurs, while yet
refusing to consider the question "What
for?" which Christian and Oriental art
present to us, we forget that the perfection
or imperfection of anything made by a
rational being can only be defined in terms
of adequacy to the end in view. Christian
and Oriental arts had always human uses:
mainly practical in the case of what we
clumsily call the decorative arts (it is only

modern art that can really be compared to

millinery), and mainly intellectual in the
case of what we call the fine arts. In
either case it is the realization of an intention in the work that makes it a work of
art-that distinguishes the dance from the
gambolling of lambs, and the statement of
a theme from exhibitionism.
The last remark emphasizes another
sharp distinction of Christian and Oriental
from modern art. The history of postRenaissance art can be resumed in a sentence: whereas in Christian art the "play's
the thing," in modern art "the artist is the
thing." In Christian and Oriental art the
artist's theme is not arbitrarily chosen, but
is provided by inheritance and environment; it is self-evident that a man cannot
have property in ideas, which are accessible
to everyone, and have no local position. The
work displays the theme; as for the man,
in Eckhart's words, "it is not himself that
it reveals to us"; he indeed becomes the
theme, and forgets himself. All this is
clearly summarised from the Scholastic
point of view by Dante when he says "He
who would paint a figure, if he cannot be
it, cannot draw it."
Somewhat later, Leonardo noticed that
after all "the painter paints himself," or as
stated in India, "the painter's own aspect
comes out in the picture," that is, the
man leaves recognizable traces of himself
in the work, just as the imperfections of
an axe leave corresponding marks on the
wood. Such traces are the material emin
ployed by the modern attributionist
solving his picttire puzzles. Leonardo still
knew well enough that such traces are accidents, and not the essence in the work of
art; we should not like to discover such
accidents in something really useful, such
as a clock, and in former times people
thought of works of art as really useful
and would have laughed at any kind of
art that did not "work." We have so far
diverged from this position, our dislike of
ideas has become so inveterate, that we
have come to regard the artist's personality, revealed in the handling, as the essence of the work itself, and have striven
conscientiously to eliminate all other subject matter. The artist has been highly
flattered by this deification, and now works
in isolation, shamelessly exhibiting himself.
The modern world has agreed to regard
this personality development in art as a
progress and emancipation; art is even
thought of as a means of developing one's
Artists in other words no
longer work for society as a whole, but
only for themselves and for certain very
stnall cliques who "understand art," cliques
whose members are often dabblers in the
professional field, and class themselves with
the artists in question. So far as the nonand non-dabblingp public is
concerned, the result is to be seen in the

squalor of the existing environment; and

let us remember Ruskin's biting aphorism,
"Industry without art is brutality." Those
who can afford it surround themselves
with the works of former times; others
go to museums. The great works of postRenaissance genius have been bought at the
cost of ordinary living; artistic creation and
humanity are now hardly any longer compatible. He who would live, must now renounce art; the artist is humanely speaking as it were dead, but does not know
enough to lie down, only enough to complain of neglect. But this incompatibility of
life and art, while a real enough sickness, is
wholly a post-Renaissance
Christian Europe, and in Asia until lately.
nothing in a man's vocation as a maker of
things well and truly made, corroded his
humanity; the artist remained and was expected to remain a whole and sane man
amongst other men. He was simply an expert, like a modern engineer; not a minor
Our title, "Understanding the Art of
India," then, implies the consideration of a
kind of art and a view of art that are
quite unfamiliar to us today. That kind
is not peculiarly Indian, but has been current throughout the world since man first
became a tool-using animal, with exception
of Europe during the last five and especially the last two centuries. Apart from
sectarian prejudice, which did not then
stand so much in the way of mutual understandings as racial and economic prejudices now do, it would have been superfluous to "explain" the art of India to an
audience gathered in the classrooms of the
University of Paris in the thirteenth century. What the world then understood by
"art" was everywhere the same, viz. a right
way of making things, recta ratio factibilium, literally the "right reason of things
requiired to be made." Those who understood this "right reason" were called "educated", those who merely found a specific
pleasure in the product without knowing
what it was all about, "illiterate": docti
rationlemi artis intelligunlt, indocti ,oluptatent. It is true that the Schoolmen also defined the beautiful as id quod visumt placet,
"that which pleases when seen"; but it
would be a great mistake to suppose that
this meant that "taste" was thought of as
a standard. The kind of pleasure meant
was that which a mathematician feels whei
he recognizes a beautiful equation, or the
theologian when he contemplates an elegant
arrangement of God. The spectator understands the necessity of the work, and endorses it; he "sees that it is good," like
the Divine Architect when he rested on the
seventh day. This is the pleasure of the
intellect, felt in the presence of intelligible
things, and quite distinct from the pleasures
of sensation which may be occasioned by
the aesthetic surfaces whenl these are

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, 22 22PA2NAU


considered apart from their symbolic content. Our enjoyment of art at the present
day is almost wholly restricted to the
latter or sensational pleasure, our standpoint being that of those who from the
Scholastic point of view would have been
called the "aesthetically illiterate," indocti.
Another and very significant definition asserts that "Art imitates nature in her manner of operation," Ars imnitatur naturum in
sua operatione. Here above all we must
guard against misunderstandings, which are
very apt to spring from the loss of intellectual content which words have suffered
in our vernacular. What did the Schoolmen
understand by "Nature," and how did they
conceive her operation? Nature did not
mean as it means for us "environment," the
likeness of things round about us, but
something more like our abstract concept
of "Life," in any case "that by which things
are natured," that, for example, which
gives to a horse its horsiness, to man humanity. "Nature" in our sense consists of
things which are what they are by reason
of the forms embodied in them: these
"forms" correspond to Aristotelian "ideas,"
and Sanskrit "names." Works of art are
likewise what they are by reason of the
forms embodied in them; but differ from
natural species in that while these are
"given," and individually inscrutable, ;n
works of art the artist deliberately and
consciously embodies forms in tangible
material. As Eckhart states it, "To be
properly expressed, a thing must proceed
from within, moved by its form." In other

words, just as man, being an intellectual

animal, differs in this respect or degree
from other animals, so man's works differ
from natural species in their comprehensibility: or if not comprehensible, are not
works of art, but merely functional gestures to be admired or disliked just as we
admire or dislike the instinctive activities
of other animals, according to their value
for us; when we praise the actor who
"feels his part," or in other words exhibits
'his own emotions, it is like a mother who
exclaims "How prettily the baby smiles."
Gothic art, so far from "imitating Nature"
in our sense, takes for granted that to find
Nature as she is in herself, all her aspects
must be shattered. Our "love of Nature" is
from a Christian point of view, idolatry;
and this is what Blake implied when he
said that he was "afraid" that Wordsworth was fond of Nature.
Now wlhat is Christian art all about?
About man; not man individually, but Man
As Eckhart expressed
"Human nature has nothing to do with
time." It is true that the Gospels seem to
deal width historical events; but in reality,
the Events of the Life are "stages crowded
together as though to present, in a single
lifetime, the whole Epic of the Transcending of Mortal Destiny." The theme is then
the cosmic drama of the procession of the
will to life, in terms of the conflict between the powers of light and darkness,
good and evil. Man in his universal aspect
having eaten of the Tree, entered into
time, and being thus disintegrated and in-

dividualized, stood in need of a redemption,

which was conceived as a reintegration in
the likeness of one who though he had
taken on mortality as the Son of Man had
never been diminished of his wholeness as
,the Son of God apart from time, who said
of himself "Before Abraham I am." Mediaeval Christianity emphasises this Godhood more than the humanity of Jesus; his
image as Pantakrator or a Supernal Sun
dominates all, and even the stations of the
apparently eventful life are lifted out of
their historical setting and given an universal significance. Gnostic texts, always of
great value for the interpretation of the
iconography, emphasize that the True Cross
on which the Man suffers extends from
Earth to Heaven, at once separating and
uniting; upon this Cross it is that the Exemplary Being is mentally outstretched in
time and space in cosmic crucifixion, the
nail which holds the upright to the crosstree being man's repentance and transformation. An understanding of the proper
meanings of such symbols as the Cross and
the Wheel, the representation of Angels as
birds, the Sun and his light-rays, the Rose
and the Vase, are as essential to the understanding of mediaeval painting as they are
to an understanding of Dante. For these
notions, far more than any supposed artistic tendencies or subconscious theories of
composition are the cause of the works of
art being as they are; we cannot begin
to criticize a painting until we have understood its intention, which is also its raison
d'etre and the explanation of all its











_ _

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letails. As in the beginning the artist identified himself with the theme, so must we
in the end identify ourselves therewith, or
else admit that we cannot and do not wish
to understand the subject of our study, but
only to play with it.
I have started from the ground of mediaeval art, for the reason that being European, we take it for granted that we understand it. Be that as it may, he who truly
understands the principles of Christian art
already understands those of Indian. For
the art of India differs from that of
Christian Europe neither in principle nor in
essential content, but only 'in local colour
and specific phrasing.
The procedures of the Christian and the
Hindu artist are identical; each has at his
command a like, and largely identical, or
at least equivalent (as for example the
lotus is equivalent to the rose) vocabulary
of symbols, which must be combined in
such a manner as to communicate a given
meaning; and thus the conditions of compositions are established, in the logical,
rather than the visual, relations of parts.
Just as in Christian, so in Hindu art, the
compositions or formulae proper to the fulfillment of a given purpose are given to the
artist, a priori, in, the form of hieratical
prescriptions; which prescriptions, on the
one hand have behind them a long history
which enables us either by native understanding or by research to connect each
symbol with its proper reference, and on
the other enable us to identify the works
before us. The artist himself had never
in view to be original, but always to be
correct. Up to a certain point the procedure
of the artist is identical with that of the
worshipper; emptying his consciousness of
all other content, he gives exclusive attention to the theme until it stands before his
consciousness, more vivid and convincing
in all its details than anything that could
be presented to the physical eye. Then for
as long as may be necessary he holds fast
this image, until he is no longer conscious
of it as an object over against himself, but
only of himself as conscious 'in its mode;
identification in this sense being equally
from the Indian and the Scholastic point
of view the condition of perfect understanding. Then only he proceeds to embody in physical material the required form.
All that he as a private individual contributes to the result is his skill; nevertheless, just because he is identified with
the theme, he is actually working freely,
from within outwards, his work is original according to the exact meaning of the
word, viz. deriving directly from its
source; however little it may be novel. The
work is imaginative, that is, imitates a
mental image, which is the artist's own, for
he has made it so, however it may seem
to our eyes to repeat a familiar motif. The
image, indeed, is infinitely richer in content than any that an individual-however
have invented for
much a "genius"-could
himself. This is especially apparent in the
case of folk arts, which still repeat motifs
that have been handed down from an immemorial antiquity, and have a metaphysical reference (being connected in origin

23 _

A Byzantine mosaic of the 12th century, representing the Nativity, in the cupola of the Church of La Martorana in Palermo.
with the revolution of the Year, the
rhythm of cosmic Law) often far beyond
the power of the individual to explain.
Their value by no means wholly depends on
our complete understanding of them, which
understanding is always relative and represents a process never to be completed
short of omniscience; their correction is intrinsic, and their work is accomplished silently. That is to say, in so far as we are
surrounded by and attuned to these exemplary forms, we are unconsciously but
none the less really, to use a very ancient
phraseology, "reintegrated in the mode of
rhythm." The value of the symbols is
here akin to that of Latin or Sanskri,t to
the illiterate, in ecclesiastical usage.
this way, then, for so long as he works
within an orthodox tradition, the individual
artist, and also those for whom he works,
are living above themselves, functioning at
a higher level of reference than that of
mere observation or of self-expression.
It may be asked, What about style? for
the sequence of styles is the very material of our histories of art. The problem
of individual style scarcely arises in India,
where we are fortunately ignorant of
artists' names, and where the distinction
of one artist from another at any one time
is in degrees of skill only, and not in manner. Everyone must have observed that a
marked distinction of individual manners

belongs in any cycle to a late stage of the

development; personal styles are niore and
more difficult to detect the farther we go
back towards the primitive masterpieces,
and in fact we can only recognize them
with mechanical aids, such as enlarged
photographs of details. It is however beyond question that every workman leaves in
his work some traces of his personality, despite himself; or in India, we may say at
least that every period leaves in its monuments indelible traces of its own specific
character. All that becomes a matter of interest to the student of the special science
of psychology, but has to do merely with
the accidents and not the essence of the
art. Our object, preparatory to understanding and consequent fruition, is to
place ourselves at the standpoint of those
by and for whom the art was made; so
long as it remains exotic or arbitrary in our
eyes, it is of no real use to us. Now style
is precisely that of which the artist-we
cannot rank the conscious stylist as suchand his contemporary public are least of all
conscious; everyone naturally speaks in and
understands the mother tongue, and it is
only in retrospect and as strangers that we
can regard its idioms as a "style". The
true design, the formula, is often preserved unchanged throughout centuries or
even millenia of stylistic change; it is the
formula, the pattern, the design, and not its

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local colouring in this or that century or by
this or the other hand that must be studied
if we want to understand the art.
Let us for a moment consider portraiture.
Passages in early Christianland Scholastic
literature emphasize that the looking glass
image of a man, his easily recognizable
likeness, is not a portrait of the man himself, but only an imitation of the accidents
of his being. In the actual works of art it
is not until after the thirteenth century that
an interest is felt in the man's personal
peculiarities, and at the same time the use
of death masks begins. The true portrait
of a man represents his essence, that is to
say his form or archetype. In Christian
terms that is not as he is in himself, but
as he is in God and would wish to appear at
the Judgment Day. In Indian terms that is
his name or i(lea, which alone is eternal.
Portraiture in our European sense which
derives its notion of likeness from the (leath
mask, belongs to a state of mind that fears
(leath and would immortalize the accidents
of existence. The man who has truly lived
becomes what he is, that in his type in its
perfection; accordingly, the Indian ancestral portrait represents him, not in his own
likeness, but in the form of the deity to
whom he has been devoted, that is in the
aspect of a given type of operation, in
which he has found himself. We have indefeasible literary evidence that a man
could not "recognize" the portraits of his
own parents; and even in connection with
secular portraits, where a recognizable likeness was essential, we find that what is
sought is the subject's type; and when the
artist fails, this is ascribed, not to imperfect observation, but to inadequate concentration. The same principles underly the
representation of animals: proceeding
from within outwards, the artist presents
us with an image "more like a rabbit than
he (the rabbit) is himself."
Art, and Nature in our sense as the world
of appearance, have only this in common,
that both are as they are by reasons of the
forms embodied in them, and by which
they are what they are; the soul for example, is said to be the form of the body;
the painting is said to refer to him whose
image it is, and is nothing in itself but an
aid to the laying hold of that image. It is
naive even to discuss the question of likeness or unlikeness to Nature in connection
with Christian or Hindu art; these were
not constructed as if to function biologically-for that purpose Nature is better
than art-but to function intellectually. The
gods of ancient peoples were not glorified
human heroes, but mathematical diagrams
of operating powers; mythology consists of
verbal pictures of the operation of these
powers. The sources of symbolism and perhaps even of all speech and writing are
bound up with the notion of the revolution
of the Year. Ancient peoples did not by a
conscious and arbitrary act personify the
Year; on the contrary, their notions of
cosmic Law andl of Person in its purest
form coincided. Our figure of Time with
his scythe was once no allegory, but the
image of a living energy, the power that
underlies all manifestation and reveals it-

tacles, but languages. By a singular perversion of sense, the term "conventional"

which properly speaking designates the essential nature of art, as distinguished
from instinctive expression, as for example
song from shouting, has come to 'beapplied
as a characteristic term of abuse with respect to decadent art. We overlook that
art in decadence-everyone will admit that
we can safely speak of late Hellenistic art
as decadent, though all may not agree that
Raphael is decadent only in a more refined
way-is actually very much less conventional than are the classic or primitive
phases of art. There is no likeness between the word "horse," and the animal to
which this verbal symbol refers. Now we
know that "art" is one in kind, whatever
its medium, aural or visual; and yet we
condemn the painting of a horse when it
does not look like a horse! We really believe that by a thorough study of equine
anatomy we can (Iraw better horses than the
primitives; we really believe that by dissecting corpses we can become better artists than was Giotto "before they knew anything about anatomy." On the contrary, to
draw a horse, you must become a horse,
you must be horsey; to draw a man you
must be a man; to paint an Angel you
must work from the angelic level of reference.
The man in the street who, as we said,
wants to know what the work of art is
about, is fully justified; that is, if he means
What does it communicate? but not if he
means, What is it like? or if he assumes
that it is inartistic if it is not like anything
on earth. On the other hand, the work of
Sculpture from the tomb of Buddha
art is of no use to others when its symin Barhztt, second century B. C.
bolism is peculiar; then it is only of use
to the maker. In the modern artistic world
self alike in life and death; Father Time is
the nearest familiar form that can be cited everyone speaks in his own private lanto illustrate the nature of a Hindu image. guage, and is even offended when others
It is only because we are now accustomed do not understand it. When every man
to representations of the Greek Olympians invents his own dictionary, art is no longer
an universal language.
in the likeness of handsome athletes, and of
Let us consider the nature of symbolism,
the artist's mistress posing as the Madonna,
that we find it hard to realize the signifi- and the distinction of symbols from signs.
A sign reminds us of some thing or funccance of more intellectual arts.
Thus in fact in our approach to Chris- tion not actually exhibited, but which may
tian and Hindu art we are often looking be presented and recognized empirically at
for things that are not in.tendedto be there, any moment. For example, a cross set up
and by which if they were present the art for the guidance of the motorist warns him
would be wholly denatured. Where we are of actual cross-roads which he will shortly
interested in the movement, in the event, encounter; embroidered wings "mean"
Christian and Indian thought are interested "aviator"; blue pigment refers us to blue
or blue sky. The kind of art that is
only in the mover, whose being is un- eyes
made up of such signs we call illustrative
eventful. In other words, while we are intereste(l in things outside ourselves, Chris- or semiotic; it calls our attention to facts
tian and Hindu art are concerned only or events, and is partially intelligible to
animals as well as to men (for it is said
with what lies within us, at the core of
that bees have been deceived by painted
consciousness; for "All deities reside in flowers- in which case it seems
the human breast" (Blake), or as expressed
in Sanskrit scriptures, "All these Angels are heartless that honey was not also provided).
In human beings, an attachment to this
in me," and he "who worships any Angel kind of
art easily passes over into fetishism
as another than himself goes far astray." or
idolatry, all art indeed which is deThese are then the truly humane arts;
signed to be "true to Nature" (in the modstrange and unwelcome to us, because our ern sense) represents the
worship of Nathoughts are directed to sensibles outside ture. Christian and Hindu
art are
us, their thought only to intelligibles within thing but pantheistic in this sense.anyA
symbol, though necessarily in itself of phyIntelligible, conventional, and symbolic sical
is an expression which by defiare to all intents and purposes interchange- nitionorigin,
or common understandingis regarded
able terms. The humane arts are not spec- as the best
possible formula by which

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allusion can be made to a relatively unknown or even unknowable, that is suprarational meaning, thought of as real. The
symbol is like the meaning analogically,
but not visually. An excellent example can
be cited in Blake's "Tiger"; we are well
aware that tigers do not literally set the
forests on fire, and yet we immediately experience here the quality of tigerishlness. It
is the same when, as is very common in
Oriental art, the Fiery Energy of any being
is visibly represented in the form of
flames surrounding or springing from its
members. But observe that the level of
reference must be consistent in any one
work; when Indra is represented with the
thunderbolt, or the Virgin surrounded by
a flaming corona, we do not wonder why
they are not scorched; but if they are represented in the very likeness of human
species, and as if actually "playing with
fire," the incongruity very properly disturbs
A cross set up by the wayside as an icon
refers to the crucifixion of unitary being on
the dimensions of time and space; the nail
that fastens beam and upright is within
you, aind there lies the ultimate significance
of the image and of life. In the same way
the rose window of a Gothic church is the
W\heel of the Year, of which the centre
coincides with the nail of the Cross referred to above. The wings of Angels refer to the angelic, that is to say intellectual,
independence of local motion. The blue
of the image and of life. In the same way
infinity, which we cannot handle, but which
is suggested by the sky's indefinite exten-

sion and unknown death. The lotus on

which the Buddha sits is the universal
ground of life, the basis of manifestation
or positive existence; a statement that can
be supported by Sayana's comment on the
agnim puskarat,
Rig Vedic expression
which he explains by the gloss puskara sarvtajagad dharakatz'a. I cite this reference
not so much for its own sake as in illustration of methodology; for while it is not
imIpossille for the accomplished student of
symbolic expression to speak authoritatively ex cathedra as to the meanings involved,
there is actually no field of research more
open to the dangers of subjective interpretation, guesswork to wit, and in fact
whole libraries of nonsense have been written on the subject of the meanings of symbols. The expositor, wherever it is in any
way possible, and in, the case of Christian
and Hindu art the source material is abundant, should be able to quote chapter and
verse in support of his explanations. Thus
one who has no Latin can hardly expect to
be able to penetrate very deeply into the
content of Christian art, nor one who has
no Sanskrit into that of Hindu art, a(nd this
is why we nowadays expect from research
students a thorough knowledge of the cultural environment in which an art has
arisen, as prerequisite to research in the
special field of the actual works of art. In
any case such a student, if unfortunately
unable to read the texts, must resort to accurate translations; for he will not be able
by guesswork to arrive at a full comprehension of the meaning of symbols, and
without a knowledge of this, the raison

d'etre of the art itself will remain obscure.

The exponent of Buddhist art must know
why the Buddha sits on a lotus, or else cannot explain the proper relationship of the
parts of the actual composition which he
Now let us see what happens if we
break down the distinction between Nature and Art, sign and symbol, aspect and
form. If we mistake the sign "blue" for
symbol, in the picture of the blue-eyed
maiden, we are merely sentimentalising; or
if we take the symbol for a sign in the
case of the Virgin's robe, we imply that
the Virgin wears the sky just as we wear
clothes, which is tantamount to a "personification of the sky" and an identification of Mariolatry with the "worsillp of
Nature." Or suppose an artist taught to
draw "correctly"-as
one is taught in
schools of art-should
essay the Buddlia
theme; he will represent the Buddha as a
man, seated on a flower represented in all
its natural delicacy, its slender stalk rising
from the rippling waters of a veritable
pond; that is, in other words, he will be
quick enough to catch tle allzumenschltichc
man in the act, just before the lotus bends
and lets him down irtto the water. It has
been well said that Ei\ropean art depicts
moments of time, Asiatic art states of being. Perhaps no better example than this
of the lotus could be cited in illustration
of the futility of approaching artistic problems apart from any consideration of the
meanings intended to be expressed. Or do
we perhaps consider that the "Stem of
Jesse" cannot become the subject of a great




Specimens of












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26 -



A piece of Indian sculpture from the 8th century

work of art, merely because in our experience trees do not grow out of men's
navels? or that by an arithmetical exercise,
enabling us to distinguish a two-armed
from a four-armed image, we have discovered an artistic "measure" ? Krishna is
painted blue or dark blue, and called the
"Dark Cloud"; this does not mean that
the Hindus studied or worshipped cloud
forms, it means what the Old Testament
means when it speaks of Jehovah as having "clouds and darkness round about
Him," what Eckhart means when he speaks
of the "darkness" and "sable stillness" of
the Godhead, and what would have been
self-evident to any mediaeval practitioner
of the contenplatio in caligine.
What we are accustomed to call composition is nothing but the comfortable
disposition of things regarded as existing
outside ourselves in space.- In the same
way perspective is only "means of representing things apart in space." Both conceptions are bound up with the simultaneous development of rationalism and realism after the thirteenth century. Neither
has any real meaning in connection with
Christian or Hindu art, where the element
and "space" is rather logical than measurable. As to the fact of this absence of
corporeality, we have already seen that the
Hindu work exists merely as the indicator
of an intangible form, the art in the artist;
"the picture is not in the colors." In the
same way in Christian art, the visible work
is of no ultimate importance in itself, "all
honor that we pay the image, we refer to
the Archetype, viz. Him whose image it
is ... in no wise honor we the colors or the
art" (Hermneneia of At;hos); "an icon in
stone or on the wall, apart from its material foundation, and regarded simply as
form, is the same form as his whose form
it is" (Eckhart).
By "form" is meant of

course, not the work of art, but its reason;

just as in the familiar scholastic expression, "the soul is the form of the body";
or translating into terms of aesthetic, "proportion depends entirely on the nature to
be represented."
The Hindu artist had not occasion to
concern himself with problems of spatial
representation, for the good reason that
from the Hindu point of view, spatial extension is a purely mental construction: entirely without objective reality, or in any
case only real "within you." The only concern of the Hindu artist is to be intelligible, or as he expresses it, "correct." I
need hardly point out that intelligibility is
not a dimensional quality; the higher the
level of reference, the fewer the dimensions; until we reach pure being, of which
no dimension whatever can be predicated.
Accordingly, in Christian and Hindu art,
as also in Chinese, the arrangement of
things in relation to one another, and their
relative dimensions or that of their parts
is predetermined wholly by intellectual and
not by visual necessities, in other words, the
order and relative scales of the parts are
determined only by the hierarchy of the
meanings involved. That is what is meant
by the fifth canon of Hsieh Ho, "Design
due-placing"; it would imply a fundamental misunderstanding of all the problems
involved, if we should translate this expression by our word "composition."
To resume: the study of art with a view
to accurate attribution is rarely demode;
we realize that when the limits of possibility in this direction have been reached,
nothing has been accomplished towards the
recreation of the art itself as a living experience. The study of art as a stylistic
sequence to be explained by psychological
,analysis still holds the field; but as we
have seen, an analysis of this kind can
serve the purposes only of those who are

concerned with the accidents and not with

the essence of the art. More advanced
students have already realized that the history of art is bound up with its meaning;
that only its meanings can explain its actual structure; that only the realization of
meaning can recreate the living values of
ancient arts for us.
For example, Roes has recently discussed
Greek Geometric Art entirely from this
point of view; in connection with the well
known Persepolitan capital form of two addorsed bulls, she has occasion to remark:
"It hardly needs any argument to prove that
the form of the capitals was not chosen for
its decorative value, great as it became under the hands of the Persian artists, but
for the symbolic value of the bulls; every
column in those Achaemenid palaces was
an emblem of the sun god to which the
I have
king of kings might look up . .
come across some psychological art-criticism, and it has been a warning to me.
Pages have been filled about the ideas and
ideals that must have prompted artists and
artisans to work as they did, and this by
persons who never made an original design in their lives . . . this kind of science
is almost certain to be futile." Even so
orthodox a student as Bernhard Berenson
has remarked that "The study of evolution is from the aesthetic point of view,
-in art the only admissible point of view
-quite futile."
The reader may already have come to
the conclusion that I have been talking all
along not about art but about metaphysics.
That may indeed be true, according to our
contemporary understanding of the concept
"art." But the contemporary understanding of "art" is not merely historically
unique, but represents a misunderstanding
of the concept "art" which is of very recent origin, and to which we ought not
to attach very great importance.
the world as a whole has always understood by "art" is (according to New Oxford Dictionary definitions) "skill in doing
anything as the result of knowledge and
practice," and "anything wherein skill may
be attained or displayed." According to
the common understanding of humanity art
and metaphysics are alike: for observe, (1)
that on the one hand the natural language
of metaphysics is precisely symbolism, and
(2) on the other that it is just the
symbolic character of art which distinguishes the work of art from natural
species. So what is meant by "aesthetic
experience" and by "perfect understanding"
are one and the same; each being the
consummation of an act of non-differentiation, in which our consciousness identifies
itself with an intelligible form.
I conclude then with an Indian definition
of aesthetic experience, and an example of
this experience in its highest conceivable
aspect. According to the Sahitya Darpana, "Pure aesthetic experience is t;heirs
in whom the knowledge of ideal beauty
is innate; it is known intuitively, in inwithout
level of conscious being; born of one
mother with the vision of God, its life is
as it were a flash of blinding light of
(Continued on Page 30)

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(Contilned fromt page 26)




transmundane origin, and yet in the image

of our very own being." In Sankaracarya's
Svatmanirupana, the divine experience in
contemplation of the world, when he saw
it was good, is described as follows, "On
the vast canvas of the Self, the picture of
the manifold universe is painted by the
Self itself, and the Supreme Self takes
great delight in seeing it."
Every perfected aesthetic experience is a
participation in this divine vision of the
Self and all things as they are therein; in
this angelic point of view, which sees
things in their being and apart from values,
everything, as Dante expresses it, is lovable, and nothing hateful. This is in other
words a "condensed understanding in the
mode of beatitude." But let us not forget
that here in the world there is no short
cut to such experience. Aesthetic experience is indeed disinterested. But works of
art, which may become the occasion of
such experience, are never disinterested,
never "for art's sake"; on the contrary,
"All expressions, human or revealed, are
determined to an end beyond themselves;
or if not so determined, are thereby comparable only to the utterances of a madman."
As remarked by Thoreau, "Things are
now in the saddle, and ride mankind." We
are far from propounding that the enjoyment of things, animal wise, is a sin: but
rather that an exclusive pre-occupation
with aesthetic surfaces, without regard to
tlieir rationality, represents a refusal on our
part to entertain the characteristic element
of perfection or integrity which may be
present in the work of art before us, which
perfection can be predicated only with respect to an indivisible coordination of
thought and feeling, form and aspect in
the work itself. In studying only the physical body of the work we are departing
altogether from the notion of mtens sana in
corpore saino: we are denying that which is
preeminently characteristic of humanity, the
power of entertaining ideas and of communicating thought by means of symbols.



the moderns for reference

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J. Friedlinder, Pantheon, October 1933, pp.
297-304. It is known from documents that
Van Orley produced a third very large triptych between 1515 and 1520 for the Brotherhood of the Holy Cross at Fumes. A short
by Breynart mentions five
scenes, three dealing with the Passion of
Christ and two referring to the relic preserved at Fumes. A panel in the Turin
museum has been identified by A. J. Wauters as the right wing of the altar piece
but A. Bandi di Vesme maintains that this
is a work by Diirer which was described
by Ratti as early as 1780 in the Palazzo
Durazzo in Genoa whereas Breynart had
seen the complete altar at Fumes in 1792.
But Breynart's notes are not actually dated

and Deschamps in 1769 fails to mention this

important altar, hence its removal before
that date must be assumed. The pendant
wing has now been discovered and can be
safely identified. Stylistic differences in its
two scenes bear out the fact that the conception and the execution of the work lay
some years apart. The representation of
Rome is of value in proving that at least
until 1515 Orley had not visited the city.
These wings of the Fumes altar shed new
light on Orley's work and support the
assignment of a number of Madonna panels
to the same period.
J. de
la Martiniere, Gazette des Beaux-Arts,
October 1933, 25-204. Utilizing the new
evidence supplied by a recently discovered
series of watercolors made in 1841, the
writer is able to arrive at a more accurate
dating of the frescos of Saint-Gilles de
Montoire, to point out several interesting
features in the history of their execution,
and to offer an hypothesis which indicates
the identity of the donor of the chapel as
well as the source of inspiration of its


(Continuled fronm page 29)
ders what would have been the result if
there had not been some excellent foreign
precedents for the techniques and styles
here exhibited.
Art-History As An Academic Study, by
Roger Fry. Cambridge, University Press
(Macmlllan; N. Y.) $0.75. An inaugural
lecture delivered in the senate house, October 18, 1933, by Roger Fry, Slade Professor of Fine Art. In spite of its significant title, the hesitation disclosed in spelling the title with a hyphen goes very deep.
If a smattering of factual knowledge and
a natural good taste is all that an undergraduate at Cambridge needs, and this is
a specimen lecture, his needs are probably
satisfied by this sort of instruction.
Indeed, the lecture reads more like an afterdinner discourse than an academic performance. It teems with college reminiscences, and ill-assimilated generalizations.
It neither contributes to knowledge nor
exhibits any special power of summarof art hisizing the real achievements
torians, critics, and other original invesThis little book would be a
nice souvenir for one who had happened
to be present at the senate house.
American Art Annual, Volume XXX,
published by The American Federation of
Arts, TVaslhinglton, D. C. $10. A handy
reference book of 850 pages cov.ering alrt
events in the United States for 1933. Six
divisions, (1) a summary of the year in
art, (2) a biographical dictionary of 5250
living American Painters and Sculptors,
(3) biographical resumes of 150 persons,
eminent in the art woirld, who have died
during the year, (4) reports and staffs of
Art Museums, Associations and Societies,
(5) an informative list of Art Schools,
and University and College Fine Arts Departments, (6) a record of paintings sold
at auction for $200 or over, make this
yearly publication a valuable tool for artists and administrators in the field.

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