Brain Pickings

Tantra Song: Rare 17th-Century Indian Paintings That Look Like 20th-Century Western Art

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What a deadly bus accident has to do with Paul Klee, Paris, and the poetry of abstraction.

We’ve previously explored some fragments of the spectrum of art inspired by the Hindu tradition, from beautiful artisanal artwork based on Indian mythology to Meena women’s Mandana public art to a Pixar animator’s playfully stylized, Westernized takes on Hindu deities. Now, from the fine folks at Siglio, who brought us the lovely Everything Sings, comes Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan — a striking collection of rare, abstract Tantric paintings based on 17th-century illustrations from Indian religious texts that bridge Eastern spirituality with Western 20th-century art in their haunting reminiscence of the likes of Paul Klee, Agnes Martin, and Daniel Buren.

The images were discovered by French poet Franck André Jamme in 1970 while rummaging through the catalogs of a Parisian art gallery. He became so transfixed by these esoteric artworks that in the 1980s, he traveled to India to find their origins. In 1985, his quest nearly killed him in a bus accident whilst on the Tantric trail across the deserts of Rajasthan. He suffered a series of comas, spent three weeks in a Parisian hospital and six months at home in a hospital bed, and found his mind as broken as his body, unable to live with the memory of what he considered a painful failure. After a long and painful recovery, his obsession with the artworks led him back to India, where he earned the trust of tantrikas — the authentic practitioners of the Tantric tradition — and set out to better understand their meditative art form.

Jamme reflects on why these images spoke to him so powerfully :

It was strange that such modern, occidental-looking patterns already existed in India during the 17th century, and they were so simple, so powerful, so quietly and naturally abstract, so near, as well, to my own field, which was already something like poetry. Poetry is so often like that, isn’t it? Playing with words, using words in such a natural abstract way.”

The stunning images abstract key symbols of Tantric metaphysics and cosmogony, from the bindu, a dot symbolizing the undifferentiated absolute, to the negative space of the shunya, the absolute void of the supreme deity. But what makes these works extraordinary is the poetic contrast between the seeming simplicity of their minimalist geometric forms and the complex, textured humanity of their handmade paper, water stains, and imperfect text — two opposing currents, which ebb and flow in a delicate osmotic balance that could never be achieved digitally, on a sterile screen. Lawrence Rinder observes in the introduction:

It’s not just a desire for the antique or a nostalgic patina that makes the incidental marks so important, it’s precisely that ideal forms — forms plumbed from the depths of the mind, of the soul — need to co-exist with randomness and the emptiness of chance.”

Aesthetically breathtaking and framed in a powerful story about curiosity, creative restlessness, and obsession, Tantra Song is a singular convergence of East and West, bound to mesmerize.

Images courtesy of Siglio; some images via The New York Times Magazine

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How Bananas Became a Global Commodity

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What the silent film era has to do with the architecture of atmospheric control.

Over on Edible Geography, Nicola Twilley has a fantastic longform piece tracing the painstaking production that is the life cycle of bananas as they make their way from tropical Ecuador to your fruit bowl. This reminded me of a fascinating vintage documentary from the end of the silent film era I’d come across some time ago. The 11-minute black-and-white film, currently in the public domain courtesy of the Prelinger Archives, was produced in 1935 and zooms in on the banana industry, from virgin jungle being converted into banana plantations to the fifteen-month growth cycle between root planting and banana bunch to the shipment of the fruit into the American markets, and even ends with a stop-motion visual jingle about the health virtues of bananas.

Bananas are more than a delicious fruit — they are one of America’s most important foods…”

Now, contrast that — the manual farming and inspection, the pick-up locomotives, the “specially constructed ships of the Great White Fleet” — with today’s sophisticated banana-ripening facilities and their “evolving architecture of atmospheric control.”.

In other words, in order to be a global commodity rather than a tropical treat, the banana has to be harvested and transported while completely unripe. Bananas are cut while green, hard, and immature, washed in cool water (both to begin removing field heat and to stop them from leaking their natural latex), and then held at 56 degrees — originally in a refrigerated steamship; today, in a refrigerated container — until they reach their country of consumption weeks later.”

And in observing how far we’ve come technologically, it’s bittersweet — like a green banana, perhaps — to observe how much further we’ve gone from the groves.

HT Andrew Sullivan

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Evolution: The Natural History of Animal Skeletons, Stripped Down

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What a flamingo, a capybara, and a guinea pig have to do with the beginnings of recorded time.

When Gunther von Hagens put together his traveling display of half-stripped bodies playing sports, chess, fencing, riding a similarly half-stripped horse, and generally acting like their human counterparts, audiences were horrified and fascinated. Bodyworlds was gross anatomy on parade, and to some it might have felt more like body snatching than an education in muscle mass and movement. But Von Hagens, for all his showmanship, emphasized that these bodies, preserved hopefully forever, were for learning. The entertainment was incidental.

The image that opens the Patrick Gries and Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu’s stunning book Evolution takes Von Hagens horse and rider and strips it completely, bone against black in a beautiful high-resolution photograph. The result is somehow even more animated, more eternal, and the quote paired with it, from the eighteenth-century naturalist Comte de Buffon, reveals the project at hand:

Take the skeleton of a man. Tilt the pelvis, shorten the femurs, legs, and arms, elongate the feet and hands, fuse the phalanges, elongate the jaws while shortening the frontal bone, and finally elongate the spine, and the skeleton will cease to represent the remains of a man and will be the skeleton of a horse…”

Human being (Homo sapiens) riding a horse (Equus caballus)

For hundreds of years, natural history museums have offered body worlds of their very own, skeletons stripped down for study, sometimes posed in their natural habitats looking about as natural as a pork chop in the jungle.

Evolution, published originally as a large-scale coffee table book in 2007, now in a physically smaller but expanded edition, provides a stark contrast of black and white and bone. Patrick Gries’ photographs against black backgrounds transform animal skeletons into tender and lively creatures, as animated in death as they were in life, while Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu, a professor of natural science, provides a concise summary of each animal’s place in the evolutionary ladder.

Greater flamingo, Phoenicopterus ruber, Africa, America, Eurasia

These skeletons are so far beyond death that we can see in them almost a new kind of creature, where the bones are animated without muscle, and skulls manage to look at us without eyes. Gries poses the skeletons provocatively: a leopard pounces mid-air onto its prey, a piranha is about to snap, a black swan preens its missing feathers, a wood pigeon flies off the page.

Cheetah, Acynonyx jubatus, Sub-Saharan Africa

The book is organized according to the principles of, you guessed it, evolution, but de Panafieu prefers to tell the smaller stories of the parts rather than the whole: of predator and prey, of teeth and digits, of specific changes in fish, of brains and their carrying-cases, skulls.

Hermann’s tortoise, Tesudo hermanni, France

Mostly taken from the Museum of Natural History in Paris, the animals represented here are from all over the globe, land and sea, big and small: the flamingo, the guinea pig, the okapi, the capybara, the house mouse, the little owl, stunningly-ribbed snakes, sea sponges, the nurse shark, seahorses, the pilot whale, the common carp. the sacred ibis, Humbolt’s wooly monkey, and of course, the human.

Ring-tailed lemur, Eulemur mongoz, Madagascar

A rare book that is both a complete work of art and a complete work of science, Evolution dismantles the natural history museum into its parts, revealing a stripped-down animal kingdom and the commonalities at its core.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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