Balinese Arts: Painted Cloth and Woodcarvings by Colin McPhee
- Dates: June 1936 through August 1936
- Collections: Arts of the Pacific Islands
Summer approximately 1936: An Exhibition of Balinese Art has been installed recently in the Special Exhibition Gallery of the Brooklyn Museum where it will remain throughout the summer.
The material comes from the collection of Colin McPhee, a musician, composer and student of folk music. Mr. McPhee visited the Island of Bali in the Dutch East Indies some years ago to study the native music, He originally intended to stay two weeks, but remained however for four years, and the collection which he assembled there well illustrates Balinese music, the theatre, painting and the variety of household arts. Displayed against the colorful yellow and green background of the Brooklyn Museum’s Special Exhibition Galleries, Mr. McPhee’s collection gives a splendid cross section of the brilliant life and customs of Bali.
Among the musical instruments on exhibition are a large gong, an instrument similar to a xylophone, called a gender, and a pair of drums which the musician hangs around his neck and beats with both hands. The shadow play is one of the most popular forms of entertainment in Bali. Flat leather figures from the Shadow Theatre are exhibited in great numbers. Some depict the members of a typical Balinese orchestra. Others represent good and bad spirits whose constant warfare forms the basis of most of the plays.
Across the end of the Gallery in the Brooklyn Museum are a number of colorful wooden masks. Some were placed on straw figures ten feet high, with long dangling arms, worked by a man beneath. These figures, accompanied by masked performers, were used in ribald pantomimes performed at the time of village festivals from door to door to bring good luck to the householder.
Painting in Bali is generally done on long rolls of cotton cloth, which are hung up under the eaves of houses. They are painted in strong earth colors generally with a red predominating and the scenes show crowded figure compositions illustrating stories from the great Indigo epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata or Indonesian fertility legends. Many of these painted cloths are on view at the Brooklyn Museum, giving a complete survey of Balinese painting.
Several figures of local deities are also displayed. On certain occasions these figures were taken from their shrine and the Gods were invited to enter into them for several days. When the Gods returned to their heavens, the wooden images were replaced in their shrines.
Further religious objects are exhibited, such as incense burners, priests’ trays, and beakers for holy water. A figure called an Oekoeran is of special interest. It is made of cash, and is placed upon the body of the dead to provide a repository for his soul until the body has been cremated.
Objects for household use and decoration are also shown such as the back of a child’s cradle, rice pounder, spatulas, carved spouts for drinking bottles, lamp holders, bronze hanging lamps and bowls. Some jewelry is displayed, such as a flower headdress made of silver wire and gold and a pair of bronze bracelets. Woven textiles in various techniques are included, one a breast covering worn for ceremonial use in one of the most primitive Balinese villages.
June 16, 1936: The group of miniature paintings from India recently acquired by the Brooklyn Museum and now exhibited in the gallery reserved for new accessions has been carefully selected by the Curator of Oriental Art, Mr. Laurance P. Roberts to illustrate the methods, chief schools of painting, historical development and variety of traditional subjects in Indian painting. For comparison, Persian book illustrations recently acquired are also shown. These depict a scene from a well known XIVth Century copy of the Shah Namah, epic poem of Firdausi (the oldest print in the Oriental collection), a scene from a XVth Century copy of the Kamsah of Nizami, and an ascent of Muhammed to heaven on his human-headed horse Buraq. This XVIth Century print, an illustration from Nizami’s introduction to the Kamsah, is especially interesting on account of the curious winged figures flying against gold clouds in a blue heaven.
Similar figures appear in the large medallion of a valuable XVIth Century rug fragment shown in the same gallery with the prints. This rare specimen of early Persian weaving, formerly one of the treasures of the Yerkes Collection, which was dispersed about twenty—five years ago, has been given to the Brooklyn Museum by Mr. Herbert L. Pratt in memory of Florence Gibbs Pratt. Though the specimen is a patchwork of fragments, these are large and well preserved, embodying curious decorative motifs and giving an accurate idea of the size and beauty of craftsmanship of this fabric. Specimens of XVIth Century Persian rugs are comparatively rare. If this carpet were complete, it would be unparalleled in museum collections and of incalculable value.
The quality of design which gives life and decorative charm to the vivid Rajput paintings is partially explained by the peculiar process employed, This process is illustrated in the Brooklyn Museum collection by a number of unfinished drawings and paintings in several stages. The artist’s first free brush drawing in red or yellow pigment impressed on the painting from the first a general fluent rhythm in the design as a whole. This sketch was then covered with a thin white starch ground. A precise line drawing in black gave detail and precision to outlines, following the general pattern of the first drawing, which was visible through the ground. Larger areas of the scene were then covered with broad washes of rich color. Details of the scene were then brought out with a variety of pigments. (Ananda K, Coomara swamy, the chief American authority on this subject to whom we are indebted for the substance of these notes, lists twenty hues.) Finally the figures, left white until the last, were most carefully detailed, great attention being paid to minutiae of costume, the general character and action of the figure having been established from the first.
The schools of painting represented by the miniatures are the courtly and sophisticated Rajasthani, the Pahari or peasant art of the small hill states in the Panjab Himalayas, the Mughal showing Rajput influence, the Sikh school of portraiture and the iconography of Jainism, a religious revival of the VIth Century B.C., comparable to Buddhism in several ways and contemporary with it. Both the Jalandhar hill states east of the Ravi and the Dogra group west of the Ravi are well represented in the Pahari miniatures. Paintings of the schools of Kangra and Jamu, wealthiest and most powerful hill states of the east and west respectively, permit comparison of these different but related peasant styles. The Jamu paintings are particularly rare and have a primitive strength and decorative quality derived from the style of Rajput wall painting in fresco. The Sikh tradition is well illustrated by a portrait of Samsar Cand, Raja of Kangra and of the eleven Jalandhar hill states from 1774 to his death in 1823. Under his patronage, Kangra painting enjoyed its golden age. The Sikh influence entered Kangra through Samsar Cand’s alliance with the Sikh Ramsit Singh when the Nagur Kot, Kangra fort, was besieged by the Gurkhar in 1806-10. Mughal painting is already represented in the Hall of India by Amir Hamaz miniatures, but the new example shows a combination of Mughal manner and Rajput form and substance which is especially interesting.
Historical development in Indian miniatures is well surveyed since the new paintings range in date from the second half of the XVth Century to the beginning of the XIXth. Six are attributed to the late XVIIIth Century. The others are well distributed throughout the whole period. The chief period of early Rajput painting, the late XVIth to early XVIIth Centuries, and the period of late Rajput painting, 1750 to 1823, are both clearly represented.
A large group of Rajput paintings are illustrations of epic poetry, though Indian miniatures, unlike Persian, are not book illustrations but separate works of art. This epic group is represented in the Brooklyn Museum accessions by two scenes from the
Hamir Rath, a story of Alau’d-din’s treacherous general Mahima Sah, who flees to seek protection at Ranthanbor, the court of Hamir Deo. Incidental details of craftsmen at work and retainers combine with the elaboration of costume and architectural setting to enhance the picturesque interest of these paintings.
The Vaisnava religious revival of the XIVth Century remained dominant in Rajput poetry and painting for several centuries and led to a cult of Krishna, an avatar or reincarnation of Vishnu, ancient Hindu diety, and of Radha the herd girl. She figures as the lover of Krishna in the Ras Lila, a section of the Krishna Lila, which is the transcendental romantic epic dealing with the life and adventures of Krishna. In the Brooklyn Museum accessions a Pahari painting shows a gopa and gopi, herdsman and herd-girl, who might be identified as Nand and Yasoda, the foster parents of Krishna. Another painting depicts the chief gopi or herd-girl Radha waiting for Krishna, a scene of romantic love-longing typical of a whole group of paintings. Another shows Krishna and Radha united in amorous dalliance in a pavillion with four gopis in attendance. Another shows Radha reproaching Krishna when he returns to her in the morning after spending the night elsewhere. This picture is also typical of a large group representing the Khandita Nayaka, a type of girl lover making reproaches under these circumstances. One of the most beautiful of the miniatures on the Krishna theme is the drawing for a Ras Mandala, or round dance of the gopis with Krishna. The drawing shows Krishna dancing within a circle of dancing herd-girls. Attendant musicians play various instruments. The drawing is remarkable for sensitive rhythm and decorative precision of line. Pictures of this scene, the climax of the Ras Lila, often show a separate Krishna dancing with each herd-girl, his form having been multiplied by the magic of Yoga to satisfy their love of him, which is a divine rather than earthly passion. A final painting shows Balarama, Krishna’s elder brother and devoted companion at arms in the latter and more epic portion of the Krishna Lila. Balarama has been sent by Krishna to console the gopis of Brndaban for Krishna’s absence. He amuses himself by changing the course of the Jamna River, making a furrow with his plow, because the river refused to come at his call when he wished to bathe.
A different romantic poem is illustrated by a scene from the story of Nala and Damayanti, showing the lover and beloved embracing in a pavillion and attended by girl servants. The subject is comparable to many of the illustrations of the loves of Krishna and Radha, and is a typical subject in paintings not related to any story but designed to embody one of the classic themes of poetry and music.
Groups of paintings illustrating the themes or modes of Hindu poetry and music are called Ragmala, that is to say, collections of Ragas, major themes, and Raginis, related themes. In music each Rags consists of a definite group of tones, characterized by a formal, sequence or progression and by frequent returns to a dominant note. Many different tunes or melodies can be composed in a given Raga. Thirty—six of these classic Ragas are distinguished, each with corresponding Raginis. Each Raga or Ragini is definitely related to some well-recognized poetic and pictorial theme. Each is appropriate to a special season, time of day, condition of weather, scene, dramatic situation, etc. Thus it is possible to compose a group of 36 melodies, 36 poems, or 36 pictures, as a cycle or Ragmala. Pictures of this, type are ordinarily accompanied by poems interpretive of the same mood.
These paintings generally illustrate aspects of love, which have been formally classified by Hindu rhetoricians. Thus in the Brooklyn Museum accessions a Belaval Ragini painting shows a girl lover with attendants and musicians. Another shows a princess seated on a terrace with three female attendants. These may be identified as representing the Vasakasayya Nayaka, or heroine who prepares for the return of her beloved. Another shows the Prosita-patika Nayaka, the heroine who is grief-stricken because her lover has not returned. A very poetical though unfinished painting shows the Utica Nayaka, the girl in despair who has been disappointed at a woodland tryst which her lover has failed to keep.
The portrait of the Raja Samsar Cand of Kangra, showing the Sikh influence, represents this patron of Pahari art seated and smoking a water pipe. A servant stands behind him waving a fan or fly-whisk of white feathers, and an officer stands before him as if making some report. The painting is delicate but precise in line and is given some emphasis by touches of vermillion which bring out the Raja’s turban, chair and stool.
The Jain miniatures represent the Mahavira, the leader of this from the Life of Kalaka, one of [line cutoff in scanning] were in the XIVth Century painted on palm leaves necessarily restricted in size and form to a rectangle about 4 by 8 inches in size. When paper came into use in the XVth and XVIth Centuries, this size and form were preserved. The separate leaves are largely covered by a handsome text in black letters rubricated and heightened with gold. The included miniatures are very small, simple in outline and detail, restricted to a few colors, but the more decorative on that account. They hove a stiff archaic look, vaguely suggestive of the styles of ancient Egyptian and Aegean painting. With the face shown in profile, the farther eye, instead of being hidden, is represented as protruding in front of the eyesocket, a curious and grotesque effect, probably derived from Jain sculpture in which eyes are protuberent. Excellent examples of Jain sculpture are to be found in the Hall of India.
In addition to the Indian prints which comprise in a selected group of examples such a remarkable survey of Indian painting, and the Persian prints and textile, the display of recent accessions to the Oriental Department of the Brooklyn Museum also includes a group of Chien bowls of a brown stone—ware characterized by delicacy and fineness of form. These come from a kiln site near Shui Chi in north Fukien province, China, and are of the Sung period (960-1280 A.D.). The site was discovered by James Marshall Plummer in 1935. The bowls are the gift of Mr. John S. Jenks. Examples of Kuan ware and of Yueh ware, both Sung Dynasty, are also shown for comparison.
This exhibition is now open to the public and will run through July 12.
The Exhibition of the Arts of Bali scheduled to open June 19 will open June 26 to run through the summer.
The Exhibition of Work done by Pupils of the Brooklyn Museum if the Art Teaching Project will open June 19 to run through July 5.
Brooklyn Museum Archives. Records of the Department of Public Information. Press releases, 1931 - 1936. 04-06_1936, 075-9. View Original 1 . View Original 2 . View Original 3 . View Original 4 . View Original 5