I’ve long been a fan of Unphotographable, a website run by a photographer who is keenly interested in tableaus that defy photography. The inquiry is a worthy one. I find photography interesting and beautiful in its own right, but admit that one of the conceptions about photography–that it can capture history reliably–troubles me. Its prone to manipulation, to easy consumption, to reductionist thinking. Just my $.02.
So this review of an exhibit of Indian Art (Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India, 1100–1900) at the NY Met is interesting to me–I wish I could be there, to join the #occupywallstreet events and see the show, both. The review by Blake Gopnik puts forth an interesting insight about the sheer quantity of detail:
Rather than… one single narrative moment…the painting is not so much about a coherent space that frames a central event, as Western pictures have been since the Renaissance, as about a surface with details crawling across it.
These paintings need to be read the way a text comes at you… This stress on raw content over aesthetic packaging is a very un-Western, unmodern, even unartistic way of looking at pictures. But I think it’s the looking these pictures demand. They ask you to scan them with your nose almost up against them, sniffing out one juicy detail after another, rather than at an aestheticized, disinterested, art-critical remove.
The world in this style of painting is a sort of unphotographable moment. Not exactly as Michael David Murphy would have it on his blog, but unphotographable nevertheless, because the painting attempts to create a world of understanding, one that didn’t really exist in the photographable world, but existed in the minds of those at the Moghul Court: grandeur, story, wealth, ease and comfort. The level of detail itself tells a story, a sweeping illustration of an entire world, backstory and foreground, all of it rendered in breathtaking detail.
We had a show here in Seattle of Indian Art spanning several centuries. Garden and Cosmos exhibited a couple years back, and I’ve noted that friends of mine still reference it as an amazing show–the detail, the beauty, the materials used to create another world. It seizes the imagination in nearly every way.
More Renaissance than modern, for sure. And as Gopnik suggests, that level of stunning detail, opulence, ended around 1850 when the camera began chronicling the world. It’s interesting to consider how works of such opulence transport the viewer–not conceptually, like a photograph would, but imaginatively. The works were far removed from a photographable reality, and I find that particular struggle–the imagined story over the photographable one–very engaging.