Indian Court Painting and an Eclipse

Morgan Meis is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York.

Morgan Meis at Slant Books: I happened to be in New York City a few weeks ago. It was during the weekend of the eclipse. It was the day of the eclipse, actually, that I ended up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was many years since I’d been in the museum. I’d taken a bus from my sister’s apartment in Harlem and gotten off a few stops early and walked down through the edge of Central Park. The park was starting to fill up with eclipse watchers. There was a tension in the air. Hard to describe precisely. People were going about their daily affairs. And yet, there was a sense of anticipation mixed with, I don’t know, not fear exactly.

Also, there had been an earthquake in the city a couple days earlier. The city rumbled for some seconds with a power that was coming from the low and deep places. You could feel that. The earthquake heightened the anticipation for the eclipse. But still a muted sense of anticipation. Perhaps it was the mood of people who aren’t sure exactly what they are waiting for and don’t want to seem too much like they care because they are not even completely sure that they care. A woman was sitting on a bench. Her hair was in a tight bun and she was wearing an expensive sweater. Her children were playing on some rocks. She watched her children, but she kept glancing up at the sky every few seconds. Her face was a mix of wanting something and not wanting to look like one wants something and not being sure what one wants anyway. That mood is always, to some degree, floating on the wind of New York City. I found out that it floats even heavier when an eclipse is nigh.

I was meeting my mother at the museum. My mother is both a great lover of art and completely unpretentious about it. Often, she simply stands in front of objects of art and smiles. We found ourselves in an exhibit entitled Indian Skies: The Howard Hodgkin Collection of Indian Court Painting. We were both suddenly astonished. I don’t know why exactly. I do know why un-exactly. The paintings are extraordinary. But what does that mean? I don’t know. I don’t know anything about Indian Court paintings. I’ve seen a few here and there, including some in India. But I don’t know how to look at them. I don’t know the history or the context or the way that these paintings fit into a narrative. I don’t know the codes. So I just looked, without context, without codes.

I was taken with the sense of space in those pictures. And color. Flattened colors for the most part: many ochres and yellows and light greens in the background. The color had the effect of also flattening out the space in which the painted scenes floated. There were quite a few pictures of elephants. Elephants in groups or alone, engaged in royal hunts or festooned for some kind of ceremonial purpose. Elephants in scenes that may have been mythological and elephants in scenes that may have been historical. All of them floating in a space with that muted but still somehow intensely powerful color in the background. The spatial arrangement of the scenes always somehow deeply disorienting. In one picture, an elephant seemed to be walking directly up the light blue background as if ascending into the sky…

More here.