Sculpture and Drawings, 1982-88
introduced by Tessa Jackson
and essay by Paul Moorehouse,
University of Strathclyde, Glasgow(24 pages)
Discussions for this
exhibition coincided with rumours that Dhruva Mistry might be commissioned
to make a large scale work at Glasgow's Garden Festival. The exhibition
now opens as the 1988 National event closes. During the period of' concurrent
activity the 15 foot long Reclining Woman has been constructed and sited.
More recently, she has been admired and questioned. This exhibition will
provide no answers but will present a context and a wider vocabulary with
which to view the artist's work.
The art of Dhruva Mistry stands at the confluence of a number of different cultural traditions. One major tributary of inspiration is his own national heritage. Mistry was born in 1957 in Kanjari in India and many of the subjects and stylistic elements which characterise his work notably the bull and the large rounded breasts of the woman are derived from Indian religion and art. On a technical level, aspects of Mistry's engagement with his materials recall methods employed by Indian craftsmen two thousand years ago. The Reguarding Guardians, 1985 (pages 12-13), for example, were created in plaster which, when dry, was painted or embellished with decoration. In the same way, mural decoration in Indian temples and palaces involved the application of paint in layers, from under-painting to local colour, onto dry plaster. Even the conceptual basis of Mistry's work is rooted in India's past. The following description refers to artistic practices in India from around 300-600 A.D. but it serves equally well as an explanation of the fantastic creatures which Mistry began to make from 1983 onwards:
Although Mistry's art partakes of a tradition of Indian craftsmanship, it is not simply a continuation of it. The Indian craftsman invents rather than imitates nature but his mental imagery, whether it reflects the material world or re-combines its contstituent elements, is derived from experience. Like his artistic forebears, Mistry's art manifests an "inner vision".
In Mistry's case,
however, the empirical base for this has been expanded beyond those areas
of' life and learning which inspired his predecessors. Firstly, it encompasses
his position as an artist working within a specifically Western and 'modern"
context and secondly, it embraces his knowledge of the art of other ancient
civilisations. Twentieth century Western art and Ancient art, most notably
that of Egypt, thus form the other streams of influence which feed into
Mistry's earliest works, created while he was a student at the University of Baroda between 1974 and 1981, already demonstrate a tendency towards eclecticism in the sources of his imagery. Man on a Chair, 1978 and Man on a Cube, 1979, both relate to the sculptural tradition of seated figures which reaches back to both Ancient Greece and the Egypt of the Pharaohs. At the same time, these figures have a nightmare quality, alien to their antecedents, which makes them unmistakable products of art of' this century. Man on a Chair is devoid of eyes, ears, nose and mouth.
Before leaving India
for Britain in 1981, Mistry completed a series of four life-size figures:
Walking Man, Kneeling Man, Man with Dog and Sitting Man. These are transitional
works in Mistry's oeuvre. In these pieces Mistry gravitates away from
the psychological intensity of Man on a Cube and Man on a Chair. He concentrates
on the problem of depicting the human form: the figures are bald headed
and naked, their poses and gestures simplified and understated. This austerity,
though producing figures of great physical presence, contrasts greatly
with the voluptuousness of form and richness of surface which typifies
his later work. In one way it reflects Mistry's aim to reduce the problem
to its essential components - anatomy, gesture, stance - in order to confront
it at a fundamental level. In another way this austerity reflects a synthesis
of various cultural influences. Of these perhaps the Indian influence
is the most potent. The nudity of the figures and their impassive facial
expressions relate to the Indian Ascetic, an archetypal figure. Their
frontal poses also demonstrate a central characteristic of Indian temple
sculpture. There are, however, further resonances. Walking Man, striding
forward with his arms held close to his sides and slightly bent at the
elbows, is reminiscent of one of the earliest types of Greek sculpture,
the Kouros or walking youth of the period c.660-580 B.C. In turn this
figure derives from dn even older tradition the funcrar-y sculpture of
Egyptian tombs, which depicts the deceased standing, sitting or kneeling.
That Mistry replicates each of these positions is an allusion to this
tradition. A more recent influence is evident in the way the figures are
modelled. Although the surfaces are covered in a non-naturalistic network
of abraded lines, the figures are nevertheless rigorous in their anatomical
detail. This, together with Mistry's use of fiberglass as a casting material
reflects the influence of sculptor John Davies, whom Mistry met in India.
The works which Mistry
has produced since 1983 have demonstrated a growing confidence in the
deployment of his source material and also a sense of increasing freedom
to take liberties with it. Woman, (Collection of the Royal College of
Art, London) 1983, for instance, is both playful and ambiguous. In essence,
the image is derived from a Yakshi. These were female forms, common to
both Buddhist and Hindu art, decorating the gateways to memorial mounds
of earth known as Stupas. They controlled all processes of growth and,
in particular, human fertility. This latter quality is suggested in Mistry's
work by the opulent breasts and hips, the explicit depiction of the lips
of her sex and her red colour, symbolising passion. At the same time,
the pose of Woman and the fixedness of her gaze are strongly reminiscent
of an icon of Western Art denoting provocative sexuality: Manet's Olympia.
Between these extremes, the meaning of her upraised palm oscillates in
a tantalising way. In one way, she dispenses reassurance; in another she
steed of an Islamic
prophet. Little Bird places a female head on the shoulders of a bird of
prey. Models for this combination of human and bird forms may also be
found in the British Museum in the frieze decoration of late Corinthian
pottery; the form of the bird's body is based on a sculpture in the Egyptian
collection: the Falcon for Rameses II.
The four Reguarding
Guardians are mythological creatures. They draw their inspiration, primarily,
from the Vedas, a religious treatise of Aryan origin which contains the
sacrificial hymns to their gods whom they regarded as Guardians of the
natural world. The main deities were Indra, the thunder god; Agni, the
fire god; Varuna, the god of the sky and regulator of the universe, and
Suma, the god of creation and the life-giving fluid drunk by all the deities.
Although Mistry's Guardians refer to Aryan deities, they also depend on
other sources for their representation.
All the Guardians
have human heads and animals bodies which are winged. This image is also
inspired by ancient Assyrian art, which Mistry was able to study at the
British Museum. The Assyrians decorated their palace entrances with monumental
guardians of the gateway in the form of enormous winged bulls with human
faces. Again, however, there is an indirect link with Egyptian art because
the concept of a fantastic creature combining human and animal attributes
probably derived originally from the Egyptian sphinx. In the first pair
of Guardians, the bull's attributes are extended to the human heads which
have horns. This image is derived from the Minotaur legend of ancient
Crete and Picasso's modern recreation of the myth in the Vollard suite
In addition to making
sculpture in the round, Mistry has turned, more recently, to making reliefs.
In 1986 he produced the series of 27 reliefs in plaster entitled Sativa,
Rajas, Tamas which means Light, Passion, Darkness (page widening artistic
awareness. They often suggest works of the early Renaissance in their
treatment of space and use of perspective. At times the nature of the
draughtsmanship and the themes explored the artist and model, the
nude, and the Minotaur demonstrate the influence of Picasso.
The Maya Medallions,
which Mistry made in 1987, consist of two complementary series of roundels,
cast in plaster and stone, entitled Maya Medallions, The Involuntary Creation
(page 16) Maya Medallion: The Dark One. Mistry's treatment of the female
form once again refers to both classical Indian sculpture in its
voluptuousness and to European painting, the poses recalling Giorgione
and again Manet. On a technical level, however, Mistry's description of
form in one of the series is completely innovatory. In Maya Medallion:
The Dark One, the images are expressed as concavities. This creates the
illusion of three- dimensional forms which change in relation to the observer's
viewpoint, an effect to which the title alludes "Maya"
in Indian means "dream" or "illusion".
An underlying paradox of Mistry's art is that the sources of his imagery, particularly since 1981, are both universal and yet essentially Indian. This is because although Mistry constantly refers to other traditions, only images deriving from his own culture are present in every work, to a greater or lesser degree. Occasionally, as in Sitting Bull which he made for the Liverpool Garden Festival in 1984, and more recently, White Elephant, 1987 (page 17) the images are specifically Indian. This sense of cultural identity both unifies his work and invests it with individual character. Furthermore it lends it an internal continuity which, in being fed by the art of other cultures, accounts for the broadening and deepening of his art as it proceeds.