(This review like many others of my reviews for The Oxford Times was syndicated by Newsquest )
Hurry to the Ashmolean and immerse yourself in sub-continental sun-kissed colour. The museum’s latest exhibition Visions of Mughal India comprises 115 paintings collected by the artist Howard Hodgkin and on display together for the first time. Andrew Topsfield, The Keeper of Eastern Art at the Ashmolean said,
“It has been a pleasure arranging it with Howard, who found it a moving experience.”
We have Wilfred Blunt, brother of Anthony Blunt (the art historian exposed as a Soviet spy) to thank for the pleasure. Wilfred who taught Hodgkin at Eton, introduced him to Mughal painting encouraging him to buy his first example while still at school. The artist’s first visit to India was made, in 1964.
Andrew Topsfield was unusual in taking a gap year to India, in 1973. It was the beginning of a lifetime studying eastern art and architecture. So it is not surprising that he has curated this exhibition, on show at the museum until April 22.
The collection has examples of most of the Indian Court styles that flourished during the Mughal period (c1560- 1858). Many of Hodgkin’s pictures belong to the period of the Emperor Akbar (1556-1605.) Akbar was the most unusual of the Mughal rulers in that he showed interest in the Indian religions as well as in Islam – his mother was a Hindu princess. There is more freedom and energy in the early pictures. The first exhibit Mihrdukta aims her arrow at the ring recalls Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar’s new capital. Number 110 – the hunting scene – Rawat Gokul Das at the Singh Sagar (1806) reveals a changed society – Indian women who, before the Mughal invasion, had freely mixed in society and at court had been driven into seclusion. But the collection is not inspired by content.
“It is the collection of an artist,” said Andrew.
“These pictures have been chosen because I thought they were beautiful, because they touched my emotions and not for scholarly purposes.” said Hodgkin.
The Ashmolean gave us a foretaste of this exhibition with a display of elephant pictures to coincide with the retrospective show of Hodgkin’s work at Modern Art Oxford, in 2010. Andrew says they are the artist’s favourites. Elephants Fighting (1655-60), from Kota in Rajastan, is stunning both in its execution and its spirit.
I think every visitor will have a favourite. I asked Andrew for his highlight. His was from the Bijapur kingdom, a district linked to but not ruled directly by the Mughal emperor. Sultan Muhammed Adil Shah and Ikhlas Khan riding an elephant. Surprisingly, the minister is African.
Howard Hodgkin describes drawing as the most naked of visual arts and some are included in this exhibition. Of the later paintings, I rather enjoyed Brahma, creator of the universe (1720). Despite his 4 heads he looks very human. I wondered if Picasso ever saw it? Although not chosen for their content- the depiction of street life, court life and weddings are fascinating.
The colour in these exquisite paintings is enhanced by the display. The background colour was chosen in consultation with the artist so unsurprisingly it is perfect. What a difference the new exhibition rooms make!
Admission to the museum is free but there is a small charge to see the exhibition: £6/£4 concession. There is a programme of events, lectures and family friendly activities associated with this show. For more information go to www.asholean.org/events