Artists: Notes on Art Making

A paper, entitled "The influence of Greek on Indian Art," read by Dr. A. K. Coomaraswamy at the 15th Session of the International Congress of Orientalists, held in Copenhagen last August, will be of great interest to students of Indian art, as it is the first attempt yet made by an Indian scholar to dispute the views of European archaeologists as to the extent and significance of Hellenic influence on Indian art.

Dr. Coomaraswamy said that, when, in the study of Sinhalese decorative art, he first met with certain peculiar types of ornament, forcibly recalling early Mediterranean forms, he had assumed the common view as to the extent, permanence and importance of the influence of Greek on Indian art, and endeavoured to explain the presence of these decorative forms in Ceylon on those lines. At that time he accepted such statements as those of Grunwedel [1] that the ideal type of Buddha was created for India by foreigners. He had also assumed that decorative forms such as the continuous branch, palmette, honeysuckle, etc., being known in the Mediterranean area long before their earliest occurrence in India, must have originated where they were first found, and travelled thence to India.

He had since seen reason to doubt the somewhat simple solutions of the difficulties thus provided, and to believe that the influence of Greek on Indian art, however extensive at a certain period, was ultimately neither very profound nor very important. It was the concentration of attention upon the effeminate and artistically unimportant work of the Gandhara School that had given undue prominence to the Greek influence. A certain prejudice had led European investigators to think of Classic Greece naturally as the source of all art, and to suppose that the influence of Classic Art must have been as permanently important in the East as in the West. At the same time, it was not generally realised by Western scholars, who were often not artists, that Eastern Art, whether Indian, or Chinese, had a value and significance not less than that of the Western Art of any time. Indian art so far had been studied only by archaeologists, but it was not archaeologists, but artists or students of art rather than of archaeology, who were best qualified to judge of the significance of works of art, considered as art and to unravel the influences apparent in them. No artist familiar with the true genius of Indian art could suppose that the work of the Gandhara school was the real foundation of Indian figure sculpture, or that for Hellenic types in Asiatic art, they would look nearer home and consider the vastly more numerous evidences of Asiatic craftsmanship which abound in European art. We should then probably, gain a much clearer insight into the history of the arts of medieval Europe than we have at present.

Mr. Havell considered it a great artistic error to place the zenith of Indian sculpture at the third century A.D., as both Fergusson and Professor Grunwedel had done. This estimate would make the Amaravati sculptures the greatest achievement of Indian art, and place Indian sculpture at a decidedly low level compared with the masterpieces of Europe. But in his opinion the Amaravati sculptures, though often much superior to Gandharan art, were yet far below the best sculptures of Elephanta and Ellora, which archaeologists attributed to the eighth century A.D. Certainly they were far inferior to the splendid Buddhist and Hindu sculpture of Borobudur in Java, which is true Indian art of a much later date than Amaravati. At Amaravati, moreover, the true Indian ideal is not yet perfected: it is still in process of evolution. The Hellenic influence, such as it is, is more pronounced than in any other great group of Indian sculptures, but, it is certainly not the dominant note, even at Amaravati.

The key to the understanding of the Indian artistic ideal was not to be found in the investigation of Hellenic influence. Indian artists were never so impressed, as Europeans are, by the superiority of the Hellenic ideal as to wish to imitate it. On the contrary, whenever Greco-Roman, or other foreign craftsmen, came their way, Indians made use of them only to convert the Hellenic ideal into one which Indian philosophy created for them--that ideal of a body purer and finer than common mortal clay, freed from worldly passions and desires.

There was one point in Dr. Coomaraswamy's excellent paper to which Mr Havell said he would take exception. Dr. Coomaraswamy spoke of the idealisation of tree and plant forms at Barahat. Mr Havell could not see in Asokan sculpture any traces of true Indian idealism, which was absolutely different from the idealism of Greek art. He would describe the sculpture of Barahat and also that of Sanchi as belonging to the early naturalistic school of Indian art. What Dr. Coomaraswamy called the idealisation of the trees at Barahat he would rather describe as a generalisation or conventionalism of form, dictated as much by technical considerations as by a desire to idealise. That was not specially characteristic of Indian art. Indian idealism in sculpture and painting belonged to a much later period. He could not see any distinct evidence of it before the first century of the Christian era, or about the time when the Mahayana doctrine of Buddhism began to prevail in the philosophical schools of Northern India.

He would not pretend to be able to weigh the literary evidence bearing on the history of Indian art. As an artist he preferred to let art speak for itself. But of this he felt sure that when the great works of Indian art were better known and under-stood artistic opinion in Europe would place a far higher value upon the achievements of Indian sculptors and painters than that which is now put upon them by archaeologists. To him the study of Indian sculpture and painting had been an opening into a new world of artistic thought full of a most wonderful charm. Indian sculpture had reached to higher imaginative flights than any other in the world.

Artists in Europe had now few opportunities of realising this, for there did not yet exist in Europe or in Asia a single Museum in which the great masterpieces of Indian art were at all adequately represented. Perhaps not until some enthusiastic art lover, like Her Jacobsen, whose splendid galleries the members of the Congress had seen in Copenhagen, came forward to endow the study of Oriental art in the same munificent manner would Europe realise the greatness of Indian, art, or what European art owed to Oriental artists and craftsmen.

E. B. H.

Published in The Modern Review, October 1908

Notes

[1] Buddhist Art in India, p. 68
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