Bernard Picart's prints
Lost in translation
by Laura Bien
In the film Lost in Translation, Bill Murray plays a washed-up actor hawking whiskey for Tokyo TV. Hoping to jazz up a photo shoot, the photographer asks, "You know the Rat Pack?" Murray hilariously channels those performers with an irony that dryly skewers the photographer's notion that the Rat Pack represents American cool. Murray and his almost-sweetheart are also culturally challenged, drifting through Tokyo without understanding the city, but in the process creating a haunting, beautiful tale.
Squirreled in the U-M Museum of Art basement is another example of beauty created from missed connections. A series of around thirty exquisitely rendered early-eighteenth-century engravings by French artist Bernard Picart reveals a fantastical vision of India.
Picart took it on himself to illustrate a
giant nine-volume 1723 encyclopedia of world religions a hit in its day and still in print and the UMMA exhibit shows what he made of Hinduism. Picart never traveled to India, but he pored over what few travel books were available and examined a few Indian miniature paintings he dug up. The resulting illustrations depict a vivid, screwy view of Hinduism as seen from afar in the relatively vaster, more mysterious world of the eighteenth century. The artworks reveal a surreal visual anthropology, with the evidently spotty travelogue information lavishly filled in by Picart's imagination.
One scene of a languid version of the Hindu god Ganesh (above) shows the god's four arms fused at the elbow instead of properly attached at the shoulder. Probably because of a blip in Picart's written sources, bizarre-looking multiple forearms appear in other works too, weird arm-flowers resembling a cross between windmills and a juggling manual.
A raunchier picture of Ganesh shows him with incongruous woolly satyr's goat legs, holding out his arms in a cocky "check me out" attitude. Picart's wide if misleading influence may be seen in one of the exhibit's several copies of his work by other artists; in this case, an English engraver
woodenly imitated Picart's vibrant Ganesh scene but puritanically erased the naughty bits.
The same censorious primness is seen in another English copy minus several juicy details of my favorite Picart work, which depicts a dreamlike forest full of mystical wild men practicing odd rites. The work seems to be the product of an attentive, engaged anthropologist, whose attitude absorbs the viewer as well. In the fakirs' midst, tucked in a small temple under an ancient tree, a massive, serene god's face gazes dreamily into the infinite.
India Viewed from Afar: The Fantastical Engravings of Bernard Picart is on display through March 14. After examining the works, a museum visitor may compare Picart's beautiful monsters concocted from garbled sources with the real thing, in the second-floor show of Indian art on display through February 22.
[Originally published in February, 2004.]