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Van Gogh vs. Bichitr, Essay Example

Pages: 5

Words: 1427

Essay

Prima facie, Van Gogh’s »Bridge in Rain« and Bichitr’s »Jahangir Seated on an Allegorical Throne« are two radically opposed pieces of art. This difference is immediately clear from the perspective of the content of the respective works, a content that is closely tied to the cultural contexts in which each individual piece appears. What may be termed Van Gogh’s expressionistic naturalism dedicates itself to the immanence of the natural world, faithfully seeking to describe its contours, although from what may be termed a certain phenomenological perspective, insofar as Van Gogh is not burdened with the exactness of realism, but rather portrays nature in how it is apprehended by a particular subject. Bichtir’s work falls within a tradition of art which pays homage to the economic stratification of society, in which art is used to portray the masters of the social discourse: in this case, the king Jahangir, displayed in his monarchic majesty, surveying over the court. Hence, two dichotomous themes appear in these respective works: a radically immanent nature in the case of Van Gogh, and a transcendent almost godly entity in Bichtir, a god-like royal figure that exists, as it were, above the state of nature. Yet these differences vanish when one considers that Van Gogh’s portrayal of nature is precisely opposed to a realistic copy of the natural world: he instead imbues it with transcendent qualities, in an overpowering and omnipotent sense. In this sense, Van Gogh draws close to Bichitr. Bichitr is not committed to a realism, much like Van Gogh, but is rather intent on conveying the phenomenological and subjective experience of the transcendent figure of Jahangir. It is precisely in this commitment to an anti-realistic transcendent approach to their disparate themes that the two painters meet, despite the apparently gaping difference in the contents of these pieces.

Certainly, an overview of cultural differences between the context of Bichitr’s and Van Gogh’s respective artistic productions can enlighten the reason for such explicit differences in content. Bichitr worked during the Mogul period in India, in approximately the early seventeenth centuries, and his patrons were the dynasty of the time, and in particular, during Bichitr’s lifetime, the ruler Jahangir. The content of Bichitr’s work, and in particular, the portrayal of Jahangir, can thus be viewed as natural extensions of his material conditions of painting: living as a essentially a court painter, who found his honorarium paid for by the imperial clan that was his patron, Bichitr could not be expected to possess a large amount of freedom in terms of the thematic subjects of his works. In this regard, a painting of the emperor, one that is undoubtedly flattering in its allusions to transcendent and godly motifs, would be a lucid consequence of Bichitr’s social status and the conditions under which he produced his art. The context in which Van Gogh painted is remarkably different. Working and living some two hundred years after Bichitr, in a Europe which in the nineteenth century had already experienced the discourses of the Enlightenment and rationalism, discourses that contributed to what has been called the “disenchantment of nature”, Van Gogh occupied a world in which the transcendent qualities of the ruling class – and reality itself – were viewed as superstitious relices. Moreover, as opposed to Bichitr’s habitation of the privileged realms of society (although as a worker and artist), Van Gogh existed on the fringes of society, spending time in a mental institution before his death. The cultural contexts of the production of these two works are thus starkly opposed: Bichitr operated in the imperial court, in a greater social context that still clung to ideals of transcendence and the mystery of imperial rule, whereas Van Gogh lived in the wake of a Europe whose commitments to science had attempted to expunge any mystery of existence.

These two cultural contexts clearly inform the works produced. In the case of Van Gogh one could suggest that Van Gogh is only left to paint nature, as it is precisely European culture with its emphasis on rationality and science that has negated any belief in an other-worldly life: nature is the only legitimate subject for art, as it is the only legitimate subject for science. Bichitr’s work is untouched by the scientific dogma: it is possible to witness a divine presence on earth, a form of transcendence. Certainly, it can be argued that the reason Bichitr painted the royal figure of Jahangir in this manner was because it was, simply, his duty to his patron: nevertheless, in the work there exists these themes of transcendence. However, precisely where these two artists meet is in the almost magical way they portray their themes. Van Gogh, although confined to nature as a subject, opposes the disenchantment of nature: he seeks to develop the transcendence of immanence itself, by showing the radical beauty and mysteriousness of nature, qualities that cannot be captured by any scientific discourse. In much the same way, Bichitr also presents this transcendent element: he presents an idealized and almost fantastical approach to his subject. Although Bichitr’s subject Jahangir is very real, this does not mean that one must fall into a realism: rather, one can understand that there is something deeper to the reality that is presented before us.

Hence, Bichitr’s technique is largely mystical in content, where here mysticism means that which is not of this world. The portrayal of Jahangir seated on top of an hour glass as a throne suggest an almost surrealist motif. The angels seated below Jahangir emphasize his transcendence over the world. Bichitr is interested in presenting Jahangir in his transcendent relation to the world and the brilliant colours of the piece, which overwhelm the senses, demarcates precisely such a crossing of limits. Furthermore, the large disc behind Jahangir equates him with a deific figure. As Kleiner notes of this clear symbolism, “Bichitr portrayed his patron as an emperor above time and also placed behind Jahangir’s head a radiant halo…indicating that Jahangir is the center of the universe and its light source.” (37) Bichitr wishes to escape from realism in his painting, instead attempting to show how transcendent elements exist in the immanent world. This can easily be viewed as royalist propaganda, but this would overlook the manner in which symbolism, content and form all come together, to show a well-thought out and sincere presentation of transcendence.

Van Gogh, existing in another period, does not present transcendence in the form of anthropomorphic figures. Rather, he looks to nature for his such transcendence. Now, in the case of “Bridge in the Rain”, it is worth noting that an Asian source of work was the inspiration for the painting: in particular, Japanese prints. As Finley notes, “Van Gogh was influenced by Japanese prints. He based (Bridge in the Rain) on a wood-block print by Ando Hiroshige.” (22) Yet according to the Japanese tradition of Shintoism, a clear emphasis on the transcendent aspects of nature is made. This shows itself in Van Gogh’s piece. The human figures crossing the bridge horizontally cuts the work in two, as though the bridge itself symbolically designated the boundary between immanence and transcendence: moreover, these human figures are overwhelmed by the rain, which operates in a transcendent relationship to the immanent world. Nature remains a sublime force: its essence can never fully be contained by various forms of anthropomorphic discourse, such as those of European science. Van Gogh endeavors to show how nature shatters any such gesture of attempting to enclose and frame it: in this way, nature exists as transcendent to any discourse that is hegemonic towards it. Against a European culture that has “disenchanted” nature, Van Gogh, with his formal commitments to brilliant colors and a thematic commitment to nature’s strength, annuls the attempts at nature’s subjugation.

Accordingly, although radically different in terms of social context and the content of the pieces themselves, Van Gogh and Bichitr in these two works demonstrate a startling companionship. Whereas Bichitr concentrates on an anthropomorphic form as the subject of his painting, while Van Gogh minimizes the very effect of the anthropomorphic, transcendence is present in both works. The vivifying colors of the paintings create an animation and vitalism that opposes any type of realism; symbolically, the themes of the painting point to the images of worlds beyond the limits of human cognition. In these two works Van Gogh and Bichitr, despite their apparent contentual differences, are profound artists of the transcendent.

Works Cited

Finley, Carol. Art of Japan: Wood-Block Color Prints. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner, 1998.

Kleiner, Fred. S. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: Non-Western Perspectives, Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2010.

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