Picture Perfect

4 June, 2010

Simon of Stuck in a Book has posted a meme asking us booklover’s to choose a picture or painting that encapsulates our reading taste (you can find a list of what other bloggers chose here). I spent a whole week thinking hard about this and was on the verge of posting an image of the Vitruvian Man but stumbled upon this picture I’d taken last year. Can you guess what it is?

If you have been to the British Museum lately, you will realise that it is part of the roof of the Great Court surrounding the Reading Room where Karl Marx once did his research for Das Kapital. The vast space was used to store all the books until the British Library moved to its new, modern location at St. Pancras. I was lucky enough to do some research at the library as a student just before the big move and loved everything about it, from the worn leather seats to the wooden desks, the deep hush that you can only experience in a library and the antiquated book ordering system.

I love this picture because the British Museum and Library symbolises the arts, the sciences, books and a love of reading and learning. My taste is varied and is a little like an alchemical lab: I like to mix genres and historical periods, the arts and the sciences. Everything is a mystery and I want to know it all. I like that the picture is slightly shady because I’m also drawn to the dark side of life: murder, secrets, the supernatural and the fantastic.

And to clinch it, it is located in the heart of Bloomsbury and as you probably know, I have a weakness for all things literary.

Death of Vali

A few months ago I caught sight of a dazzling poster in the tube station which stopped me in my tracks. It had loads of elephants running around in luscious green countryside flanked with wild, exotic plants and splashed with monsoon rain. I love elephants, they are my favourite animals. Big, gentle and with loooong memories. I’m always amazed when I see programmes about them returning to their elephant graveyard when they’ve never been before. Some kind of primordial collective memory lodged within their DNA…who knows?

So, it turns out the poster was for an exhibition at the British Museum of paintings from the palaces of Jodhpur which have never been seen abroad. I confess I’ve never been an afficionado of Indian art, although I’ve been to several exhibitions at the British Museum and the V&A over the years and am familiar with the Indian artistic style. But the image in the poster (see above) wouldn’t leave my mind, so I dragged my family to see it.

And it was just gorgeous. The artistic sensibility, style and fresh colours used were so different to what I’ve always assumed was Indian art (but then India is a nation with a vast history and many different artistic traditions so I shouldn’t really have been surprised). What really struck us was the similarities in composition and aesthetic to Japanese prints and paintings, especially ukiyo-e and nihonga. You would never think to compare the two culturally and aesthetically diverse countries. India always seems so vibrant, noisy and colourful whereas Japan sits back in quiet contemplation with sombre and mute colours. A step back as opposed to India’s rushing forward. But every single picture resonated with similarities, for example the way the waves in the Indian Ocean was represented was exactly like the stylized patterns often used in kimonos and chiyogami. It was unbelievable and made me feel that art and beauty truly is universal.

Chiyogami Red

The exhibition has been extended to 11 October 2009 so you have no excuse to miss it. Go and see it now!