Cosmology to Cartography

Cosmology to Cartography: An epic journey from mythological visions of the universe, pilgrimage and religious depictions, to the accurate scientific representation of modern India. Exhibition was held at the National Museum of New Delhi, in 2015.
Culled from the museum's collection and Hyderabad's Kalakriti Archives, these beautiful sacred maps illustrate everything from Hindu cosmological beliefs to colonial maps of the subcontinent and blueprints for our early cityscapes. 

Map of the Jambudvipa, from the Ain-e-Akbari, depicting the seven-layered universe

The evolution of maps can be traced from cosmological representation of the ‘World of Mortals’ to pictographic depictions of ritual landscapes, to the growth of scientific cartography.
Amongst the earliest portable maps in the Indian subcontinent are those based on Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religious texts and related tracts. These were in active circulation from the early medieval period, usually painted on cloth, and are abstract representations of the various aspects of the Hindu cosmos. The purpose of these cosmological maps is to demarcate the religious and phenomenal world, the world of the gods, humans and demons, space-time and, above all, the attributes of an ordered universe.

The four paintings above are fine examples of adhaidvipa patas ranging from the 15th to the 19th centuries.The first example, dating from the 15th Century, is comparable to Jain manuscripts of the period, most significantly the Kalpa Sutra. The outer ridge of mountains is less defined compared to later examples is characteristic of the early period.The second example, dating from the early 17th century is rich in detail and draws in scale and format from its earlier predecessor, however, shows firmer geometry and a stronger representation of the outer mountain range. This sensibility of formalization is taken forward through the mid and late 17th century as is evident from the third painting.The fourth example, dating from the mid18th century is a fine example of the stylization and incorporation additional embellishments – in this instance the strong circle of mountains, trees, banners and larger shrines located in the outer rim – characteristic of this period where such paintings clearly become more decorative.

This pilgrimage route map depicts “the river Ganga and one of its chief headwaters, the Alaknanda, as seen by the devout pilgrim making a pilgrimage from Haridwar where the Ganga debouches into the plain, as far as the shrine at Badrinath in the Garhwal Himalayas. It is read from left to right.

This pichhvai simhasan (or throne cloth) depicts the Shrinathji temple complex at Nathdwara, Rajasthan. Composed from a series of courtyards (including various shrines, palaces and service rooms) within a bastioned boundary wall and with one main gate at the heart of the town, the complex follows the architectural tradition of a large Rajasthani mansion or haveli, rather than a traditional North Indian Hindu temple. It is hence often referred to as the Nathdwara Haveli by devotees.

The cosmic man is a popular theme in late Jain painting although its origins are evident from the fourteenth century.
This example is a striking and beautiful painting, characteristic of the north Rajasthan region centred around Bikaner state, and is possibly a late 19th Century rendition of an earlier 17th Century version. The cosmological scheme of the adhaidvipa – world of the mortals – is ‘superimposed on the human body in an attempt to homologize the microcosm with the microcosm.

The human body symbolism is sub-divided into the adhaloka (lower world), madhyaloka (middle world), and, urdhvaloka (upper world) each of which is represented differently. The depiction overall is thus acts as cosmic representation - both a picture for the worship of the mandala of the world of the mortals and the enormous body form of Lord Mahavira – the twenty forth Jina, which also embodies the three worlds.
The evil lower world is represented by seven horizontal registers of various colors depicting various carnal acts. The middle world, with the point of origin at Mount Meru and the concentric world of mortals, incorporating all humanity, flora and fauna, is placed over the navel of the cosmic man; the origin myths of man and universe being aligned very literally.
The upper world of the gods, in its orderly formulation of courtly tiers, is located on the torso of the cosmic man.
The iconography, stylization and chromatic palette of this painting draws from illustrations in contemporaneous manuscripts such as the Samgrahanisutra.

Early Encounters
This section showcases "maps that represent Europeans' attempts to comprehend the geography of India. While all of these works were drafted by non-Indians and printed in Europe, the picture is more nuanced than it may initially appear, as much of the information they present was gained from Indian sources. 

The first basically accurate map of northern India, by the English adventurer William Baffin, based on geographic intelligence obtained at the court of Emperor Jahangir. This revolutionary map embraces the entire Mughal Empire and extends from Afghanistan and Kashmir in the north, down south to the middle of the Deccan, and from the mouths of the Indus in the west, to Burma in the east.

Linschoten’s map of India and the Middle East was at the heart of history’s most consequential case of corporate espionage, which saw the fall of Portuguese hegemony in India and the arrival of other European powers on the subcontinent. It embraces all of India, the Middle East and the northern Indian Ocean. Its coverage extends from Cyprus in the west, over to Burma in the east, and from the Caspian Sea in the north, down to the Maldives in the south. 

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Hilma af Klint - A Pioneer of Abstraction

Wassily Kandinsky is generally regarded as the pioneer of abstract art. However, a Swedish woman called Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) might claim that title.
When Wassily Kandinsky wrote to his New York gallerist Jerome Neumann in December 1935, he was clearly anxious to reassure him once again that he had painted his first abstract picture in 1911: ‘Indeed, it’s the world’s first ever abstract picture, because back then not one single painter was painting in an abstract style. A “historic painting”, in other words.’ Sadly, this historic painting was thought lost. The artist neglected to take it with him when he left Russia in 1921 for Germany, before later moving to France. He knew the art world was engaged in a contest. To be acknowledged as having produced the first abstract painting had become a highly coveted prize. Which modern artist could claim that prize was still being fought over.
What Kandinsky did not know is that a Swedish painter by the name of Hilma af Klint had created her first abstract painting in her Stockholm studio in 1906, five years before him. What’s more, she had taken the same path towards abstraction. Without knowing of each other’s existence, the two artists seem to have travelled for a long way like two trains on the same tracks. Klint arrived before Kandinsky.
The history of the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) is fascinating and unknown to most. It is a story of a female artist on the edge of the establishment – like the subjects of the earlier exhibits Women of the Avant-garde in 2012 and Yoko Ono in 2013 – and thus far she has not attracted much attention in art history. 
Her extensive work was created in a spiritual space of mysticism and other parapsychology movements – similar to what happened with Kandinsky around 1900. Hilma af Klint links inner experience and symbolism together in innovative and pioneering abstract paintings that were never shown publicly in her lifetime, when she exhibited only her figurative images.
Klint was educated at the Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm (1882-87), specializing in naturalistic landscape and portrait painting. In 1906, at the age of 44, she began to paint abstract and symbolic images, and between the years 1906 and 1915 she created her magnum opus, Paintings for the Temple, consisting of 193 paintings in various series and groups. Collectively they are about conveying the idea that everything beyond the visible world is connected. She began early on to take an interest in the unseen aspects of reality as well, and beginning in 1896 she participated in weekly meetings of a group of women artists called “The Five” with the objective of expanding their spiritual consciousness.

 A fundamental notion for many artists in the 1900s was that art should broaden our sense of reality. Painting was the means by which Hilma af Klint sought insight into a greater context behind the visible world. An interest in the occult and the spiritual was in vogue at the time, but af Klint kept this side of her artistic pursuits hidden from the rest of the world. HOK is pleased to now be raising awareness of these unique works and to contribute to bringing a bit of art history up to date”, concludes Milena Hoegsberg.

A number of Hilma af Klint’s abstract works are structured in series, with dimensions measuring several meters in height and width. It took as many as four men to hang each painting on the wall. In the enormous works that depict the stages of life from birth to death, geometric forms and symbols are combined with the ornamental.

Ed van der Elsken

Ed van der Elsken (1925, Amsterdam -1990, Edam NL), was one of the Netherland’s greatest and most influential photographer and filmmaker, who expressed his meetings with people in photos, photo books and films for more than 40 years. Although his worldwide reputation rests on his unique black-and-white photography, the last thirty years of his life were mainly devoted to working in colour. 
His first book of colour photographs, EYE LOVE YOU, was published in 1977. Ed van der Elsken photographed people. Or more precisely, what people made of life and what life did to people. He travelled all over the world recording this in his photographs and, in the process, creating a unique oeuvre that continues to attract international attention even today. ‘A book about people’ is what he called his first book of colour photos, EYE LOVE YOU (1977). ‘I love you’ but also ‘My eye loves you’. Love, life and death play key roles. Looking and being looked at. Van der Elsken’s themes are the sexual interplay and tension between men and women, the freedom and happiness of young people setting out to explore the world, and the experience of destitution in disillusioned old age. He was one of the first photojournalists in the Netherlands whole-heartedly to embrace colour photography. Van der Elsken had already used colour (slide) film in the fifties, when he was working on his pioneering photobooks Een liefdesgeschiedenis in Saint Germain des Prés (1956) and Sweet Life (1966), although both were eventually published entirely in black-and-white. 

In 1950 Ed van der Elsken  founded “kindred spirits” in a group of dropouts in the St. Germain des Prés (Paris) neighborhood. In a private diary he kept photographic “notes” about their activities, which he was allowed to photograph undisturbed. It is evident that he was primarily fascinated by the beautiful redhead Vali Myers. In 1953 he met Edward Steichen, who pointed out that his photographs had a narrative structure and advised him to create photography book that tells a story. Supported by his wife at the time, the Hungarian Ata Kando, van der Elsken organized his contact sheets, put together the first of a total of three dummies and started a joint project with the graphic designer Jurriaan Schrofer. In 1956 the publisher De Bezige Bij released „Love on the Left Bank“. Elsken‘s pictures were put together to form the story of the unrequited love of the protagonist Manuel for Ann alias Vali Myers. It is fictional and takes place over a period of months, during which he followed a pair of lovers with his camera and captured a harsh yet tender love story in the working class neighborhood of St. Germain des Prés. The photography book that resulted is not only regarded as the summit of his work but is also internationally recognized as one of the most extraordinary photography books of the 20th century, as it is the first one using the format of a photo novel.

Ed van der Elsken's work remains to be widely shown at contemporary art museums throughout the world. Recent solo- and group shows were held at the Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo (2015), Museum Boerhaave, Leiden (2014), Stadsarchief Amsterdam(2014), Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam (2010), Foam, Amsterdam (2005), The Metropolitan Museum, Tokyo (2003), The Palazzina di Giardini, Modena (2002) and many others.