The Indian Portrait: 1560-1860
National Portrait Gallery, until 20 June
Mark Shields: Here and Elsewhere
Grosvenor Gallery, 21 Ryder Street, SW1, until 14 May
I suspect that the first thought in many people’s minds to be associated with the Indian portrait is of the delicately detailed miniatures produced at the Mughal court in the 16th and 17th centuries. This is indeed the beginning of Indian portraiture as we know it, and the point at which this fascinating exhibition commences. Here is the portrait not just as likeness, but also as propaganda and official chronicle.
The exhibition design in the Porter Gallery is constructed to steer the visitor clearly round the exhibits. A long curving wall with a large aperture commands our progress: we enter the gallery and go left. Here is a tiny portrait of the Emperor Jahangir, dated 1627, seen in profile through a craze of craquelure, and ceremonially arrayed as if at a window or on a balcony. Facing, and looking to the right, thus mirroring Jahangir’s gaze to the left, is Shah Jahan as a prince. A full-length figure, this is one of the classic images of Mughal art, as the handsome catalogue (hardback £20) reliably informs me. He is holding up a turban jewel in his left hand, and wearing gold, pearls and precious stones. A key phrase for this exhibition could be ‘decorative magnificence’. The elaborate detail in these images requires equally detailed study.
For instance, consider the wondrous pink rocks in the landscape background of ‘Abdullah Khan Uzbeg with his falconer’. In this case, the setting is of more interest than the foreground figures. Compare the marvellous (and to my eye slightly humorous) clarity of ‘A Falconer’ hung next to it, in which the plump courtier is either saluting or holding down his turban in the breeze. The attractive plain green ground is typical of this type of portrait, one of a series commissioned by the Emperor Akbar to document the appearance of all his nobles. Appropriately, in this section, there are various representations of Akbar himself, including a highly naturalistic and beguilingly intimate ink drawing of the Emperor set off to the left of the sheet, with eyes lowered in contemplation.
But aside from the occasional drawing, it is the colours of this show that entice and entrance. After the sombre richness of the life-size ‘Jahangir holding a globe’, stuck with real stones and gold, the visitor encounters ‘Mirza Mukarram Khan Safavi’. He is depicted in robe and turban against a bright turquoise ground with a deep pink border — all this against the gallery’s yolk-yellow wall. The borders are important decorative devices: animals, for example, disport themselves in the margins of ‘A Jain Ascetic’. I was particularly drawn (perhaps by fellow feeling?) to the image of ‘A Seated Scribe’ which depicts an elderly calligrapher at work cross-legged, huddled and frowning in concentration. By contrast, note the impersonal representation of Muhammad Shah making love on an open terrace, in which the oddly impassive couple are presumably intended to symbolise the Emperor’s potency.
One of the most moving groups of pictures in the exhibition consists of a Before and After juxtaposition. First we see a page of four separate portraits of courtiers (by three different artists), the finest of which is of ’Inayat Khan at top right. This elegant courtier was evidently the Mughal version of a bit of a lad. The pair of pictures next to this sheet depict him on his deathbed, to which he was untimely brought by addiction to opium and alcohol. The fine ink drawing shows him emaciated and skeletal in a nest of bolsters, while the opaque watercolour painting made from it looks incredibly modern (though dated 1618) in its pared-down formality, evocative colour and relentless confrontation with imminent death. Harrowing but strangely beautiful.
Quite a contrast and something of a relief to turn the corner and find the jolly face of Sultan Ibrahim ’Adil Shah II of Bijapur. Presented in three-quarter view, rather than the more familiar profile, and in large-scale close-up, this portrait demonstrates an increasingly prevalent European influence. To lift the spirits further, there’s a magnificent elephant ridden by the Sultan Muhammad ’Adil Shah. His minister, Ikhlas Khan, sits behind, fanning away flies with a cloth. Another huge image, almost life-size, of Maharana Karan Singh of Mewar in a flaring robe like an inverted flower, punctuates this section of the show. Here, too, is the memorable image of Prince Amar Singh in a swing-bed. A large drawing of a courtesan is highly stylised, but rhythmic and undeniably sensual in design.
If I find the 18th-century portraits altogether less compelling, there are still good things to note and much detail to decode. In ‘Raja Siddh Sen of Mandi at worship’, the striped sock worn over the right hand is in fact a prayer glove, within which the devotee (cross-legged on a leopard skin, the traditional seat of yogis) is using a string of beads to recite the names of Shiva. Then there is the massive gravitas of Raghunath Pathania, a Hindu holy man of considerable bulk and subtle physical presence. Moving into the 19th century, whatever one thinks of the portrait of Maharaja Gulab Singh of Jammu and Kashmir (he looks distinctly malevolent to me), the sheer inventiveness and springing rhythms of the decorative context in which he is placed are superbly convincing. And I loved the portrait of Ram Rao Phalke (c.1865), a general in the service of the Maharaja of Gwalior, which takes pattern to an extreme but without sacrificing the pursuit of likeness.
A very different kind of figuration can be found in the impressive exhibition of new paintings by Mark Shields (born 1963). Here I must declare an interest as I’ve written an extensive catalogue essay for this show, and I hope that my comments indicate that my interest amounts to a very considerable enthusiasm. The exhibition, Here and Elsewhere, cleverly juxtaposes Shields’s large acrylic and gesso paintings with the small ink compositional studies for them. Working in a European tradition of symbolic figuration, Shields risks putting figures together in intriguing combinations with only a minimum of context or setting. These paintings rely on the evocative power of shape and colour and a range of references that are by no means overt, but which encompass the Bible, classical myth and modern literature. Above all, these are pictures about paint, and how to depict the human figure in a meaningful, moving and contemporary way, utilising the formal values of line, texture, mark, flatness, tone and colour inventively but also leaving room for metaphor. Ambitious and effective: recommended.