The Master is asked what distinguishes a great miniaturist from an ordinary one. He replies that in order to determine how ‘genuine’ a young painter is, he would ask 3 questions.
“Has he come to believe, under the sway of recent custom as well as the influence of the Chinese and the European Franks, that he ought to have an individual painting technique, his own style? As an illustrator, does he want to have a manner, an aspect distinct from others, and does he attempt to prove this by signing his name somewhere in his work like the Frankish masters? To determine precisely these things, I’d first ask him a question about ’style’ and ‘signature’.”
“Then, I’d want to learn how this illustrator felt about volumes changing hands, being unbound, and our pictures being used in other books and in other eras after the shahs and sultans who’d commissioned them have died. This is a subtle issue demanding a response beyond one’s being simply upset or pleased by it. Thus, I’d ask the illustrator a question about ‘time’ - an illustrator’s time and Allah’s time.”
“The third would be blindness!…Blindness is silence. If you combine what I’ve just now said, the first and the second questions, ‘blindness’ will emerge. It’s the farthest one can go in illustrating; it is seeing what appears out of Allah’s own blackness.”
It might be a useful exercise if we miniature painters ask ourselves the same questions. It is instructive as well to imagine the historical context of miniature painting (as described above) - yet also to remember that we are not living in that context anymore.
So, here are my answers, and I’d love to hear yours:
We are not living in that context anymore and don’t operate as teams in painting workshops (although interesting artistic collaborations still go on). For the most part, we are part of the wider art world and therefore art market, in whichever shape or form you choose to locate yourself there (even if it’s outside, you’re still positioning yourself outside of something). So we are bound by the conventions of our time and this involves signing our words on the back, selling them, making prints of them to sell, and yes, perhaps evolving and then having an individual “style”.
This is a question about legacy. It is related to the above, because only the best works survive the test of time. Books being cut up and rebound is not a new thing. For example, my favourite Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp is also known as the Houghton Shahnameh, after Arthur Houghton, who cut it up. Shah Tahmasp commissioned it. But the painters who painted it are largely unknown by the wider non-specialist public. I’ll make (yet again!) a connection with Chinese painting (not new - miniaturists did, too, in many ways): Chinese painting is famous for having loads of red seals stamped on the painting itself in ‘the sky’ or in the empty spaces around the image. These seals are works of art in themselves and are the seals of all the folk who owned the painting, ‘looked after’ the painting, and thus the seals reveal the provenance and the passing of time and the artwork being handed down through the generations/through the bazaar of ownership/stewardship and the more seals it has, the more prestigious the work. Testament to the timelessness of the work too and its lasting quality - its legacy. That is the ‘illustrator’s’ time, as it’s related to Q1. (Here is Allah’s time.)
This I have no answer for as yet! I’m still thinking. Initial thoughts: maybe it’s removing yourself so far from the idea of artist-as-creator that your hand becomes the conduit of God and you paint what God has created, exactly, as it is meant to be seen, not how you see it. So maybe this is about removing all elements of individual style completely, and just painting the true essence of a thing. I don’t know - invite your thoughts on this.
In the Context section of the Forum I’ve pulled out ideas that have arisen for me from this book (Style, Perspective etc) and in those I’ve gone further in my thinking and invite yours. In this section I’m trying to stick more rigidly to the book. I am open to more and perhaps you have ideas for categories.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Al-Ghaib (غيب). The Unseen.
So I was just reading “my name is red” and mulling on this passage on blindness:
I don’t have very extensive thoughts but I love this idea of blindness as true sight—-seeing the Unseen, which I made a little picture of (and hope to do a better one after further studies in calligraphy):
I do think we should get out of our own way at times!
I liked the film of Eat Pray Love by the way - I remember a great, great part when Julia Roberts eats a simple tomato spaghetti dish in a restaurant in Italy. And she really, really appreciates every mouthful, you can see it on screen. This may be because I too appreciate a good tomato pasta and I was pregnant and hungry while watching it at the time. So it really stuck in my memory.
Made me think of miniature painting recipes! As in, what they ate in those times, that might be depicted in the paintings also. There are already books on this: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mughal-Feast-Recipes-Kitchen-Emperor/dp/8193704975/ref=sr_1_4?dchild=1&keywords=recipes+mughal&qid=1593620462&sr=8-4
I’d love to host (all post-pandemic dreams) a get-together where we talk about painting and eat what they actually ate too… unfortunately this wouldn’t be with my cooking, I’d have to find someone skilled in this area to co-host it.
She’s right that creativity doesn’t need to be linked to anguish. Creativity breeds creativity and is an upward rather than a downward spiral. I’ve personally always found this to be the case, and for me the issue is not lack of ideas (it’s a lack of time!)
This led me to: the ‘ideas train’ - a metaphor my husband and I use. Like love, there is an infinite amount of ideas circling the world - imagine a train full of ideas like a belt around the planet. You are watching the train from the platform and the ideas going past you (there are so many) And then you get on the train sometimes and experience a whoosh of ideas and a flurry of activity and your world is moving so fast for a minute or two - that’s the inspiration - and then you get off and then either write it down or make the work (only some ideas actually get made, but since the train is going round the world they keep recurring, so no worries). Incidentally my husband experiences the opposite: he is sitting on the train, and sometimes disembarks onto the platform. When we first talked about it we had conceived of the same metaphor idea separately, and until recently had no idea that we had the exact opposite ideas about being a passenger on this train!
Muses and genius loci: she talks about genies. I agree with her that they give us the ideas and generally believe in the existence of genies/jinn, because… why not? Some of them are fun, some of them can be understood as muses and some of them can be understood as ideas that we can catch like the dreams the BFG catches like fireflies. Genius loci - the idea that certain places have their resident spirits. I feel this is true of the rocks in miniature painting that anthropomorphise into figures. And the Roman household gods… I like the idea of the world teeming with little spirits, whether or not they are ‘real’. And her underlying point - that this takes away a bit of the pressure of us coming up with original ideas, as is also luck-of-the-draw who the ideas decide to possess - is sound. It also flies in the face of the male-artist-as-genius-Renaissance posing, ego and ‘performing’, which is quite exhausting and depleting rather than replenishing like those little genies pouring their liquid ideas into our ready waiting mind-cups. So, let’s all do a mini series of miniature paintings dedicated to our own creative genies! In a way I also think she is talking about shamanism when she refers to spirits, or at least I see a link.
I also believe in Picasso’s: ‘Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working’
Retreats and sabbaticals - I think these work, unbroken, focused time to either do something purposely, or to purposely not do something and let the ideas come naturally.
About being interrupted… Coleridges’s Kubla Khan (and possibly my favourite English poem, inspiration for another rabbit hole of my work) is a great example of why you should never interrupt an artist! He wrote most of it down (after an opium-induced dream) and then some accountant came and knocked on his door and then the rest of it vanished (like opium smoke…)
Hah! Imagine what is lost to art and literature because of being interrupted… And yet… being a mother means learning to work despite interruptions (1001 Nights! Other rabbit hole)
And finally, Ole! I learnt something, I love it when a piece of the puzzle settles after years… Ole! is a mutation of Allah! - the original inspiration for Muslims which became the flamenco cry.
There is no ‘self’, you’re right. Or at least, the ‘self’ can change, it’s not set in stone. That doesn’t mean you have to be personality-less, or character-less, it just means you are adaptable and flexible and changeable and more fluid. My parents were constantly telling me to ‘be like water’ or ‘be like grass’, because my teenage and early-20s ‘self’ took more of what I call was my ‘steamroller’ approach to life… getting a bit older now I see the value of going around or over the mountain, instead of tunnelling though it, to get to the other side!
Holy guacamole, what a great excerpt, Vaishali! Your initial answers to the three questions are wonderful food for thought.
I’ll start with #3, the “blindness” concept. My lines of thinking are similar to yours: the ideas of removing yourself, stepping aside, and thereby channeling something beyond the limited confines of the ego. The cliche phrase “getting out of your own way” comes to mind. I think that this is what fascinates people about the creativity. Even in secular circles, creativity is regarded as something mysterious, great or cosmic that people can tap into. (Not to mention the world’s fascination with sex, the ultimate life-creative act!) This is very colorfully described by Elizabeth Gilbert in her TED talk (link below): she describes her belief that the creative process is one of removing oneself in order to tap into genius (rather than expressing genius that is intrinsically part of a particular artist’s personality). She gives a lot of fascinating real-life examples of people’s processes. My favorite is about a poet that would wander in nature outside her house and “catch” poems on gusts of actual wind. But the tricky part is that she’d have to outrun the wind to reach her writing desk at home, in time to channel the poetry that the wind carried. There she’d write it all out in one fell swoop—except that it would come out backwards!
The use of the word “blindness” is also interesting. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: “Nothing so blinding as perception of form.” The First Form, so to speak, is ourselves: the ego. We interpret our perceptions in such a way that reinforces the notion that we as individuals are solid and real. We rarely question this belief. (Which is truly odd, because it’s quite self evident that we are unable to point to, or identify the location of a self. All things that we point to are objects of awareness: the body, evolving personality traits, etc. And if one was able to finally locate self, then that self would again be an object of perception, which means that self is contained within a larger awareness... which means that the awareness itself is greater and more fundamental!) And when we perceive (and accept as true) this “form” that is the ego, when we are unswerving in our acceptance of this belief, we confine ourselves to the ego. This is extremely limiting because the ego is, by definition, a set of limitations. (If I am Nadia, I am not Vaishali. If I am short, I am not tall, etc.) “Blindness” of this ego form would seem to help the artist expand their creative horizons - to burst out of the frame! :)
Here’s that TED talk for those interested: