Byline: Brian Sewell
IN the precious little world of the art critic there is a general assumption that, as long as what he is despatched to see is in some sense art, he should be capable of writing a critical essay on it. For this, Roger Fry, a fine old fruit of Bloomsbury, must take the blame. He it was who, having in 1910 introduced the British public to the thrills of Post-Impressionism (a term he invented but did not understand), then went on to bully them into being fashionably interested in ancient art from Mesopotamia and the Aegean, from China, India and Egypt and with equal assumption of authority and expertise, lectured them on the art of Peru and Mexico and the much more recent art of what he called "the great majority of negro cultures". Of none of these did he know anything other than scraps of second-hand opinion garnered from supposedly scholarly magazines such as the Burlington, to which he himself was a frequent contributor of bric-a-brac, scattered all over with quaint conceits of intuition.
I am not a follower of Fry. There are vast fields of art and artefact in which I have scant interest and cannot even pretend a measure of curiosity -- and one of these is Indian art. This I can just about see through Rembrandt's eyes but not my own, and at the British Museum's current exhibition of Indian paintings from the courts of the Maharajahs of Jodhpur, much later than those that Rembrandt knew, without his help my mind was almost inert.
With desperate effort, I looked at birds and animals, at racing elephants and conjugating ducks and, confronted by the exquisite unrealities of landscape and the artists' total incomprehension of perspective, I thought of Italian painters in Florence and Siena seven centuries ago and judged their awareness of these things to have been infinitely more intellectual and enquiring. And then I thought of Europe in the 18th century, the Age of Reason and Enlightenment, the very period when these Indian painters began their business of recording the courtly pastimes of sport and sex in Jodhpur and the cosmological beliefs and notions that were their spiritual and intellectual diversions. I thought of Newton and Herschel, of Mozart and Tiepolo, and the whole edifice of this shallow Indian trivia as art -- as art that is not only metaphysical and spiritual but art that "addresses the interior world of philosophical speculation and the origin of the universe" -- came tumbling down. …