An Encounter with a Painting

Wendy McDowell

One of the perks of working at Harvard is free access to the Harvard Art Museums. When I started here in 2000, it was a distinct pleasure to be able to duck into the Fogg or Busch-Reisinger for a short visit, to linger in one room—or with just one work of art—without waiting in line or paying an admission fee. I became convinced that this is the way art should be encountered: monogamously, keeping company with one work or set of works at a time, instead of engaging with several pieces of art in a rushed act of consumption (rather like speed dating).

I found myself developing deeper relationships with works of art than ever before, and I fell in love with one in particular: An Encounter at a Well, an eighteenth-century Rajasthani court painting by an unknown artist in the Arthur M. Sackler Museum collection.1 This was an unlikely object of affection for me, since I usually preferred abstract and political art.2 To my eye, this was a romantic, traditional painting depicting the meeting of a man on a blue horse with a woman at a well, while four maidens gaze on. Since all the figures are elegantly dressed, I assumed they were nobility (and royal portraiture traditions tended to raise my working-class hackles). Moreover, having never traveled to India and with only the most basic knowledge of Hindusim (at the level of an undergraduate world religions course), I was woefully ignorant of the rich artistic, religious, literary, and sociopolitical traditions that informed this painting.

My dialogue with An Encounter at a Well over the course of a couple of years ended up challenging, loosening, and undoing assumptions I didn't realize I held.

Nevertheless, something drew me back to this work again and again. Was it the vivid use of color—the light cornflower blue of the horse, the golden yellow of the woman’s gown, the celestial black of the man’s dress (echoed in the gown of one of the maidens), and the impressionistic strokes of the hills and waters surrounding them? Was it the delicate gesturing, the man on horseback arching up to the woman and the woman bending down to him as they exchange a vessel—gestures of offering, of gift-giving? (I could never be sure which figure was the giver and which was the recipient—an ambiguity that only made me like the painting more!) Was it the evocative setting of the well (in this painting, the well seems to radiate, as if lit from within)?3

It was all of these things and none of them. I simply found myself wanting to luxuriate in this work, to listen to its whisperings. There was a tenderness in it, a lyricism, and yet it didn’t cross the line into sentimentality, which would have turned me off. I sensed that the “encounter” pointed beyond the human beings on the canvas to a deeper mystery, perhaps an exchange with the divine (or maybe it represented one of those rare moments in which our communion with another feels charged with a transcendent power).

In her essay, Mary Anderson writes that art (and prayer) can “provide a vantage point of alterity—an ekstasis, or ‘standing beside oneself’—from which we may begin to see ourselves.” She explains:

Through the otherness of art, its presence and its objecthood, my work and world are turned toward the other, revealed to have an ethical existence. Art confronts and affronts us; its otherness calls us . . . into question, initiating us to alternative ways of seeing. (30)

I imagine many of you have had just this experience of being confronted and changed by a work of art. My dialogue with An Encounter at a Well over the course of a couple of years ended up challenging, loosening, and undoing assumptions I didn’t even realize I held about my aesthetic tastes and about gender roles.4 I expanded my understanding of what counts as “political” art,5 and of the ways mystical experience and romantic love might be related or correlated.

It began to feel wrong to know so little about my beloved painting, so I schooled myself a bit more in its historical and artistic context.6 Looking at this work became a deeper contemplative act, “an act of beholding” rather than one of appropriation. I came to see that it was precisely because the world of this image felt so distant from my own (in time and place) that it was able to awaken my imperfect, ignorant, fragmented, longing self. It put me right up against the parts of the world that “can’t be captured,” be they external or internal to us, and as Sarah Sentilles puts it so eloquently:

God is not the only uncapturable thing. There is . . . a part of every person (every tree, every animal, every rock) that is uncapturable, unsayable, irreducible, resistant, free, unknowable. And because it is unknowable, you cannot name it or depict it or colonize it or paint it or photograph it. (73)

Many of the essays in this issue address ways and limits of seeing, exploring “the difference between appropriation and reception, between grasping and listening, between talking about a thing, objectifying it, and being in dialogue with it” (Anderson again). Suzanne Smith analyzes the “moment . . . of an inward ‘stepping back’ with respect to what to do about the giving and living of the law,” and she helps us to see representations of religious law in Western art in radically complex ways. Anila Daulatzai challenges us to truly listen to widows in Afghanistan and to rethink our neoliberal notions of “care” for them. Jeffrey Bishop urges us to understand how medicine’s metaphysical views about the body chafe against our own sense of being “constituted interpersonally.”

How we constitute ourselves and others—in the past, present, and future—is a key concern for many authors here, including Eboo Patel, Ronald E. Osborn, and Dana L. Robert. Shoshana M. Friedman and Tim DeChristopher call on religious traditions to bring their countercultural values and resilient hope to the climate justice movement, so that we might recognize the “deep and visceral connection between human actions and the well-being of the land” (16). Still, in all of our endeavors—art, religion, storytelling, activism, sacrifice—Matthew Potts cautions us, “we should allow our encounter with others . . . to undo our certainties, and we should accept that those others might also come, rightly, to reject the sacrifices we offer” (79).

Notes

  1. One of the Sackler Museum’s strengths is its collection in Rajput (Indian) art, in part because of John Kenneth Galbraith’s gifts of Indian painting (this one among them).
  2. E.g., Kandinsky’s abstracts, Rivera’s murals, and the edgy works of Joseph Beuys, Joyce Wieland, and Faith Ringgold.
  3. The well resonates across many literary and religious traditions, a symbol of the thirst for love (human or divine).
  4. I was surprised to find I had rigid ideas about feminine and masculine spheres, especially vis-à-vis religion.
  5. After all, sustaining “traditional” artistic forms can be a political act.
  6. At the time, I found mostly art books and exhibition catalogues about Rajasthani painting, such as Steven Kossak’s Indian Court Painting, 16th–19th Century (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997). A recent study is Molly Emma Aitken’s The Intelligence of Tradition in Rajput Court Painting (Yale University Press, 2010).

Wendy McDowell is senior editor of the Bulletin.

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