The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2011

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OCT 2011 Issue
Art Books

Tantra Song

Franck André Jamme
Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan
(Siglio, 2011)

Those who feel the truth of 14th century German theologian Meister Eckhart’s words, “When the soul wants to experience something she throws out an image in front of her and then steps into it,” might do well to consider Franck André Jamme’s latest book, Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan from this point of view. It is an evocation of the image as a threshold leading to new dimensions of meaning, a revelatory understanding that some images are more than mere data; they are instead vital seeds, living carriers of possibility.

Born of 25 years worth of research, travel, and involvement, this book offers a selection of rare, abstract Hindu tantric paintings culled from Jamme’s personal collection. It’s an exceptional example of beautiful obsession by a self-proclaimed passionate amateur (Jamme, one of France’s leading contemporary poets and the author of more than a dozen books, clearly states in the text that he is not an expert on these mysterious paintings). For anyone who has followed Jamme’s efforts on this side of the Atlantic, an exhibition at the Drawing Center in 2004 – 2005, and a selection of Shiva Linga paintings shown at Feature, Inc. in 2007, this book is an invaluable companion offering rare insights and information into these mysterious works.

For those who haven’t followed, the paintings reproduced in this book are Hindu meditation aides, all completed within the last 26 years, painted by anonymous artists from India’s largest state, Rajasthan. All are done on found pieces of paper, and are used primarily for “visualization,” a practice in which you stand in front of the piece for several minutes, letting the image fill your mind and cancelling out everything else. Later, this image and its constellation of meanings can be recalled at will. The author explains that the earliest known images of the kind represented in this book appear in 17th century hand-written, illustrated religious treatises known as tantras. These images, together with their treatises, were copied anonymously over and over throughout the centuries. The images, however, were also copied independently of the texts on separate sheets by adepts or tantrikas, initiates in the vocabulary and ritual that surround these objects. Often created secretly within families or groups practicing tantric ritual, or carried by wandering ascetics, or sudhus, they are not really pure creations per se, but designs passed from one generation to the next, varying slightly with each tantrika’s abilities and awareness.

As Jamme explains, one need not be an adept in tantric ritual in order to enter an engagement with these works. Their undeniable mystery and anonymity are perfect antidotes for our ego-centered, Western notions of authorship and intention. After all, wouldn’t you willingly abandon all pretense and step into the watery reason of limitless blue? Isn’t it there that we might find the intensity of energy that animates all living creation, illuminated by the light of its own unpredictability? It is an espousal of the culture of the secret, coded and intentional in the journey yet retaining the ability to illuminate, even when the flame is black. Black as Shiva’s linga, sign among signs, a body surrounded by vapors allowing a glimpse of the luminous particular burning with joyful and erect intensity. Are we lost within this space within a space? Can we learn to move like rain over a blade of grass, dripping the drop, the point of repose that contains all manifestation?

There are other orders of reality than the tangible and visible, and it is their vitality and regenerating quality that survive the great changes of culture and are responsible for the rebuilding of a broken world. The living quality and the continuity of any tradition depend upon its essential flowing character, its capacity for change. The essence of traditions and their values is the rich earth from which new culture can spring, a richness fed by the rotting compost heap of history that surrounds the roots of our collective experience. If, as Meister Eckhart advocates, all that happens in the visible world is an expression of ideas or images in the invisible, then an image or idea takes shape and becomes concrete by virtue of its inherent power and pattern, the potential of itself dreaming itself. The seemingly simple works presented in this book are just such a concretization, as their development through the centuries has confirmed. We would do well to listen to their quiet frequencies, their echoes of familiar song. 

Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan coincides with an exhibition of 39 paintings featured in the book at the Santa Monica Museum of Art from September 10 through December 10, 2011.


Craig Olson

Craig Olson is a former student of Thomas Nozkowski and regular contributor to the Rail. He is also an artist who lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2011

All Issues