On ViewBritish Museum
Tantra: Enlightenment to Revolution
September 24, 2020 – January 24, 2021
Full of wonders sacred and profane, the British Museum’s sweeping survey Tantra: Enlightenment to Revolution aims to reveal the history and tenets of a mysterious, transgressive spiritual tradition that has been intertwined with Hinduism and Buddhism for nearly a millennium and a half. Notorious in the West for its sacred sexual rites, the movement turned self- and world-abnegating aspects of these religions on their heads and reveled in the magic of the body and the earth as accelerated means to enlightenment.
Prizing secrecy and initiation, Tantra both amplifies aspects of the belief systems it parallels and creates its own constellation of rituals and figures. The Hindu gods embody the corporeal agonies and ecstasies emphasized in the tradition, and Buddhist meditation echoes its quest to understand base reality. Its electrifying visual culture includes depictions of spiritual beings and cosmic and bodily diagrams, some of which call to mind modernist abstraction. In an effort to provide a context and an overview, curator Imma Ramos, mixes works made for Tantrikas with related Hindu and Buddhist objects and examples of its manifestations in modern and contemporary art and graphic design.
This exhibition opens with depictions of the gods Tantra revered or invented, along with their Buddhist counterparts. Bhairava, a ferocious, cremation-ground-dwelling protector of temples and devotees whose name means “Horrific” or “Fearsome,” is represented most powerfully in a small, 5th-century terracotta head from LACMA giving him ferocious, bulging eyes, including a third on his brow, and a mouth frozen in an “O”-shaped howl. According to Ramos’s catalogue essay, early Tantric ascetics inverted Hindu prohibitions and established Tantrism’s central, paradoxical quest for elevation through defilement by worshipping Bhairava “to achieve transcendence through transgression.”
A nearby 12th-century bronze from Eastern India shows this god’s Buddhist doppelgänger, Chakrasamvara. Wearing a garland of skulls and wielding a skull cup and fearsome knives, he is a multitasking spiritual warrior. Made as a Yidam, or role model for a meditator, he slays ego, greed, and jealousy. For good measure, he also tramples a tiny figure of Bhairava under his left foot, recalling the legend that he assumed his Hindu counterpart’s appearance to lure followers away from a path the Buddhists felt had been corrupted by pride.
The exhibition recreates a circular, roofless Yogini temple from 10th-century Tamil Nadu, India, using wall-mounted photographs and a video projection of Tantric texts set against a night sky. Evolving out of the Hindu Matrikas, a group of ferocious mother-goddesses, these witchlike, shape-shifters could bestow worldly power. As another pathway to strength, Tantrikas developed Hatha yoga, or “yoga of force.” Some of the most fascinating and beautiful works in the exhibition describe this practice’s efforts to summon Kundalini, the coiled Shakti energy believed to reside at the base of the spine. An anonymous, late 18th-century gouache-on-paper drawing from Himachal Pradesh, India, charts the rise of Kundalini and the life force prana upward through the gourd-shaped, see-through body of beatific, meditating Yogi. Other works on paper and books from the 17th and 18th centuries, many executed in the precise, jewel-like realistic style of Mughal miniatures, give a fascinating insight into the Tantric world view. Lacking, however, are examples of anonymous meditation drawings whose profound, abstract symbol-languages have inspired many contemporary artists.
If Hindu Tantric imagery generally represented a kind of spiritual magical realism, Tantric Buddhism tended toward a kind of sacred psychedelia. Colorful scrolls depicting Tantric Buddhist godheads overflow with decorative designs and inset characters, as they sought to illuminate an entire cosmology in a flash. In one such Weltbild, a painted-silk scroll from 18th-century Tibet, the blue-skinned Yidam Chakrasamvara clutches the red-skinned Vajrayogini in a ferocious sexual embrace (while one-upping the fierce Hindu god Bhairava and and Yogini Chamunda by trampling them).
Tantra became a force of resistance during India’s colonial period. Many missionaries and occupiers regarded India as a debauched land of the occult. To unsettle the settlers, Tantrikas and ordinary Indians reinforced this stereotype. In 19th-century Bengal, the goddess Kali became an emblem of opposition. An anonymous 19th-century painted and gilded clay statue shows her wearing her signature garland of skulls and standing on her male counterpart Shiva, whom she trampled when he threw himself under her to stop her violent fury. Images like this fed back to English culture, including into an 1824 drawing of Lucifer for William Blake’s illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Later that century they fueled the “Kalighat style” of painting in the Bengal Art Studio in Calcutta. Its lithographs emphasized Kali’s darshan, a sacred gaze communicating solidarity and power during the struggle for independence.
The exhibition loses its punch in the final section. Like the rest of the show, this look at Tantra’s recent expressions draws predominantly on the British Museum’s permanent collection, which allows only a cursory overview. There was widespread interest in Tantra in the 1970s, perhaps because of groundbreaking exhibitions like the Hayward Gallery’s 1971 Tantra. Additionally, graphic designers in the UK and USA employed its imagery in hippie-era posters promoting environmental and anti-war movements, as did artists, writers, and musicians: the famous tongue and lips logo of The Rolling Stones designed by John Pasche in 1971 was inspired by the lolling tongue of Kali. Most of the Neo-Tantric paintings from that decade feel like anodyne post-minimalist interpretations of the tradition’s symbol-language, but the sex-magic imagery of female artists Ithell Colquhoun and Penny Slinger are mesmerizing standouts.
A final section shows the tradition’s contemporary, daily face, but these photographs and videos of Tantrikas and their practices reveal little about their internal lives. Even after considering the exhibition’s dazzling works of art and material-culture objects, it remains challenging to summarize Tantra’s teachings, much less its essence. Perhaps in the end, art itself can provide a model: to think the thoughts most of us are afraid to think, to reconcile passionate feelings and dispassionate expression, and to transform base materials into beautiful things, artists must become Tantrikas of sorts, fearless deep-divers of material and spiritual realms.