Permanent Home of the
ANONYMOUS SHIVA LINGA PAINTINGS
IOWA CONTEMPORARY ART
Click on each painting to enlarge.
Tantra: Ancient and Modern
David T. Hanson, Recent Work
13. David T. Hanson and Allen Cobb,
Anonymous Shiva Linga Paintings/1,000 Names of Shiva,
2014/2017, HD video, color, sound, 48 minutes.
Twelve anonymous Shiva Linga paintings
Tantra: Ancient and Modern
Since the publication of the first books on Tantra Art some fifty years ago, followed
by the first major exhibition in London in 1971, Tantra has remained an enigmatic
visual and spiritual force. Practitioners of Tantra are to be found on the outskirts of
religious culture, both Hindu and Buddhist. Although rooted in ancient tradition,
Tantra remains very relevant today and influences many layers of contemporary culture,
as demonstrated in the recent exhibition and accompanying publication organized by
Imma Ramos at the British Museum.
David T. Hanson, a distinguished landscape and environmental photographer whose
work is represented in major American museums, was aware of the early books on
Tantra in the 1970s and was deeply impressed by the visual intensity of the imagery
and by its spiritual implications. From 1998-2008 he travelled extensively throughout
India. His earlier photographs of strip mining in Montana created extraordinary
awareness balancing the beauty of his imagery with the toxic nature of his subject.
Subsequently, in Waste Land, he created a series of triptychs: each aerial view of a
toxic waste site is flanked with a modified topographic map to one side and a text
from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the other. These juxtapositions
he viewed as “toxic altarpieces” in which the urgency with which the environmental
catastrophe needed to be addressed was heightened by the iconographic format.
Even though the work was polemical, it glowed with its own chilling aesthetic.
Indeed, although the issue at one level was secular, the desecration was so
profound as to register as a defilement of the sacred.
During his travels in South Asia, Hanson started a personal collection of Tantra art.
Over the past decade he has organized exhibitions of Tantra paintings at ICON Iowa
Contemporary Art. He began combining his color photographs of ancient Tantra sites
in India and Nepal in diptychs and triptychs with Tantra paintings. The results are
unique. Far from diminishing the meditative power of the paintings, the combinations
present a narrative that is comparable to the experience of wandering through the
narrow streets and temples of the Indian subcontinent. We are offered a route of
unparalleled visual power that is both timeless and of this time, glimpsed through the
camera lens and created through the most delicate of brush strokes.
—This text has been excerpted from an essay by Mark Holborn, an internationally
recognized editor and designer of art books.
More about the Hudson Collection
This inaugural installation in ICON’s Hudson Collection Gallery features the Anonymous Shiva Linga Paintings
exhibited at the 55th Venice Biennale, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, artistic director of the 2013 Venice Biennale and
associate director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. For the Biennale installation, Gioni selected
31 paintings from the series of 71 Anonymous Shiva Linga Paintings assembled by Franck André Jamme and
Feature Inc., New York. ICON’s exhibition duplicates the selection and sequence of the paintings at the Biennale.
The Shiva Linga is an abstract or aniconic representation of the Vedic god Shiva as an eternal cosmic pillar of fire,
the first and final form of all creation. The three-dimensional stones and two-dimensional drawings of the Linga are
considered by devotees to be not mere representations of Shiva but rather the sacred embodiment of the Divinity.
These Shiva Linga paintings on found paper are made anonymously in India (primarily in Rajasthan) by practitioners
of Tantrism—some of whom are artists—to represent and embody fundamental aspects of Tantra, a vast and complex
spiritual and philosophical practice. Made to awaken heightened consciousness, these devotional images are used for
visualization and meditation as part of Tantra’s spiritual practices. While the images are centuries old with highly
codified forms and colors, the paintings are filled with such a high level of the artists’ intentionality that they continually
appear fresh and alive. The French poet/scholar André Padoux has described these images as “painted silences. . .
the simple revelation of pure consciousness.”
According to French poet Franck André Jamme, who has played an instrumental role in bringing these paintings to
western audiences, the tantrikas who create them work in a focused state of mental rapture. Despite their expression
of an unbroken, centuries-old tradition, the works in this exhibition (made between 1966 and 2004) seem both timeless
and utterly contemporary. They also possess a remarkable affinity with examples of twentieth-century abstract art.
The progeny of hand-written, illustrated religious treatises from the seventeenth century, copied across many generations,
these paintings are part of a distinct visual lexicon that confounds assumed differences between East and West, the
spiritual and the aesthetic, the ancient and the modern.
This exhibition is dedicated to the memory of Hudson, founder and director of the New York art gallery Feature Inc.
The Hudson Collection has been very generously donated to ICON’s permanent collection by Patricia Hudson,
James Hudson, and Thomas Hudson.
An Exhibition Organized by David T. Hanson
October 1, 2021–August 26, 2022
14. Shiva Linga/Cremation ghat, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2014,
pigment print, 12 x 22"
15. Shiva Linga/Yogamaya Temple, New Delhi, India, 2020,
pigment print, 12 x 19.25"
16. Devi Yantra/Kailasa Temple, Ellora, India, 2013,
pigment print, 12 x 25.9"
17. Akkana Basadi, Sravanabelagola, India/Shiva Linga, 2020,
pigment print, 12 x 17.5"
18. Shivala Ghat, Varanasi, India/Devi Yantra, 2014,
pigment print, 12 x 21.9"
19. Shiva Linga/Nanjundeshwara Mandir, Nanjangud, India, 2014,
pigment print, 12 x 22.2"
20. Krishna Displaying His Cosmic Form/Hanuman Mandir,
Vrindavan, India, 2014, pigment print, 12 x 17.75"
21. Jugal Kishore Bihari Mandir, Vrindavan, India/The Dasa Mahavidyas, 2022
pigment print, 12 x 23.2"
22. Vak Devi/Jain Temple, Palitana, India, 2014,
pigment print, 12 x 22.9"
23. Devi Yantra/Kailasa Temple, Ellora, India, 2013,
pigment print, 12 x 25.9"
24. Satchakras and Ramakrishna Math, Nagpur, India, 2014,
pigment print, 12 x 23.4"
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All of the paintings are anonymous and untitled. The tantrika artists use various media
(watercolor, tempera, gouache, ink, hand-made colors) on found paper. The location
of the artist in India, the date of the painting, and the dimensions are listed below.
1. Udaïpur, 1975, 12 x 9.75"
2. Udaïpur, 1979, 13.25 x 8.75"
3. Chômu, 1980, 12.25 x 9.25"
4. Near Jaïpur, 1989, 15.25 x 10.5"
5. Near Jaïpur, 1990, 12.5 x 10.25"
6. Jaïpur, 1987, 12.75 x 9.75"
7. Sanganer & New Delhi, 1994, 14.25 x 10"
8. Sanganer & New Delhi, 1994, 14.25 x 10"
9. Palna, 1996, 13.25 x 9.75"
10. Pali, 2000, 14.75 x 10.25"
11. Samode, 2004, 13 x 9.25"
12. Udaïpur, 1995, 12 x 10.5"
Excerpts from Franck André Jamme’s last interview, September 2020,
“Only This Glow Remained” (by Amy Hilton, TL Magazine)
TLmag: You have travelled many times to India. Let us circle over to these
extraordinary abstract Tantric paintings that you are known for introducing into the
West. How did you discover them?
F.A.J.: I first discovered them through literature. Originally, it was at a bookshop in
Paris where I found a small gallery catalogue about an exhibition that had been held
some years before. The catalogue opened with two texts: one written by Henri
Michaux, the other by Octavio Paz. I discovered something existed in India that was
totally abstract, with such simple shapes and symbols, inside such a baroque
culture. I absolutely wanted to know more about this Tantric art. But I realized that
there was next to no information published about the meaning of these paintings.
So, I decided to go to India in search of them. But the first few trips were
unsuccessful. It took twenty years for us to find each other.
TLmag: Why so little information?
F.A.J.: Because of bad climate conditions, monsoons, rats, insects, careless
conservation… not many survived. Certainly, some of these paintings did exist
before the 17th century, but we don’t have proof of that. And, even the Indians don’t
have real access to Tantrism itself. It is a kind of small secret society in Hinduism. All
is enriched by secrets and a hidden world.
TLmag: Tantrism, as it is known in the West, has been used in quite diverse ways
throughout history to mean various things for different people. It defies easy definition.
F.A.J.: Tantrism is so deep. And, yes, it is not very well understood in the West.
Because, as usual, Westerners think about the parts of it, which often have a close
relationship with sex or eroticism. This is a very important point: a body of thought
that has cosmic sexuality included at its own heart. But there are so many other
parts to it. There is a main part of it about language. The mantras. The Tantrikas are
the kings of mantras. This became so interesting for me. Because of the language.
TLmag: I have read that the ‘way of Tantra’ involves a highly individuated personal
research enquiry: a personalized ontological journey. Essentially, each person finds
her or his own ‘way’.
F.A.J.: You know, I was very lucky. Because a terrible thing happened to me on my
way. On one of my research trips in India I was involved in a terrible road accident
where the bus I was traveling in hit a lorry coming the other way. Around me, almost
everyone died. And the irony of the thing is that I would not have had any access to
the families who were making these little wonders without this accident. It opened
another door… After the accident I was petrified of going back, but with the help of
some friends in Paris, I decided to return three years later. A friend told me to go and
see a soothsayer. A sort of guru. I met the man, and it was one of the strangest
meetings with another human being I have ever had in my life. He looked like a fox.
Really. A pure fox. I told him I wanted to continue my research, but I was so terrified
to do so. He asked me to wash my hands in a large jar of sand. He stared at the
patterns and read the shapes in the sand, made by my hands. They do that in Africa
also. It is a kind of divination… And then he told me that I had paid my tribute to the
deity, to the goddess. He told me I could go ahead with my research. But secretly. I
could show these paintings in the West, but on two conditions. First condition, I
could sell the pieces but only for enough to earn my own living, not to become rich.
Second condition, he said when I would go to meet the families who were making
this art, I must go alone or only with the one I love. He was standing at the door with
a foxy smile and, just as I was about to leave, he wrote down two names and
addresses on a little piece of paper, and kindly handed it to me. I truly thought that I
was going to leave without what I was supposed to find. But he handed me the key.
And I immediately went to the first address. And so, it began like that.
TLmag: Can you expand on the creation of these paintings?
F.A.J.: They were originally illustrations that accompanied hand-written manuscripts.
Over time, they were copied out separately from the texts. Their purpose was to be
used as tools to meditate, to connect with cosmic forces in the larger universe. It is
important to remember that they are made anonymously by people who would not
describe themselves as artists. They do not think for a minute that they are artists…
They are just continuing the tradition of the family. What is so inspiring to me is that if
I send them a commission for a piece, I sometimes receive it one year later. There is
absolutely no rush for them to receive money quickly. And I love that. I really love
that. It is very important for me. They do not react quickly at all. Another thing that
inspires me – this is not at all a patriarchal tradition. There are so many women
painting these pieces. And this is so rare in India. As they are anonymous, we would
never know this.
TLmag: They are so akin to poetry. Visual poetry. I am interested in the actual spark
of creative transmission. These simple geometric shapes: ovals, squares, circles,
triangles. The choice of colours…
F.A.J.: They paint them according to an endless schema, constantly repeated and
passed on from generation to generation in each family. Like a raga in their music –
you start with the scale and then improvise. You have five or six notes for one raga,
but you can play it as you like. You just need to respect the original five or six notes.
They do not vary too much.
When they make these paintings, it is also very much like Indian music – it depends
very much on a feeling at a certain moment, on their inside mood. They are not
going to paint a very powerful and red image if they are in a breezy mindset, if you
know what I mean. It is an inner gesture each time.
TLmag: “Never in the universal history of painting,” you once wrote, “have works
been produced that are both so mysterious and simple, so powerful and pure… a bit
as if, with these works, man’s genius had been able to assemble almost everything
in almost nothing.” They are jarringly affective.
F.A.J.: They are. They vibrate. A Shiva Linga on fire. So full of energy, it is burning.
TLmag: Curiously, I do not see one of them exhibited here in your house.
F.A.J.: It is funny, but yes, I do not have a single piece on my walls. Because
I have been very prudent with these pieces, you know. In a sense I do not want to
show them too much. And certainly, I do not want to see them too much. In a very
strange way, I do not like the idea of possessing them. They are much stronger than
me. They could possess me, but I could not possess them. I do my best for them.
They know that I have done my best for them, for a long time now. They are friends.
Maybe I need their energy. Perhaps they could help. Nevertheless, I am so happy to
have met this art. You have no idea how truly happy it has made me.