February 3, 2010

The Art of Tantra by Philip Rawson

BOOK #: 4
REASON READ: Art History Challenge, Support Your Local Library Challenge, A to Z Titles, 100+ in 2010
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
GENRE: NF, Art History
FORMAT/PAGES: Paperback/204
RATING: 3.5 Stars

I am studying Asian Art as my theme for the Art History Challenge. The Art of Tantra is a publication included in the World of Art series in 1978. (My library keeps up-to-date art text in stock, you can see.)

Unless you live under a rock, you have at least heard of Tantra. What you have heard about it, however, will probably vary greatly. In the West, Tantra has become almost synonymous with specific sexual practices, but that is just one aspect of what tantra really is. Tantra is more about the spirituality of love- experiencing the love of everything in life from sex to compassion to the beauty of nature. It is about unconditional love and the totality of life, no exclusions. Tantra has a lot to do with rituals, visualizations, repeating mantras, and then with a clearer awareness- freedom and enlightenment that, as I understand it, takes place finally during sexual rites. It would take me a while to articulate what Tantra is, especially since I only partly understand it myself, so let's move on to the art.

This book takes a look at the art that has come out of this exploration of sensuality. From paintings of royalty making love with their "eyes meeting, to enhance their mutual feeling" to diagrams "illustrating the directional conformation of the worlds and heavens as they crystallize and separate from within the Cosmic Egg." (I should note here that the Cosmic Egg is the notion of Genesis appearing in the Upanishad.)

Nearly every painting, illustration, sculpture, and chart within the book gave me the most curiosity. Whenever my attention waned while reading, a new piece of art would give me a reason to keep looking into its origins. And not just because of the nudity and eroticism of the artwork, but because of the symbolism contained in the art and the beauty of such ancient pieces of work.

WARNING: THE FOLLOWING IMAGES ARE FROM A BOOK ABOUT TANTRIC ART. VIEW AT YOUR DISCRETION. Although, I did not photograph some of the, um, more explicit artwork, some of which was prettier. Descriptions underneath the pictures.

Top left: Couple from the "heaven bands" of a temple at Puri, Orissa c. 12th century
Bottom left: Group of images from a collapsed 10th-century stone temple at Tewar, North India, including apsaras, a terrible yogini, a Kali, and a lingam.
Right side: Relief sculpture of couple in sexual intercourse, from the "heaven bands" of the Devi Jagadambu temple at Khajuraho, c. 1000

Tanka painted with nine mandala-yantras, which are meditated on in series to produce a special condition of consciousness. Nepal, c. 19th century.

Album painting, representing a phase of love acted out by Krisna and Radha, as described in Banudatta's poem 'Rasamanjari', which is devoted to erotics.

This is my first read for the Art History Challenge. Up next is the book Chinese Landscape Painting by Sherman E. Lee, noticeably more of a subdued subject.

1 comment:

  1. Such an interesting topic, Rebecca! I can definitely see the influence of tantric sex on that Tigress series I reviewed a while ago by Jade Lee. It seems like Tantric art is extremely varied. I'm especially intrigued by the medallions for meditation.

    It sounds like you didn't find the text very enjoyable, though. :)


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