How does one capture the spirit of a city? For New York, I like to think this is achieved by the photographs of Diane Arbus, or maybe by those of Lee Friedlander, like the ones framed so excellently by Joel Cohen at Luhring Augustine a few months ago. You want to capture the heat, the desperation, all these absolute freaks living elbow to elbow in overlapping narratives that strain credulity. That must be the fabric of the city, because that’s all the same today. The only thing that’s really changed are the rents.
A show that just opened at the Cleveland Museum of Art, A Splendid Land: Paintings from Royal Udaipur, seeks to capture the elevated mood of the powerful city in the 18th century when it “became a destination for the entertainment of political leaders, where its rulers built diplomatic relationships and demonstrated the righteous authority of the court,” according to the release. Local kings commissioned large-scale paintings to capture the mood (bhava) of the city’s palaces, lakes, temples and mountains. That bhava can be buoyant, romantic or stoic, but it is never dull.
Twenty of the fifty works are on loan from the City Palace Museum of Udaipur, and most have never been seen in public before this exhibition, which began at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art in collaboration with the Indian institution. They depict 200 years of the maharanas’ world of lake palaces, the City Palace and the royal hunting grounds. In Sunrise in Udaipur, there’s a ‘Where’s Waldo’ level of detail on display, with the tiny people in these huge works depicted in all their finery. But it’s not just people—everything about the work teems with abundance. We see fish jumping, bathers disrobing, shepherds tending their flocks and men hunting tigers, to say nothing of the many palaces, temples and walled villages reproduced with a fidelity that extends to the shape of the arches in the courtyards.
Now is the time in summer when we bemoan those nonstop rainy days, but the monsoons of Udaipur were celebrated. This is best seen in Maharana Fateh Singh crossing a river during a monsoon (1893), which took the artist Shivala seven years to complete and shows the king fording an overflowing river with an entourage. He sports a pacific halo, and the whole scene amounts to a not-so-humble brag about the region’s water.
“Our key goal in this exhibition was to shift the warrantless perception that these paintings are royal portraits of the mindless pleasures of an exotic world and indolent kings,” says co-curator Dipti Khera, associate professor in the Department of Art History and Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, in a video produced for the show by the Smithsonian. “Paintings of pleasure show us how these political alliances were cultivated.”
These good times are a map of power and fun to regard with little other context, too.
A Splendid Land: Paintings from Royal Udaipur is on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art through September 10.