Dhruva Mistry

Maya Medallion: The Dark One 2


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Not on display
Dhruva Mistry born 1957
Acrylic paint on plaster
Support, circular: 1160 x 1160 x 130 mm
Purchased 1988

Catalogue entry

T05037 Maya Medallion: The Dark One 2 1987

Acrylic on circular plaster relief, diameter 1160 (45 5/8), depth 130 (5 1/8)
Inscribed ‘MAYA MEDALLION: THE DARK ONE - 2 1987 PLASTER’ around top outer edge, ‘Mistry | 1987’ on back t.r. and ‘DO NOT | LIFT BAR TO CARRY’ on back t.l.
Purchased from Nigel Greenwood Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1988
Exh: Dhruva Mistry: Reliefs, Nigel Greenwood Gallery, Oct. 1987 (no number)
Lit: Sheena Wagstaff, ‘The Bird that Cuts the Airy Way’ in Dhruva Mistry: Sculpture and Drawings, exh. cat., Kettle's Yard Gallery, Cambridge 1985, p.13; Mary Rose Beaumont, ‘Dhruva Mistry: Reliefs’, Arts Review, vol.39, Oct. 1987, pp.719–20; William Feaver, ‘A Sea of Graffiti’, Observer, 4 Oct. 1987, p.22; Andrew Graham-Dixon, ‘Lost in the Myths’, Independent, 17 Oct. 1987, p.18; William Feaver, ‘Dhruva Mistry’, Art News, vol.87, no.1, Jan. 1988, p.183; Rupert Martin, ‘Dhruva Mistry’, Flash Art, vol.138, Jan.–Feb. 1988, p.129; Paul Moorhouse, ‘Dhruva Mistry 1982–88’ in Cross-Sections, exh. cat., Collins Gallery, Glasgow 1988, p.6.
Repr: Edward Lucie-Smith, Art in the Eighties, Oxford 1990, p.98 (col.)

‘Maya Medallion: The Dark One 2’ depicts a naked and voluptuous bald-headed female figure whose limbs are bent. Her head, left hand, right elbow, left knee and right foot touch the circular rim of the relief. The pose and gesture of the female figure is like that of an archer. Her left hand is closed as though holding something: in conversation with the compiler on 16 January 1990, the artist said that the circular edge of the medallion can be read as a bow. The figure's right arm is raised and her right hand is positioned behind her head, as if she were pulling an arrow from a quiver on her back. The relief is painted with blue acrylic paint and the figure is flesh-coloured. Extra colour is introduced in the lips, nipples, finger and toe nails, which are painted red; the contour of the eye and the eyebrow are painted black. A black enamel eye has been inset. Mistry purchased a supply of these enamel eyes in the bazaar at Baroda, India, where he studied at the University from 1974 to 1981.

In 1987 Mistry produced a series of eleven large circular reliefs with the collective title ‘Maya Medallions’. T05037 is the tenth in the sequence and is one of three with the subtitle ‘The Dark One’, each numbered from one to three. These were the last reliefs in the sequence to be made. The first six reliefs in the series were given the subtitle ‘The Involuntary Creation’ and numbered one to six. The remaining two reliefs were subtitled ‘The One in the Beginning’ and numbered one and two.

Each of the six reliefs entitled ‘Maya Medallion: The Involuntary Creation’ shows a single naked woman accompanied by two or three objects - birds, eggs, plants, elephants, fish, thrones or fragments of architecture. The figures are depicted standing or lying down, apparently asleep, ‘stretched in a flat and infinite space, in a magical suspension’ (the artist, quoted in Asian Artist Today - Fukuoka Annual VII: Dhruva Mistry, exh. cat., Fukuoka Art Museum, Japan 1994, p.41). Some of the backgrounds are painted blue as in T05037 (see, for example, ‘Maya Medallion: The Involuntary Creation 3’, repr. Fukuoka exh. cat., p.18 in col.), while others are ochre (see ‘Maya Medallion: The Involuntary Creation 6’, repr. ibid., p.19 in col.). The figures, which are often bald, are rendered in a flesh colour, with lips, nipples, finger and toe nails picked out in red, eyes and eyebrows painted black and inset enamel eyes. Touches of gold paint are added to some of the accompanying objects. Only two of these six reliefs have been reproduced. The two reliefs entitled ‘Maya Medallion: The One in the Beginning’ depict a standing figure which is naked and bald-headed and endowed both with female breasts and male genitalia. Only one of these has been reproduced (Beaumont 1987, p.720). The compiler has been unable to find any published reproductions of the three reliefs subtitled ‘The Dark One’, of which T05037 is one.

All eleven ‘Maya Medallion’ reliefs were modelled in clay by the artist. The first six were cast using a mixture of sand and cement, while the remaining five, including T05037, were cast in hard white plaster. All were modelled and cast by Mistry in the drawing room-cum-studio at his Essex cottage. They were then painted with acrylic paints.

In the three reliefs entitled ‘Maya Medallion: The Dark One’ Mistry made use of reverse or concave relief for the modelling of the female figure. Thus, although the figure in T05037 appears to be in convex relief when viewed head-on, it is actually carved into the surface of the medallion. In conversation with the compiler on 12 January 1995, the artist explained that he wanted the silhouette of the figure of ‘The Dark One’ to be as clear and simple as possible. However, as the viewer moves away from a point directly in front of the relief, he or she becomes aware of the inverse modelling. The artist used this process of visual illusion to introduce ambiguity into the works. He envisaged the viewer's experience of the shift in perception as paralleling the shifting meanings of the reliefs. In a letter to the compiler of 5 December 1989, Mistry wrote that the word ‘Maya’ can mean ‘illusion’. He provided the following definitions which he had taken from an Indian-Sanskrit-English Dictionary in his possession:

1. Deceit, trick, an artifice. 2. Enchantment, illusion of magic. 3. (Hence) Unreal, illusory image. 4. A political trick or artifice. 5. (In Vedic philosophy) Unreality, an illusion by virtue of which one considers the unreal universe as really existent and as distinct from the Supreme Spirit. 6. (In Sanskrit philosophy) Prakriti, or the natural state or condition of anything. 7. Wickedness. 8. Pity, compassion. 9. Name of the mother of Buddha

In his letter, Mistry wrote: ‘The medallions are evaluations of things intangible in sculptural form.’ Elsewhere he has said: ‘Maya is enchantment. “The Dark One” explores some of the qualities of nature-enhancing visual perception’ (The Medal, no.13, Autumn 1988, p.127). In his 1989 letter, he explained that the female archer is the personification of Prakriti, the Sanskrit equivalent of Maya, who represents the female principle. Just as she is intangible, so her bow and the arrows ‘of love and enchantment for life’ which she shoots are also invisible.

In conversation with the compiler on 12 January 1995, Mistry explained that he had experimented with concave form in a series of twenty-seven small, square reliefs dating from 1986, all entitled ‘Light, Passion and Darkness’ or, in Sanskrit, ‘Satva, Rajas, Tamas’. These reliefs ‘explore visual metaphors, depicting the struggle for freedom from passion and darkness towards a state of being’ (letter dated 30 November 1989). The artist explained to the compiler that he viewed the reliefs as ‘windows onto real form’ which therefore receded away from the physical surface of the work. By using concave modelling, Mistry highlighted the fact that the depiction of objects in three-dimensional form, though apparently ‘real’, is actually just as illusory as their depiction in two dimensions.

The subject matter of the ‘Light, Passion and Darkness’ reliefs was also influential in the development of the ‘Maya Medallions’. Some depict naked figures striving to break free from the oppression of the material which restrains their movement. The rest have a more serene mood and show a resolution of the conflict with passion and darkness. They depict naked figures, some accompanied by animals, set either amid simple architectural shapes which suggest arcades and windows or in ambiguous undefined space. These attempts to render scenes in illusory perspective were then developed on a much larger scale in the ‘Maya Medallions’.

Many of the ‘Light, Passion and Darkness’ reliefs include voluptuous naked women. When Mistry began his sculptural career in 1978, he modelled mostly male figures and cast them into plaster or painted fibreglass. In 1983 he began to make works depicting naked female figures. From this period on his female figures have been depicted almost exclusively as bald-headed, full-breasted and curvaceous. They have an affinity with the Yakshi figures found in Indian temple sculpture. Yakshi were female earth spirits who adorned the gateways to temples and who were in charge of aspects of agrarian and human fertility and fecundity. If Yakshi were treated with disrespect they were capable of acts of destruction. They were often carved from red sandstone, and the earthy colours of their material mirrored the sensual qualities of their nature. The ochre colour used in some of the ‘Maya Medallions’ echoes this colouring.

Mistry had experimented with effects of perceptual illusion and the transmutation of form in two plaster works, ‘Man on a Chair’, 1978 and ‘Man on the Cube’, 1979 (both repr. Cambridge exh. cat., 1985, p.12). These almost Surrealist sculptures depict naked men, whose faces are reduced to biomorphic forms, sitting on objects into which parts of their bodies merge. In her essay for the Kettle's Yard Gallery catalogue Sheena Wagstaff commented (ibid., p.13):

This sculpture is a formal exploration of the depiction of human form, distinct yet indivisible from its objectness and the stuff of its creation. It reflects an ambivalence about the illusory nature of the world ... At the same time Mistry explores the nature of the figure's sculptural volume, and the interchangeable relationship between the sculptural spaces and those of the surrounding area; for in India there is no distinction drawn between the Western notions of space and solid matter. According to Indian cosmology our visible world is composed of an all-pervading radiant substance, akasa or space, a small part of which condensed to form air ... Thus with air being as much a substance as the other elements, there is no ‘empty’ space in the world.

Mistry used concave form in several of the reliefs in the ‘Maya Medallion’ series, although the ‘Dark One’ reliefs are the only ones in which it was used for the whole of the main figure. In the other Mistry used concave form in several of the reliefs in the ‘Maya Medallion’ series, although the ‘Dark One’ reliefs are the only ones in which it was used for the whole of the main figure. In the other eight reliefs, only certain parts of the composition or of the main figure might be rendered in concave form and the rest in convex form. The three ‘Dark One’ reliefs were the culmination of these experiments and the artist has said that the optical illusion which results from the use of concave modelling is their most important feature. In conversation with the compiler on 12 January 1995, the artist explained that the ‘Dark One’ reliefs ‘necessarily’ made use of concave form because of the elusive quality of the Indian goddess of destruction, Kali or ‘the Dark One’, whom they depict. The word Kali can also be translated as ‘time’ and Heinrich Zimmer in his book Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization (Princeton 1972, p.211) defines this aspect of Kali: ‘Time, the all-producing, all-annihilating principle, in the onflow of which everything that comes into existence again vanishes after the expiration of the brief spell of its alloted life.’ The negative aspect of Kali as Goddess of Destruction is balanced by other positive and more life-nourishing qualities, as befits her feminine nature. These two sides of the Dark One were exploited by Mistry in a medal which was commissioned by the British Art Medal Society in 1988. This medal has the same title and formal configuration as T05037 but is much smaller, being 133 mm in diameter (repr. The Medal, no.13, Autumn 1988, p.126). It was made in plaster and cast in bronze in an edition of fifty-six, one of which is in the collection of the British Museum. In his letter of 5 December 1989, the artist commented: ‘Unlike the big relief [T05037] and like a coin, the medal offers another side of “The Dark One”, which is an exact positive of the negative from the other side.’ Thus, in its use of concave form on one side and convex form on the other, the medal expresses in its physical form the two opposing sides of the Indian deity.

Zimmer (1972, p.131) also defines the essence of Maya as ‘the notion that there is nothing static, nothing abiding, but only the flow of a relentless process, with everything originating, growing, decaying, vanishing - a wholly dynamic view of life, of the individual and of the universe’. The artist intended to express this idea of a cyclical, dynamic life-force in the circular form of T05037. Mistry wrote (letter of 5 December 1989): ‘the medallion, the figure in motion, the life, the universe, the cycle, the concept of Maya come to a full circle to reflect upon intellect and reason.’ T05037 is the only work in the ‘Maya Medallion’ series in which the extremities of the figure touch the edges of the circular relief at points right the way around the circumference. The artist stressed that this was what he was working towards throughout the series and that, in this respect, T05037 was the culmination of the sequence. The pose of the figure is the simplest of those used in all eleven reliefs, yet the artist regards this medallion as the most complex in its depiction of circular movement which comes from the very centre of the piece and reaches to the outer edges, via the means of the figure.

In the mid-1980s Mistry's work showed evidence of an interest in the art of Picasso, particularly his ‘Minotaurmachy’ prints of 1935 and the ‘Vollard Suite’ of etchings, produced in 1936. The artist drew the compiler's attention to a drawing which indicates this interest in Picasso and which is of importance in the development of the iconography of the ‘Maya Medallion - The Dark One’ reliefs. The drawing is titled ‘In the Wilderness’, 1985 (repr. Cambridge exh. cat., 1985, p.23) and is based on a print from the ‘Vollard Suite’ interest in Picasso and which is of importance in the development of the iconography of the ‘Maya Medallion - The Dark One’ reliefs. The drawing is titled ‘In the Wilderness’, 1985 (repr. Cambridge exh. cat., 1985, p.23) and is based on a print from the ‘Vollard Suite’ entitled ‘Faun Unveiling a Woman’ (repr. ibid., p.22). Picasso's print shows a naked faun approaching a sleeping, naked woman on a bed in an interior. In his drawing, Mistry has made the setting woodland, while his faun approaches a woman who is reclining on the ground but is awake. On the ground between the faun and the woman is a quiver and on the far side of the woman there is a bow.

Before making the ‘Maya Medallions’, Mistry made a number of studies in pencil and charcoal as well as drawings in coloured crayons. Following on from the square ‘Light, Passion and Darkness’ reliefs, Mistry made these studies in a square or near-square format. Two of these studies, dating from 1986–7, are reproduced in the 1994 Fukuoka catalogue (pp.28–9 in col.). They depict sleeping female figures hovering against an ambiguous yellow background. Unlike most of the figures in the ‘Maya Medallions’ reliefs, they have hair on their heads and pubic areas. Around them are objects such as a chair, a boat, a skull, an elephant and the amputated head of a bull. The artist explained that these studies were not necessarily made for any one relief, but to explore the ideas developed in the whole series. After making the studies, he arrived at the form of the circle for the reliefs themselves.

The artist has approved this entry.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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