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Gates of the Lord: The Tradition of Krishna Paintings

September 13, 2015–January 3, 2016
Regenstein Hall
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September 12, 10:30–5:00

This fall, the Art Institute of Chicago offers a glimpse into one of the world’s most intimate religious traditions. Bringing together over 100 artworks from private and public collections in India and the United States, Gates of the Lord: The Tradition of Krishna Paintings is the first major U.S. exhibition to explore the unique visual culture of the Pushtimarg, a Hindu denomination from Western India.

Founded in the 16th century by the saint and philosopher Shri Vallabhacharya (1479–1531), the Pushtimarg is a religious community dedicated to the devotion of Shrinathji, a divine image of the Hindu god Krishna as a seven-year-old child. The religious and artistic center of the sect is based in the temple town of Nathdwara (literally, “The Gates of the Lord”), near Udaipur in the state of Rajasthan, India. Scholars and artists have long been fascinated by the distinctive and highly aestheticized manner in which members of this group venerate Shrinathji, as well as by the legacy of miniature paintings created as a record of such worship. This exhibition showcases centuries of pichvais (textile hangings) and miniature paintings that have been created by and for the Pushtimarg in devotion of Shrinathji.

The exhibition takes visitors through a year in Nathdwara, where the daily worship of Shrinathji is characterized by the changing seasons and a bustling festival calendar. Gallery by gallery, visitors are introduced to the pichvais used as backdrops for Shrinathji in his shrine, each uniquely suited to a particular season or festival. The accompanying miniature paintings offer further insight into the Pushtimarg sect: its mode of veneration, history, and important priests and patron families. Enhancing the experience of the sect’s rich culture are festival and devotional music, a shrine reconstruction, and touchscreen kiosks that allow visitors to page through religious manuscripts, an artist’s sketchbook, and a historic photo album. The exhibition concludes with an exploration of the works, sketches, and observations of prominent 20th- and 21st-century Nathdwara artists who have kept the painting tradition flourishing through the present day.

Gates of the Lord comprises drawings, pichvais, paintings, and historic photographs borrowed chiefly from two major private collections in India, the renowned TAPI Collection of Praful and Shilpa Shah (Surat, India) and the Amit Ambalal Collection (Ahmedabad, India). These rare loans are augmented by important objects from a number of public and private collections within the United States, including the Art Institute’s own permanent collection, in order to present the richest possible story of Pushtimarg art and tradition.

Sponsors

Lead Sponsorship for Gates of the Lord: The Tradition of Krishna Paintings has been provided by Nita and Mukesh Ambani and the Reliance Foundation.

reliance foundation logo

Major funding has been generously contributed by Anita and Prabhakant Sinha.

Annual support for Art Institute exhibitions is provided by the Exhibitions Trust: Kenneth Griffin, Robert M. and Diane v. S. Levy, Thomas and Margot Pritzker,
the Earl and Brenda Shapiro Foundation, and the Woman’s Board.


The artists of Nathdwara photographed in 2014. (view larger)

Nathdwara and its artists are renowned for having preserved painting traditions in an unbroken legacy for more than four centuries. The exhibition provides an opportunity to celebrate these living artists, who have gone unrecognized for so long.  Learn more about the traditional temple hangings of Nathdwara and the artists who continue to preserve and elaborate upon this unique tradition.

One of the most exciting aspects of Gates of the Lord: The Tradition of Krishna Paintings is the tremendous number of artworks coming to the United States for the first time—the majority from the Amit Ambalal and TAPI collections, both located in Gujarat, in Western India. While the opportunity for our members and visitors to see these faraway treasures in our galleries is unprecedented, the distance between Chicago and Gujarat presented a logistical challenge for conservation treatment, matting, and framing. The solution was to send two Art Institute conservators and a framer to India to prepare the works for the exhibition—an experience that proved unforgettable for all involved.

Last fall, assistant paper conservator Rachel Freeman was the first to travel to Gujarat, working mostly with the Amit Ambalal collection in Ahmedabad in a traditional wooden haveli, a gorgeous building designed to house this remarkable pichvai, or painted textile, collection. After assessing treatment possibilities for these paintings on cotton in the fall, Freeman returned to pursue more complex conservation in January, accompanied by Daniela Leonard, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Paintings Conservation. “Mr. Ambalal wanted us to understand what we were working on, so he took us to a temple in the historic center of Ahmedabad,” said Freeman. “We were able to watch one of the eight daily darshans, a ritual of reverence for Shrinathji. It was like seeing a painting come to life.”

Freeman also treated works from the TAPI collection in Surat, a collection predominantly of textiles and contemporary art. While staff members skilled at hand-sewing prepared the textiles being loaned for Gates of the Lord, Freeman’s expertise was required to treat two of the three works on paper. One of these was a painting with tiny colored stones, beetle wings, and miniature pearls, some of which had to be reattached with a special glue prepared on site. Freeman also taught the TAPI staff mending techniques for a sketchbook of animal studies by Ghasiram, one of Nathdwara’s most innovative artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “The sketchbook pages are on poor-quality wood-pulp paper, so they tear very easily” notes Freeman. “Fortunately paper conservators see this type of paper often, so it was easy to find a suitable mending tissue. The TAPI staff has good hand skills, and they were fast learners.”

The exchange of institutional expertise continues as the Art Institute of Chicago welcomes TAPI technicians during the installation period. “Arvind Shelar and Vijay Patel are mounting and installing the large TAPI pichvais,” says Freeman. “We are very lucky that they could be spared to do this necessary but delicate work. I hope their experience at the Art Institute is as eye-opening for them as the months I spent in India were for me.”


Assistant paper conservator Rachel Freeman at work in the Kamal Chowk, or haveli, at the Amit Ambalal collection, checking for separation of paper layers in the early 19th-century A Maharaja Venerating Shrinathji.