Maha Kumbh Mela On a cycle of paintings by Matthias Meye

Matthias Meyer has made a name for himself as a painter of landscapes and urban architecture, which he develops in a process beginning from still photographs. Part of what distinguishes these works is that they depict situations outside of the central districts and sights of the places he visits, reflecting instead the architectonic and landscape constellations of more peripheral areas, which, though typical for the region in question, are unspectacular and thus might appear similar if encountered in another place. Moreover, he successfully applies his painting strategy of juxtaposing realistic, static elements with sections that seem to lift off, vibrating with a dynamic energy fueled by abstract and gestural forms; by the time the painting is finished, they have decisively altered the subject in its entirety. Even topographies familiar to the viewer are transformed into unseen scenarios by these intentional disruptions. Meyer’s interventions give the impression of experiencing a fleeting, unrepeatable moment in time, and the photographs and video stills from which he works are often taken from a moving vehicle, which only strengthens this impression.

In a series of paintings and accompanying studies, Matthias Meyer has recently dedicated himself to a different type of subject. Inspired by documentary photographs, he set out to render paintings from pictures of the world’s largest Hindu festival, the Maha Kumbh Mela, where millions of people gather at the confluence of three rivers, the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the mythical subterranean Saraswati, to engage in ritual bathing; bathing in the holy waters is believed to purify and increase the chances of salvation. In order to participate in this event, the pilgrims overcome great obstacles, including the grueling journey across the subcontinent, a necessarily makeshift infrastructure, and the justified fear of the consequences of bathing in the unfortunately contaminated waters of the holy river, which is little ameliorated by the addition of fresh water on these occasions. The faithful share the hope that the more arduous the exertions they undergo are, the more wishes they will be granted. “Faith,” writes Reinhard Raffalt, “in this land, is always fused with a type of mystical experience, which for the Hindu is a sign of authenticity. In Hinduism faith is not an act, but a force.”

Mentioned by chroniclers as early as the 7th century, the Maha Kumbh Mela – which also rotates between three other locations – takes place in Prayag in Uttar Pradesh, formerly Allahabad, in accordance with rules of Indian astrology reflecting the cosmic order, every 144 years in the winter month of Magh, when Jupiter is in Aries or Taurus and both the sun and the moon are in Capricorn; the most auspicious bathing days are determined by the phases of the moon. A main highlight of the journey, not only for the faithful but for spectators as well, is the Darshan, the encounter with the great numbers of holy men, swamis, gurus, or ascetic meditating Sadhus, some groups of whom are naked, their bodies smeared with ash, and with whom the pilgrims seek contact. The legend behind the “Pitcher Festival” deserves brief mention, though it has only indirect bearing on Matthias Meyer’s paintings: the legend tells of archetypal events, in which gods and demons do battle, while Indra, the god of war and fertility – and thus, of well-being – has temporarily lost his powers. In the beginning of time gods and demons together churned the primordial ocean of milk, using the Manadara mountain as a churning rod and a snake king as a rope, in order to obtain amrita, the nectar of eternal life. This was brought in a pitcher from the floor of the ocean to the surface by Dhanwantari, the divine healer. A struggle for possession of the pitcher ensued, a primeval battle suffused with erotic temptations – in which Vishnu, the protector of the universe himself intervened with magic – and a few drops fell to the earth, namely in those places where Kumbh Melas are celebrated to this day. The number twelve, which is the basis for the rotating dates on which these festivals are held, derives from the duration of this mythical battle, which lasted twelve days, during which time the gods were present on earth, as well as from the belief that twelve days for the gods represent the same number of years for a human; furthermore, Jupiter also takes twelve years to complete its orbit.

These festive gatherings are like great fairs, combined with processions of impressive splendor and the practice of spiritual rituals which draw the faithful and which “symbolically reflect” the natural and social order. “[…] The ‘merit’ accumulated will be rewarded in this life and the next; death and rebirth are unavoidable, but the individual can secure for himself a good life within the given order by means of good conduct.” The smell of incense fills the air and colorful flower arrangements adorn the altars. Bright-colored saris and banners waved by the pilgrims as they wait on the banks increase the suggestive appeal of the event, and Matthias Meyer does not shut himself off to this vitality, but rather he relativizes it in keeping with the principles he has established in his work on other subjects. He stands at a distance to the events, partly due to the fact that – in contrast to previous photographs he has worked from – in this case he did not himself take the photographs, and partly because his European background confers a certain detachment with regard to the Hindu religion. Though there is no lack of metaphorical references and allusions in post-modern Indian art, including traditional social and mythical symbolism, the cluster of themes that Meyer deals with is not generally treated in Indian painting as a subject in and of itself.

Meyer directs his full attention to a seething mass of humanity, in which objects and individuals have no separate existence and which he weaves together into a web, the details of which must uncompromisingly subordinate themselves to the finely attuned image system he constructs, whose lines form the bodies of the people and cascading vertical rivulets of color. The effect is intensified by the painter’s forgoing of a particular focal point, and thus the surging and concentration of the crowd – a rhythmic movement on the horizontal, seemingly arbitrarily bounded, space (which goes back to the photograph) – becomes the predominant motif. Clearly this provides valid metaphors for the event, though here painting takes precedence over documentation. In a report on religious festivals and the pilgrimages that accompany them it has been said that “Where India converges most intensively and penetratingly is where religion and the multitudes join together. […] It forces us again and again to examine our feelings. Its constitutive elements are religion and the multitude: we will never be released from the awareness of human frailty and there is no way we can escape from the mass of humanity. Indians live in the multitude and they suffer from their multitude.” Matthias Meyer sees the individual go missing, “the people form a sea, blending in with the water in which they are bathing.” Meyer is reminded of paintings of battle scenes, in which masses of humanity surge toward each other and collide, as well as of apocalyptic scenes.

Following some invisible director, pushing toward the river and wading in its waters, the people, or better, the vaguely contoured, diminutive silhouettes with which the painter alludes to them, move in an undefined, borderless space – in which sparsely inserted architectonic elements provide the only possibility of orientation – that draws in the viewer like a whirling maelstrom. The combined effect of all these brief, finely nuanced ciphers so sensitively placed in the composition and standing for the figures and their reflections in the water, is an abstract-impressionistic phantom image which is sensual but nonetheless permeated with structure, and that appears – as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner once wrote of his own work of a quite different sort – as “independent organisms of lines, surfaces and colors, which only contain natural forms to the extent necessary for understanding.” Matthias Meyer’s fresh acrylic sketches, in which he brings the material components of a color, its fluidity or its weight, to the fore, show how far the interplay of color and sign has moved away from the subject, suggesting a state of suspension that is – nearly – consumed in completely abstract formulations as an accumulation of flecks, lines and sublime streaks. In these sketches are manifest both passion for the act of painting as well as a growing mental release from the photographic model, and the viewer can sense this development.

Water is depicted as a dull brew without “frivolous transparency, without dishonest highlights”, its boundaries with the banks and the heavens unclear. The blurred distinction between painting ground and painterly notation is somewhat disorienting, and underscores the ambiguity of the image. Horizontal rows, balanced diagonals and angles organize the composition, though each section and plane is treated equally and – in fine keeping with the order imposed – luminous flecks and streaks of color interrupt the generally subdued, finely varied color scheme, whose closeness engenders a misty and indifferent atmosphere and stands in stark contrast to these light color tones. Color and spatial values are in accord.

Matthias Meyer’s view is that of a stranger witnessing an exotic spectacle, which is as fascinating to him as to the copperplate engravers whose imagination was spurred by expedition reports and have enlivened India’s magical world since the 16th century. Their repertoire in particular is filled with images of ceremonies, sometimes fantastical and idealized in style, and they worked from models in the form of drawings and Indian miniatures. As early as the 19th century, research photographers of note have also documented and preserved the unfolding grandeur of such cultural highlights, with their ability to stimulate all of the senses, though their intention was to create realistic pictures of the events. By contrast, Meyer subjects the events of the Maha Kumbh Mela to his individual vision; employing stylistic techniques he has developed over the years he bends and transforms a subject to which he is drawn until it conforms to what his inner eye sees, creating works in which photograph and innovative painting interact in new ways.

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