Civilisations: How Do We Look / The Eye of Faith by Mary Beard

2403Kathryn Hughes at The Guardian:

It is this ability to read closely in the interstices of culture that makes Beard such an invigorating guide. A case in point: she introduces us to the Edwardian artist Christiana Herringham, who travelled to Hyderabad to record the fading Buddhist paintings on the cave walls at Ajanta before they finally succumbed to age and bat guano. On her return to Britain she produced a lavish book containing exquisite reproductions of the best images, all worked up from her meticulous tracings. Exquisite but fallacious. For what Lady Herringham had imagined she had seen on the cave walls was the Indian equivalent of Renaissance religious art, and she set about filling in its gaps and ambiguities accordingly, using colours and shapes and narratives that would have made no sense to the original pilgrims.

Yet Beard makes it clear that Herringham was no cultural colonialist. She understood the religious significance of the art she was trying to save and, once home, was racked with guilt that she might have disturbed a holy shrine. What’s more, given her great support for suffrage and her founding of the National Art Collections Fund, which still saves paintings for the nation today, in another kind of historical narrative she would be held up to us as a heroine, a proto-modern on the side of the angels.

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