28 November 2008
Buddha with Pomegranates signed and dated 1916
Oil on canvas, 70.5 by 68 cm.
Provenance: Acquired directly from the artist's family by the present owner.
Private collection, USA.
Exhibited: Mir Iskusstva, Petrograd, 1916.
Boris Anisfeld Exhibition (Touring), The Brooklyn Museum, New York, USA, 1918-1920, No. 61.
Duke University Museum of Art, Durham, NC, 2001-2006.
Boris Anisfeld: Watercolours, Oils and Sculptures, MacDougall's, London, 22 September-31 October 2008.
Literature: Exhibition catalogue, C. Brinton, The Boris Anisfeld Exhibition, New York, USA, No. 61 illustrated.
Imbued with symbolism, Buddha with Pomegranates was executed during Anisfeld’s final year in Russia and ranks as one of his most outstanding works. This effective and decorative work exemplifies the fascination with Buddhism and the east in general which permeated Russian art in the early 20th century, and it was during this period, that a number of Buddhist references appeared in Anisfeld’s works. They were not consciously inserted by the artist but, rather, absorbed by him as part of the ethos of symbolism and the general atmosphere of interest in theosophy and esoterica. In all probability, Anisfeld was already familiar with basic Buddhist principles, which were widely disseminated at this time – and those such as the correct interpretation of the concept of emptiness, or the problem of the relationship between man and the cosmos, were close to the Russian heart.
The composition of the still life as a whole is constructed utilising Buddhist symbolism. The seven pomegranates which are lying in front of a statue of Buddha not only represent (along with citrus and peach) blessed fruits, but are also a symbol of the “seven treasures”, seven sacrifices or seven attributes of a monarch i.e. symbols of everything which was renounced by Siddhartha Gautama when he became Buddha (and these included: “the wheel of law” with 1000 spokes, which was a symbol of symmetry and perfection; the precious stone which grants every wish; the true and devoted wife who is concerned for her husband; the clever minister on whom law and order in a state depends; a white elephant, a symbol of sovereignty of an eastern ruler; the horse, a symbol of the chariot of the sun; a general who has vanquished all his enemies).
The green triangle as an image also has profound metaphysical overtones. This is an element which the “esoteric” artists who were contemporaries of Anisfeld treated as a “symbol of the world in every religion, system and even in heretical schools of thought, from prehistoric times to the present day”.
The very composition of this work, in which pomegranates are scattered before a statue of Buddha as if they are some sort of offering, brings to mind the following Buddhist parable: A great king, who wanted to earn the Buddha’s approval, was listening to a sermon by the Buddha on the subject of self denial and inner peace. The Buddha always carried a drum with him: “Teacher, why do you have a drum?” asked the king. The Buddha replied: “I will beat it on the day of the greatest sacrifice made to me”. Everyone of course wanted to know who would make this sacrifice.
The king, hearing Buddha speak these words, loaded heaps of treasure onto his elephants and sent them off to Buddha. He wanted to sacrifice these riches to Buddha and earn his blessing. On the way the king met an old woman who curtseyed and said: “I am very hungry, won’t you give me something to eat?”. The king took a single pomegranate out of the basket and handed it to her. The old woman went to Buddha bearing this piece of fruit. At the same time the king, expecting to hear the drum beat, arrived at the Buddha’s ashram, and led his treasure laden elephants to the Buddha.
However, the old woman, scarcely able to walk, approached the Buddha and placed the pomegranate at his feet. Buddha accepted it, and there and then beat the drum. The king was shaken, and asked the Buddha: “Swami, I have made a sacrifice to you of so much treasure, yet your drum remained silent, but now you have beaten it when offered merely a single piece of fruit. That is hardly a sacrifice, is it?” The Buddha replied: “Oh king! A sacrifice is not measured in quantity. Quality is what is important, you are a king and naturally you give gifts of gold, But this old woman, although she is very hungry, has not eaten her pomegranate but instead has offered it to me, even though it could have eased her hunger. Can a greater sacrifice be imagined?”
Such a metaphorical understanding of images is characteristic of all Anisfeld’s creative oeuvre. It was shaped not so much by the influence, in his early years, of the artists of the “World Art” association with whom he had been taking part in exhibitions since 1911, as by his proximity (both in terms of painting technique and in terms of subjects) to the work of certain masters of the “Blue Rose”. The multiple and nuanced paint combinations, unrealistic colours and virtuoso brushwork place Buddha with Pomegranates in the same class as the works of Roerich, Golovin and Grigoriev, which helped to bring about a renaissance of eastern spiritual practices in early 20th century art.
Notes on symbols:
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