Art and Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence
unknown photographer, Gandhi’s Possessions, 1948
October 3, 2014 — January 11, 2015
“Art and Truth” explores for the first time the resonance of Mahatma Gandhi’s ethics of nonviolence in the visual arts through both works of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries and masterpieces of classical religious art of the past. Analyzing widely published images of Gandhi’s public persona and the highly symbolic ways in which he manifested his beliefs and lifestyle, this exhibition aims to bring together major works of art from different periods of Eastern and Western culture under the large theme of the arts of nonviolence. The exhibition’s themes echo the concerns of Menil Collection founders, John and Dominique de Menil who dedicated themselves to humanitarian causes.
The exhibition uses as its catalyst the famous photograph of Mohandas K. Gandhi’s (1869-1948) last possessions, a carefully constructed “still-life” of a handful of objects owned at the time of his death (two dinner bowls, wooden fork and spoon, porcelain monkeys, diary, watch, prayer book, spittoon, letter openers, and two pair of sandals). The striking minimalist simplicity of the photograph (whose author has not been identified) conveys the symbolic significance of the objects, which serve as incarnations of Gandhi’s ascetic lifestyle and his philosophy of nonviolence.
The first part of the exhibition is centered around photographs of Gandhi’s life, with an iconic group of images by Henri Cartier-Bresson taken at the tumultuous time of India’s independence and partition (1947), and an extraordinary group of photos taken just hours before and after Gandhi’s assassination in New Delhi (1948). Cartier-Bresson’s humanist approach and interest in social issues corresponded on both a personal and intellectual level with the core-interests of the de Menils, who amassed a collection of several hundred examples of his work. His photographs of these historic events were first published in Life magazine, and their depiction of the extraordinary passion triggered by Gandhi’s death made Cartier-Bresson the first world-famous photojournalist.
Portraits and documents of Gandhi’s most important predecessors and contemporaries - Henry D. Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Ruskin, Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore - will also be on view. Their ideas in favor of social reform, tolerance, and nonviolence had a major impact on Gandhi’s thinking. This part includes visions of peace and social justice by contemporaries like the African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) and the Swiss business-man-turned-peace-activist Henry Dunant (1828-1910), founder of the Red Cross, a paramount humanitarian achievement of the nineteenth century, and the first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. Dunant’s visionary drawings are virtually unknown and have never been on view in the US.
After having established the historical and intellectual foundation, the main part of the exhibition presents major works of art that illustrate the complex iconography and diverse artistic visualizations of nonviolence throughout world religions. This section includes devotional sculptures and paintings from the classical religions of India that informed Gandhi’s thinking (Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism). These works are combined with examples from the more recent religions of the Middle East and West (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), where one encounters a very different iconography, although based on similar themes such as asceticism, compassion, abolition of slavery, and equality of the races.
The next section consists of Gandhi’s legacy, divided in two components: on the one hand a small documentary section with portraits of Gandhi’s most eminent followers and leaders of some of the most significant movements of social and political reform in the last decades (Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, HH 14th Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi, Wangari Mathai, Oscar Romero) and, on the other hand, documents illustrating the de Menils’ personal involvement with some of the same leaders on their course to what became one of the singular art spaces dedicated to human rights, the Rothko Chapel.
Major works from the Menil’s permanent collection (Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Yves Klein, René Magritte, Mark di Suvero, Robert Gober), as well as loans from public and private collections, will appear throughout the exhibition, resonating with Gandhi’s vision as well as with the spiritual humanism that informs the Menil Collection, the Rothko Chapel and the Menil campus as a whole. Works by contemporary artists include Amar Kanwar’s powerful meditative film essays, which observe the odd military rituals that take place daily at the Indian/Pakistani border, and William Kentridge, an artist who has lived and worked all his life in South Africa, a country that changed Gandhi’s thinking forever. Works by others similarly contemplate in an indirect, critical way the unfinished conflicts of the past and present and Gandhi’s challenged, yet still unsurpassed, legacy of nonviolence.
This exhibition is funded in part by the City of Houston.