Presenting works that range from masterpieces of classical religious art to contemporary paintings, photographs, sculptures, and videos, Experiments with Truth explores the resonance of Mohandas K. Gandhi’s (1869–1948) ethics of nonviolence in the visual arts. 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 cultures 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 Gandhi’s 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, diary, watch, prayer book, spittoon, porcelain see-hear-speak-no-evil monkeys, 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 revelation of the extraordinary emotional impact triggered by Gandhi’s death helped make Cartier-Bresson one of the world’s most famous photojournalists.
Portraits and documents of Gandhi’s most important predecessors and contemporaries—Henry D. Thoreau, John Ruskin, Florence Nightingale, Leo Tolstoy—are also on view. Their ideas in favor of social reform, tolerance, and nonviolent action had a major impact on Gandhi’s thinking. This part includes visions of peace and social justice by near-contemporaries like the African American abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth and the Swiss businessman-turned-peace-activist Henry Dunant, founder of the Red Cross and a co-recipient of the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. Dunant’s visionary drawings are virtually unknown and have never been on view in the United States.
The main part of the exhibition presents major works of art that illustrate the complex iconography and diverse artistic visualizations of nonviolence in world religions. This section includes devotional sculptures and paintings from the classical religions of India that informed Gandhi’s thinking (Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism). These works are combined with examples from the Abrahamic religions of the Middle East and West (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), where one encounters a very different iconography, although often with similar themes such as asceticism and compassion, and which produced such outgrowths as advocating the abolition of slavery and equality of the races.
Another section consists of Gandhi’s legacy, divided in two components: on the one hand a 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, the14th Dalai Lama, and Aung San Suu Kyi)—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 (René Magritte, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Yves Klein, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Agnes Martin, and Robert Gober), as well as loans from public and private collections, 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 A Season Outside, a film that observes the odd military rituals that take place daily at a station on the Indian/Pakistan border; animations by William Kentridge, an artist who has lived and worked all his life in South Africa, a country that changed Gandhi’s thinking forever; and a video installation by Kimsooja. Works by others, such as contemporary artists Shilpa Gupta and Zarina, similarly contemplate in an indirect, critical way the unfinished conflicts of the past and present and Gandhi’s challenged, yet still unsurpassed, legacy of truth and nonviolence.
Curated by Menil Director Josef Helfenstein in collaboration with Indian artist Amar Kanwar, Experiments with Truth opens on the 145th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. The exhibition also activates various sites on the Menil campus, and numerous cultural organizations in Houston are organizing exhibitions and programs along its broad themes during the same period. Please go to Gandhi’s Legacy: Houston Perspectives for more information.
This exhibition is generously supported by Clare Casademont and Michael Metz; The John R. Eckel, Jr. Foundation; Franci Neely Crane; Anne and David Kirkland; Anne and Bill Stewart; Michael Zilkha; H-E-B; Skadden, Arps; Suzanne Deal Booth; Janet and Paul Hobby; Marilyn Oshman; Baker Hughes Foundation; Diane and Mike Cannon; Molly Gochman in honor of Louisa Stude Sarofim; Mark Wawro and Melanie Gray; Bert Bertonaschi; Mahatma Gandhi Library; and the City of Houston. United Airlines is the Preferred Airline of the Menil Collection.
Photos: Paul Hester