Elephants in the Ashmolean, 28th April – 26th September 2010

Royal Elephants from Mughal India
The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology
28 April – 26 September 2010
Rating: 4/5

The artist and collector Sir Howard Hodgkin has had a long-standing affection for Indian art. The Ashmolean is currently home to 20 of his thoughtfully selected images of elephants, animals “highly prized for their power in battle and as majestic mounts on ceremonial occasions” in Indian culture.

This exhibition, although small and uneasily positioned around one of the new gallery’s L-shaped curving walls, quietly boasts both variety and intrigue.

The Kota court of South-East Rajasthan was renowned for its intricate depictions of man and elephant. The linear swirls, powerful eyes and careful shading mean the creatures leap off the uneven paper.

But the delicate details ensure none of the 400 year old surfaces detract from the elegance intended in these depictions. A minuscule man is perched atop a gargantuan elephant, deliberately exaggerated in debt to the animal’s grandeur.

The anonymous painters haven’t omitted his fuzzy scalp, nor his half-moon toenails, nor the scarlet flora that adorn the saddle on his vast back. Personality and attention to detail spring forth, as 20 beady eyes stare back at me from the gallery walls.

Especially pleasing was the tenacity of the colours: although some of these gouache paintings date from 1570, the pigments still exude the warm glow the artists intended for their regal subjects.

“Elephant Hunt” struck a cord with me. It has the fine precision typical of the Kota style, and I found my eyes darting across the paper as camouflaged men and animals jumped one by one out of the lines.

The more I looked the more I saw: seven elephants emerge from the swirling mud, grey camouflaged against grey, and another seven clamber over stony crevasses. Only on peering in very closely does one notice the hunters hidden in the bulrushes, tricksy and trap-laying.

Fantastical trees, too obscure for genus and classification, ring the skyline with their round leaves and bulbous trunks. This might be a hunt scene primarily, but it is framed by an intricate depiction of the Indian wilderness; this belongs to the elephants and not their predators.

Nor is a sense of humour lost in these paintings. An opaque watercolour from Mughal, entitled, “A Young Elephant Eating” has all the features of the other paintings, plus a humorous extra.

Three dung balls sit proudly in the foreground. Perhaps toilet humour wasn’t the intention, but it raises a smile in any case.