My four-year-old son accompanied me to Olivia Fraser’s solo exhibition, The Lotus Within, at the Grosvenor Gallery in London. To his delight, he discovered a painting he could identify with. He excitedly exclaimed, “It’s a painting of eyes, and the eyes are just like ours, except there are flowers in these eyes.” I couldn’t sum up the intent behind the 20 paintings included in the exhibition better than that. The painting of the eyes, titled ‘Darshan II,’ quite literally translates the artist’s concept, that is, visualising meditative yogic practice and ancient texts through painting. The Gheranda Samhita, an ancient Sanskrit text on yoga, also influences her work displayed in the show.
Fraser, the wife of author William Dalrymple, lives in India. The lotus flower is a common image in Indian art, in traditional, contemporary, as well as in Hindu and Buddhist religious iconography. This is because the lotus is considered a symbol of purity and perfection as it grows and blooms in muddy waters.
Fraser has been under the tutelage of traditional miniaturist Ajay Sharma of Jodhpur. Undoubtedly, her paintings reflect great skill and mastery in the techniques of miniature painting. However, I am not convinced that the pardakht technique —where a single-hair squirrel tail brush is used to make tiny dashes close together to achieve a flat plane of colour and/or dimension — is necessitated by her aesthetic.
Artist Olivia Fraser reinterprets the motif of the lotus by deconstructing it or by amplifying its effect
Her large symbolic paintings would be just as impactful in any other medium, bearing in mind her journey and understanding of yoga philosophy. But the use of ground stone pigments definitely complements her ideas. Considering that Fraser’s aim is to bring nature to the forefront in her paintings, her use of pigments derived directly from earth has great significance. For example, the fact that the flat, green wash against which the flower is set in ‘The Golden Lotus’ is actually crushed malachite, adds weight to her concept.
The seven-part piece ‘The Golden Lotus’ illustrates a lotus flower in various stages of bloom while ‘Chakra I and II’ is composed of lotus petals dispersed equally on an invisible grid on her canvas. Both are bold and contemporary examples of how Fraser reiterates elements of Western minimalism while drawing on the skills of traditional miniature painting. Her subject and technique blur the boundary of Eastern and Western art. Unlike Western art, where nature and landscape is a genre in itself, most of the nature depicted in mythological miniature painting serves as a backdrop that helps tell the tale of humans or gods at the forefront.
Fraser has attempted to reappropriate the lotus motif from its natural surroundings in such paintings and made it larger than life to bring it to the fore as an icon, either by deconstructing or amplifying it.
She is also inspired by tantric arts and uses geometric patterns and concentric circles to form optical illusions. She visually translates yoga philosophy as she has practised and understood from texts.
Awareness of her interests unwittingly involves the viewer in such a manner that they end up practising and understanding the meditative techniques of yoga as they encounter her paintings. This was my experience, at least, as I stood before ‘The Scent of A Lotus I’, a stunning display of graded colour, with a pink-red lotus at its centre, the white of the paper around it serving as a halo. Concentric circles of bees surround the flower in what produces a subtle optical illusion that makes the bees look like they are in motion. Closest to the flower, the bees are small and red in colour; as they move away from the flower, they become lighter in colour and larger in size. In this piece, Fraser has attempted to visualise the exercise of olfactory and auditory senses. Looking at the painting, one can imagine the buzzing of the bees as they are attracted to the flower’s nectar, and the scent emerging from the bloom fills the senses, fulfilling the purpose of meditative yoga. This particular painting successfully represents the yoga posture Bhramarikumbaka, a way of breathing where a buzzing sound is emitted when the yogi slowly exhales.
“The Lotus Within” was showcased at Mayfair’s Grosvenor Gallery in London, from June 6 to June 26, 2018
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 12th, 2018