articles

The Miniaturist: Olivia Fraser
Platform Magazine, March 2016

Artsome Blog. March 2016: Olivia Fraser's "The Sacred Garden": a sneak preview:
Artsome Blog, March 2016

Mithila Review. Feb 2016: Art With Olivia Fraser:
Mithila Review, February 2016

US Architectural Digest, 2014
The story behind artist Olivia Fraser's stunning Indian-inspired Works

BBC News (5 Feb 2014)
Olivia Fraser: Reinterpreting traditional Indian miniatures

The Guardian
Olivia Fraser: mastering the Hindu miniature
Using time-honoured materials, Olivia Fraser, a Scottish Catholic, has mastered the craft of Hindu miniature. Julian Bell admires the serene boldness of her art for contemplation

The Caravan
The Eye Of The Beholder
How three expat artists approach religion and its relevance in contemporary India
Himanshu Bhagat 1 June 2012

The Times of India
Sacred, secular geometries
Neelam Raaj 28 April 2012

The Sunday Guardian
Arty explorations of traditional idioms
Manjusha Madhu 18 Mar 2012

Olivia Fraser: A Passionate Quest

Fraser’s paintings reveal an intimate knowledge of the miniature practice gained from her years of apprenticeship with the ustad Ajay Sharma in Jaipur. Regular participation in the workshop led Fraser to experience the rigorous training in technique:

“I would spend hours listening to him as he managed to make his studio a microcosm of the world outside, channeling it into his work, relating how he used a certain sap from a particular tree outside his front door or a chalk from the cliffs around Jaipur, local flower petals, or soot from the oil lamp...Ajay taught me about grinding and mixing the pigments to the correct consistency. I learnt how to make the wasli, binding the thin hand-made paper together, priming it and burnishing it with an agate stone. What I enjoyed most was using the single haired squirrel brushes. These have a natural spring and curl at the lip, which, together with the almost meditational concentration required for this genre, facilitates the drawing of perfect miniature circles and spirals”.

After seven years of apprenticeship, Fraser’s technique is impeccable. Her drawing is delicate, her handling of the brush is sensitive, her colours have the density imbued by steady layering of thin veils of the stone pigments. Certain images in this exhibition bear witness to her former practice as a watercolour artist and figurative illustrator. Her terrain here is quite simply the Cosmos: where the sacred creation narrative of the Rig Veda is illuminated by lotuses inspiring fertility, where trees transpire towards mountains that embrace them in a protective mould. However, the majority of her forms are abstract and geometric. Horizontals hover, triangles interact, circles circumambulate and rectangles frame frames moving inwards as if to protect the deity in the mandala.

Inspiration for Fraser’s recent work has come from the revelation of monumental manuscript paintings rediscovered in Marwar. These pieces reveal an extraordinary dimension of Rajput court art. Their distinctive fusion of Jodhpur-Marwar school painting allies devotional Nath iconography with minimalist abstraction. This curious shift came in the late nineteenth century with the sectarian order Nath Sampraday, a sect that from the twelfth century had initiated the hatha yoga practices inspired by earlier Tantric rituals and imagery.

Another source of inspiration for Fraser has been the Nathdwara pichwai painting from Mewar. Nathdwara painting is embedded in the Pushti Marga (Path of Grace), a bhakti sect founded by Vallabhacharya and followed by the devotees of the Vaishnava ritual. Patronage lay in the Gujarati mercantile community where the ‘goswamis’ in their role as poets, philosophers and aesthetes introduced chitra-seva, the worship of the painted icon, thus nurturing the priestly tradition of art patronage into the domain of secular connoisseurship, now crucial to contemporary Indian culture. This evolved by way of mass production of its primary icon: Krishna in his child-like incarnation as Shrinathji.

In 2006 Fraser was invited to join the studio of the specialist in Pichwai painting, Desmond Lazaro, who had studied under the renowned Bannuji from Jaipur. “pichwais were bound by strict iconographic rules, with sacred geometry and proportion integral to the symbolic meaning and structure of the whole. I loved the rigour and exuberance in this style with its significant sacred under-pinning…. I was keen to discover the origin of the sacred shapes, structure, colour and form as this all became relevant to my own practice as an artist looking into the sacred Hindu tradition.”

Scarcely anything was known about the monumental miniatures of Jodhpur until the rigorous scholarship of Debra Diamond. Her curatorial acuity resulted in the wondrous exhibition ‘Garden and Cosmos’ which revealed the extraordinary scale and scope of Jodhpur at this time. The Nath’s teachings had already influenced Rajput art but the extraordinary transformation was made within the Jodhpur tradition when painting shifted into a very different world during the reign of Maharajah Man Singh between 1803 and 1843. The history is occluded as if the very esotericism of the movement has drawn a veil over the facts. The Nath Siddhis were linked to tantric orders where experimental practices based on hatha yoga were pushed to elaborate degrees of risk and reward. As Maha-Siddhis, the ‘perfected ones’, their enlightenment would enable them not only to be gurus and fly across the cosmic strata’s but their upward mobility allowed them to become soldiers, policy advisors, contollers of revenus and bankers, even speculating in real estate. This si the background which partially explains the sumptuousness of their paintings: vast in scale yet reduced in content, the intensity of their abstract colour fields is heightened with the exquisite ornamentation of gold and silver leaf. The paradox of an aesthetic richness, a sort of cool baroque, stuns the viewer into a sense of bhakti. Fascinating as it is to ponder on the sources of such an innovatory conception, its contemporary relevance may be demonstrated through the work of Olivia Fraser.

“I came to be interested in the esoteric world of Tantric Art when my interest shifted from Company and Mughal painting to Hindu/ Rajasthani painting… it seemed to have very ancient pre-Mughal roots -certainly in terms of shape, colour, form and iconography… In my search to really understand the roots of this world, it seemed to me that they were built on a very strong, rigorous backbone of arcane knowledge and that Tantric art could contain answers to my questions.”

The principal difference between other images informed by Tantric sadhana and the Nath paintings lies in their depictions of the Absolute. In the more familiar yantras, it is abstract, an infinitely formless entity, often simply a blank space onto which the meditator projects her own inner yantra. The Sri yantras (power diagrams) set out to reveal the underlying structure of the universe. Dynamics in yantras depict the eternal flux of opposites, active and passive, male and female. Triangles interact to unite in the nucleus or Bindu which symbolizes the union of all opposites, subject and object, creation and destruction. Concentration on the yantra, together with the repetition of mantras yield a focus on the immediate moment as a way to disconnect the yogin from everyday illusion and re-integrate with the Void.

Although the Naths shared this vision they added pictorial elements through portraiture and signs. For example the self-numinous Brahman is depicted in the form of Nathji, the Sublime Maha Siddhi based on the immortal ascetic Jallandharnath. Squatting gracefully on cosmic seas of golden pigment, he has the distinctive Nath Siddhi features of a curved nose profile, neatly pageboy dreadlocks and red-tinged almond eyes.

Fraser’s recent work shows an appreciation of such figurative aspects. In pieces such as ‘Seven’, ‘I see him now…’ and ‘Seven Oceans, Seven Continents’, she plays with the Shrinathji Krishna icon, duly traced in indigo pigment on a yellow ground, either full-faced and cocky with his tilted Mt Meru hat, or gradually stripped of features to become a mask like cut-out frieze, where a single hand or foot can replace the image. Her staging of the Shrinathji icon has a hint of the vivacity which imbued her earlier illustrations of everyday life in India. It is particularly relevant to signal here that her forebears were the celebrated Fraser brothers, William and James Baillie Fraser, who actually commissioned watercolours from local Indian artists to make the ‘Fraser Album’…”the supreme masterpiece of late Mughal and Company School painting which portrayed the different types of people and their jobs, crafts or castes against stark white backgrounds. This hybrid form of painting where Indian artists created something that mixed techniques and ideas from East and West has greatly influenced me and was the starting point for all my work”.

The specific elements that Fraser has adopted in her recent works are the reductive, minimalist forms. Rectangles and strips present flat fields of vibrating colour condensed into finely wrought pattern work. These recycle familiar motifs for cosmic waters such as the basket weave pattern, first seen in Ajanta frescoes ad later in Pahari miniatures. Fraser’s ‘Genesis Triptych’ aligns three squares of which two encase precious flame-patterned cosmic eggs floating in ethereal space or wild waters, gem-like they fuse the sacred Siva and the profane Faberge. Writing on this work, Fraser cites the lines: In the beginning arose the Cosmic Embryo…” and adds: “I came to painting the cosmic egg series when reading the Rig Veda, having paintied the one with te swirling waters, I then saw Manaku’s image; a huge golden egg in swirling waters so like mine but minus my lines of fire”. Other pieces, like “The Churning Ocean”, seem to knit together layers of ‘scalloped whorls’ producing producing a similar effect to the scroll-cloud work found in Tibetan t’hanka paintings, inspired from Mongolian and Chinese landscape imagery. Fraser’s hues are subtle greys and rosy pinks, mellow yellows and malachite greens, all shimmer luminosity. One ’Shiv Shakhti dyptich plainly presents two parallel crimson and cream squares enclosing male and female triangles: gender is spelt out through the voluptuous yellow and blue lotus forms in the ‘Radha Krishna Diptych’. In “Holy Mountain’ we see stark angular trees under Mount Merus stylized like ice cream cones; this is a very different piece , one with the anecdotal quality of Fraser’s tender watercolours. The delicate scrollwork in ‘He held in place the earth and sky” recycles the elaborate circumferences of the mandala protecting the virtual deity.

The monumental miniatures in Garden and Cosmos are at once sacred and comic, their ‘lightness of being’ originates in the links between narrative and abstraction found in the ancient texts, as Fraser writes:

“When you get into the realm of the sacred, text and image are almost one hence the written word ‘Om’ (amongst others) frequently used by artists as a form of visual expression. Any research into the origins of Tantric art/Hindu art can’t really begin without looking at ancient scripture so, as well as looking at the stories and bhakti texts relating to Krishna including the C9th poet Nammalvar’s wonderful Hymns for the Drowning which are sacred hymns to Krishna’s principal incarnation as Vishnu, I started reading the Rigveda and the Upanishads and was thrilled to find how rich and abstractly visual they all were. I was particularly captivated by the Creation mythology with its distant echoes with and differences from sacred texts in the West.”

Fraser is clearly intrigued with an intercultural play between past and present. On coming to India in 1989, she brought a book called “The Passionate Quest” by Mildred Archer and Toby Falk that recounts the adventures between 1801-1835 of her illustrious antecedants, The Fraser Brothers. She is inspired by artists who have treated the ‘other’ or the unfamiliar though the experience of displacement, whether it be through the physical, as with Gauguin, or the imaginary, as with Henri Rousseau. Contemporary artists whom Fraser admires include Anish Kapoor, Sol Le Witt and Steven Cox- artists whose practices encompass inter-ocular perspectives.

The common sense of ‘no future’ amongst Western youth was described half a century ago in “Growing up Absurd’ by Paul Goodman who saw the problem in Utopian terms: “The spirit of modern society has not sufficiently realized itself”. If Rousseau’s “tourbillion social” of the C18th became Marx’s ”maelstrom” in the C19th, the slaughter of the C20th has become the bloodbath of the C21st. Current global turmoil is aptly framed within the spirit of the Kali Yuga: the contemporary dark-age, pithily described by Doniger as: ”the Losing age, the time when all bets are off.”

Texts on Kali Yuga state that the search for sense takes place within the modern experience: one seen either as a fallen condition, or as a vehicle for experimental transformation. The latter is the vision set out by the Tantric doctors in their rejection of the orthodox Brahmanic tradition and their return to the pre-Vedic cult of Sakti, as the Great Goddess.

Fraser’s minimalist visual language suggests an affinity with the Tantric imagery on a formal level but comparison may offer analogies in metaphysical terms. Whereas Tantric symbols have a specific function as tools or aids in meditation, abstract forms in western art are often perceived as free floating signs, even as ‘illegitimate abstraction’. Yantras have a specific function to the initiated, but ti the uninitiated they can be appreciated on account of their vibrant patterns, purist shapes and primary colours, for their affinities with western abstract art. Whereas yantras are via-media on the void, art-objects are via media in the exercise of changing perception. May this exercise have the metaphysical implications claimed by those early C20th artists whose practices related to universalist concerns with the metphysical?

Artists such as Malevitch, Kandinsky and Mondrian made serious use of theosophy, their neo-platonism declares a spiritual idealism exempt of the irony diffused in postmodernist discourse.

When Rauschenberg said he worked in the gap between art and life, cage said there was no gap, that art lies:...simply being...our highest business in our daily life”. He saw art as the process of making…as Duchamp himself described the origins of art. Where yantras require contemplation from the yogini, Duchamp’s work invites an active participation from the viewer to complete. Perhaps making images work through collaboration with the viewer might be compared to the Hindu ritual of darshan?

I would question that assumption whereby the spiritual in art is frequently framed by western critics as ‘other’,or elsewhere, or in another time. There is profuse evidence that all such qualities may be found in the history of western imagery, not only in abstraction but in representation. Currently in an exhibition of medieval manuscripts in the British Library, there is a miniature of a ‘Diagram of Consanguinity’ made in 1320 which has a mandala format containing rows of empty circles which prefigure Baldessari’s paintings. So Fraser has not just been borrowing from an alien or ‘other’ tradition; the two traditions have long been in dialogue.

The very practice of Tantra aims at revealing the illusion of opposites, micro-macro, the sacred in the mundane. If, as according to Levi-Strauss, there needed to be a common structure to compare two creative languages, it would only be possible if a western artist underwent Tantric initiation and found phenomena which could be related structurally. Fraser has undergone initiation into Tantric inspired miniature painting and the formal and metaphysical affinities in her practice intimate a comparable pattern of relationship with the spiritual. Her intense images invite a meditation on the ways of looking.

Virginia Whiles , January 2012

Olivia Fraser first came to the public eye with the elegant illustrations that accompanied her husband William Dalrymple's book, A City of Djinns. In the 20 years since she moved to India , she has engaged with Indian visual art traditions form the perspective of both outsider and insider, the resilt of which is a body of work that incorporates techniques and materials of both Western painting and Indian miniatures.

Fraser works with figurative drawing and painting at a time when modern media such as video and installation seem to edge them out. "We've had artists like Shahzia Sikander in Pakistan running with the miniature form, but we haven't really had very much of that here", she says.

Fraser is also known for her watercolours of Delhi monuments, characterized by loose, sensuous brushwork, and a translucent palette from which the monuments emerge as mirages out of a sandstorm. Looking at the range of her work, you can see it gradually coming into focus; the flush of watercolour hardening in both pigment and contour as the paintings become less impressionistic and achieve the graceful fixity that is the hallmark of the Indian miniature tradition.

Despite its style. Fraser's subject matter is entirely current day. In one painting, Paban Das Baul performs to an audience that includes a number of the artsist's friends. While the images represent the people, they are also abstractions within a stylized rubric that limits the manner in which one might paint leaves, trees, eyes. There are set rules for the use of pigment, shading, design and composition, but Fraser attempts to innovate within it. "Miniature painting is now a copyist's art, but I'm interested in what happens as I try to translate modern things into the form. This is not Govardana as it "should" be, but how it is in my mind".

Interest in older traditions often involves commitment to craft and the enthusiastic fetishisation of its tools, materials and discipline. Paintings like 'The Gujars", "The Rajputs "and "The Congress Wallahs" are direct descendants of one of the finest visual chronicles of 19th Delhi – The Fraser Album. James Baillie Fraser, Olivia's kinsman and a painter himself, was one of the commissioners of this work which depicted a range of Indian characters from a variety of milieus. The meticulous detail inherent in the miniature tradition joined beautifully with the almost scientific realism of the Western perspective, in a movement that came to be known as the Company School. Fraser's work maintains aspects of this tradition which attempts to define and organize the world, to idolize individuals as archetypes. So she illustrates a Bengali metal-worker making a bin and a sculptor a Ganesha idol, a doodhwallah delivers milk an men bathe in streetside tubs. These are not the exalted subjects of classical painting: not coronations, processions or lovemaking scenes. Instead there is the pleasure of having not fewer limitations but greater ones, the realization that a blank canvas is not a moment of riot but one of control.

TEHELKA , March 19th 2007

The faces, people, monuments, scenes of every day life that comprise Olivia's very vivid and careful watercolours, appear as stills form and Indian motion picture- bristling with contained energy within the lines, patterns, geometry an colours of her paintings, yet each one full of repose, poised.

FIRST CITY 2007

A brick maker from Bengal, a toy maker form Orissa, a sculptor making a Ganesha idol, a dhoodwallah delivering milk, dhobis washing clothes in huge tubs and women peasants working in a rice field. These and many more images of India have come alive on the canvas of a British artist who knows India like the back of her palm. She has chosen Indian themes and the Indian miniature style to tell her tales of ordinary people. She also depicts different communities like the Gujjars, the Rajputs, Bishnois and even Congressmen. Creating a technique of her own, she paints them as specimens surrounded by a sea of white paper. This concept of minimalism can also be seen in her works that show the architecture of the Mughal period.

THE PIONEER, March 21st 2007

"An explosion of colours"
THE INDIAN EXPRESS , March 2007

"Olivia Fraser's paintings treat contemporary Indian subjects through the stylistic idiom of miniature painting; small formats, jewel-tones colours and delicate detailing: these paintings are a delight."

OUTLOOK, April 2007

Since the early 90's Olivia Fraser has drawn on India as a source of inspiration for her art. Her work is a vivid reflection of India and when Olivia dips her squirrel-tail brush in water her strokes work to evoke details by creating textures through diaphanous layers of watercolour. Outlines form which can be crisp or soft- both producing different effects. This mastery of opaqueness which builds up layered screens on the paper, becomes the luminosity of her art.

AMAN NATH 3rd March 2007

Olivia Fraser's work is a vivid reflection of India. It is based on personal observation of ordinary people and what they do, all seen through a brilliantly chromatic lens. She loves to draw from the life on the street as people go about their daily tasks, and her incisive pencil and crisp modeling bring them vividly before us in her art . Her love of India has led her into following patterns of Indian thinking and Indian picture making. Her figure studies reflect the passion for observation of types found in early 19th Century work, and like those artists , she often places her study against the blank white ground. Like them, she is bored by linear perspective, and artfully combines various viewpoints. Her naturalistically observed figures become configured into meaningful patterns, as in her rice pickers viewed in a paddy field from overhead, or her railway workers mending a railway track that has curved round into the clock that regulates their lives. Some of these concepts are new, others echo themes from earlier painting styles: the well in early Indian paintings always viewed from overhead with the women with their pots forming the circle of a rasmandala, or the images of the craftsmen with their tools and products arranged around them as in the Jahangiri album, or a picture of the changing rhythms of the seasons built up in registers as in Sultanate work. New in her work is the influence of Rajasthani painting, and here she introduces the lushness of the typical landscape of such paintings to surround vividly coloured figures. Although Olivia continues to evolve, her style is established and she creates marvellous images of a country she loves.

J.P. LOSTY 2003

Add Olivia Fraser to the list of British women who have understood and loved India and Indians. Like Fanny Parkes, Eliza Fay, Mildred Archer, Penelope Betjeman and Elizabeth Chatwin, Olivia is no memsahib. She focuses her acute eyes on all around her. But pictures, not words, are her mode. With engaging precision, she records the Indian world. People first, buildings second; all noted with loving accurate, highly accomplished devotion.

The roots of Olivia's art mostly grew in India. Her intensely graceful domes and elegant arches stem from Shah Jahan's restrained forms. But people matter more to Olivia, and they recall the figures seen not only in Mughal and Rajput painting but above all those wonderfully animated characters known from the famous 19th Century Fraser Album. William and James Baillie Fraser commissioned this remarkable panorama of Indian life in the 1820's. These Scottish brothers, who spent a long period of their lives in India, are distant forebears of Olivia. They, the sociable William, a baronial-style landlord and government official, and James, a gifted landscape painter, rank with Mary, Lady Impey and Lord Valentia as British India's patrons in the grand Medici manner.

This ancestral album became Olivia's master. From it she learned not only how to paint in watercolour, but what to paint. Her quick eye for Indian character has been enriched by the Fraser artists' vivid portrayals of people from every level of society. Seemingly descended from The Fraser brothers' delightful human miscellany of early nineteenth century villagers, landowners, revenue officers, holy men, soldiers, musicians and many others, Olivia's characters gloriously people a late twentieth century stage and make equally delightful companions.

Like the Fraser brothers' Mughal artists, Olivia's style gained from familiarity with an artistic heritage steeped in earlier northern Indian traditions. Her lively silhouettes bring to mind the psychologically penetrating portraits painted for Emperor Akbar the Great (1557-1605). Akin, in their scientific detachment to botanical specimens hovering on pins in shadow- boxes, her figures fairly spring from the page. Olivia, however, shaped her own view of India and Indians from other sources as well. Her pictures also bring to mind the high-speed camerawork of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Raghubir Singh. Olivia, like the photogaphers and Emperors' portraitists, notes every human quirk, dazzling ornamented turban, sash or madcap pattern. And like them – but unlike such British artists as Charles D'Oyley, who unsettlingly poked fun at amiably picturesque Indians- she paints people "deadpan", resisting idiosyncratic exaggerations. Her all-telling likenesses, mines of psychological nuance, reveal no biases. Milkmen, sisters-in-law, railway station coolies, or barbers all sit, amble or bicycle before her sympathetic eye and dashing brush. Her subjects especially move us through their trusting unselfconsciousness. Olivia, in effect, has held a mirror to them: their images are for us to interpret.

This sensitively wide-eyed reporter offers her India in a style that can also be enjoyed as pure painting or abstraction. She appears to have studied the arresting jewel-like pools of colour of Charles Demuth.

STUART CARY WELCH , March 1999

 
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