Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > News> Talking Point > Art’s steadfast muse

Art’s steadfast muse

  • From Mughal miniatures and Mithila art to 20th century space race iconography, the moon has always captured the imagination of artists around the world
  • And with the advent of photography, one can see images emerge as both scientific study and artistic interpretations of the moon

Radha imagines Krishna with other women, from ‘Gita Govinda’, attributed to Purkhu
Radha imagines Krishna with other women, from ‘Gita Govinda’, attributed to Purkhu

There is a Kangra painting from the Lambagraon Gita Govinda, attributed to the artist Purkhu from 1820, which shows Radha and her friend sitting in a grove, imagining Krishna lavishing his attention on other gopis (herdswomen). While Radha sits in the darkness, the open ground adjoining the grove, where she envisions the dalliances to be taking place, is illuminated by the crescent moon. The sky features this interesting play of light and darkness, perhaps as a metaphor for Radha and Krishna.

In Pahari paintings such as this one—mentioned in A Mystical Realm Of Love: Pahari Paintings From The Eva And Konrad Seitz Collection by J.P. Losty, published by Francesca Galloway, a leading specialist dealer in Indian painting and courtly objects, Islamic and European textiles—the moon takes on a character of its own: as a metaphor for longing, passion or simply self-reflection. “There are a lot of references to the moon in all Indian arts, be it music, literature, poetry or the visual arts. The sun is considered masculine and the moon as feminine. Hence arts have always been associated with the latter. Look at all the rendering of the Gita Govinda—be it Guler or Lambagraon—in Pahari miniature, which shows figures illuminated by moonlight," says Anubhav Nath, director of the Delhi-based Ojas Art Gallery.

It is no wonder then that the celestial body, which was once the major source of illumination after dusk, has formed an integral part of iconography across the world—ranging from ritual pieces by the Incas dedicated to the Mamaqilla, or the moon goddess, to an object of worship in folk and tribal art in India. It later emerged as a symbol of longing and love in Pahari paintings and Islamic art, with the delicate sheen of the moonlight also serving as an inspiration to Romantic artists such as Joseph Wright of Derby in the 18th century. It has formed a canvas for artists to project their ideas of fantasy and the fantastical, with lunar voyages often being depicted on winged steeds. And with the advent of photography, one can see images emerge as both scientific study and artistic interpretations of the moon. Some photographs are also reconstructions of iconic moments questioning popular cultural memory, such as Jojakim Cortis and Adrian Sonderegger’s Making Of ‘AS11-40-5878’ (By Edwin Aldrin, 1969), in which the Swiss duo built an accurate model of the photograph by Buzz Aldrin of a boot print left on the lunar surface. In the work, on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, they littered brushes and bags of cement around the photograph, revealing the artifice behind the art, giving a nod to the conspiracy theories surrounding the Apollo 11 landing.

However, to understand the significance of the moon in Indian visual arts, one has to place it within the cultural context, where all festivals, both Hindu and Islamic, are based on the lunar calendar. “Eid is celebrated with the sighting of the moon, and that has been represented in Islamic art in a big way," says Nath.

‘Sun And Moon’, published by Tara Books.
‘Sun And Moon’, published by Tara Books.

In Mughal miniatures and manuscripts, one also finds references to the moon to illustrate the emperor’s role as a cosmic ruler. There is a significant work from the St Petersburg Album, signed by Abu’l Hasan (ca 1615, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC) showing Mughal emperor Jahangir embracing his rival Shah Abbas I before an enormous sun and moon. “(This) appears to have inaugurated the use of lunar imagery as integral components of royal iconography," writes Yael Rice, art historian, Amherst College, US, in Moonlight Empire: Lunar Imagery In Mughal India.


The vibrant folk and tribal visual art traditions in India, such as Gond, Mithila, Pattachitra and Pithora, feature images of the moon and the sun either as characters in stories or as motifs. Tara Books decided to anthologize these diverse indigenous art traditions based on this common theme in its book, Sun And Moon, in 2016. It featured the work of 10 artists such as Bhajju Shyam, Ramsingh Urveti and Durga Bai from the Gond tradition, Dulari Devi and Rambharos Jha, proficient in the Mithila style, and Mata-ni-Pachedi specialist Jagdish Chitara from Gujarat. The images, rendered by the artists in keeping with their sense of tradition, were then printed in silk screen. “The stories from the diverse communities have this in common: the way they perceive time or day and night and the relationship between the sun and the moon," says V.Geetha, editorial director, Tara Books.

Nath too shares an example of the Bagh Raj (2015) by Gond artist Venkat Shyam, which shows the sun and the moon riding on a tiger. “According to local folklore, the ultimate hero—Aparajaya—is one on whom the sun and the moon ride. He is the Chandrapati and the Suryapati. You will see this a lot in Gond art," he says.


Andrew Dickson looked at the global fascination with the moon for over hundreds of years in a New York Times article last September, “The Meaning Of The Moon, From The Incas To The Space Race". He mentions how moon iconography, particularly from the space race years, is heroic—men and their rockets, depicted by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Hamilton. Several such works form a part of Apollo’s Muse: The Moon In The Age Of Photography, on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, till 22 September, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

In his foreword, Max Hollein, director of the museum, mentions that the volume accompanying the exhibition, with essays by exhibition curator Mia Fineman and Beth Saunders, head, Special Collections and Gallery at the Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery, University of Maryland, and an introduction by actor Tom Hanks, surveys the role that photography has played in the scientific study and artistic interpretation of the moon from the dawn of the medium to the present. The show not only features photographic works but also related prints, drawings, paintings and astronomical instruments.

The volume starts with Saunders’ essay, Mapping The Moon, in which she talks about the historic year of 1609 when Galileo Galilei, from atop a tower of the Venetian church of San Giorgio Maggiore, trained his homemade telescope on the heavens. The observations recorded and illustrated in his Sidereus Nuncius (1610) revealed the moon’s surface as rugged and uneven, marked by valleys, craters and mountains. Another example of manual illustration is the series of three large engravings of the moon in different phases by French artist Claude Mellan in 1635.

According to Fineman, among the most moon-besotted artists of the early 19th century was the German painter Caspar David Friedrich, for whom the distant celestial body became an emblem of intense melancholic longing. Between 1819 and the early 1830s, he painted three variations on the motif of moon-gazing: In each, a waxing moon hovers in a cloudless sky, framed by a gnarled oak tree and observed by a pair of figures who stand together.

Around the same time, photographing celestial bodies became a major subject of research at the Harvard College Observatory, and its director, William Cranch Bond, purchased the largest telescope then known in the US. “Beginning in 1848, Bond partnered with the local daguerreotypist John Adams Whipple….In July 1850 they obtained a daguerreotype of the star Vega, and in March of the following year, they accomplished the first in a series of successful lunar daguerreotypes using the Great Refractor," writes Saunders.

The ‘Making of ‘AS11-40-5878’ (by Edwin Aldrin, 1969)’
The ‘Making of ‘AS11-40-5878’ (by Edwin Aldrin, 1969)’

However, the advent of gas lamps in the early 1800s and the invention of the electric light dimmed the significance of the moon as a means of nighttime illumination. But some artists continued to pursue the moon with an unhindered passion. “For the American pictorialist Edward Steichen, the woods at dusk was a favourite subject to which he returned time and again, in both paintings and photographs. ‘The romantic and mysterious quality of moonlight, the lyric aspect of nature made the strongest appeal to me,’ he wrote in his autobiography," says Fineman. She mentions how Steichen’s attraction to the moon’s lyricism found its consummate expression in The Pond-Moonrise (1904), a photograph of the celestial body hovering on the horizon line beyond a small body of water in the woods near Mamaroneck, New York.


Needless to say, some of the significant artwork to emerge in the 20th century, between 1969-70, revolved around the moon landing. For instance, the US space agency Nasa gave Americal painter Robert Rauschenberg full access to the Kennedy Space Centre, which allowed him to make a series of 19 drawings, collages and 34 lithographs such as Sky Garden. For his Artificial Moon Trail, made in the immediate wake of the Apollo 11 mission, Japanese artist Kikuji Kawada pointed his camera at the full moon, rotating it during a long exposure to create an abstract geometric pattern that literally enacted the meaning of photography—“writing with light".

In India, the late artist Amar Nath Sehgal interpreted the landing in his bronze sculpture Conquest Of The Moon, which the Union government then presented to the White House. The Amar Nath Sehgal Private Collection, located in Jangpura Extension, Delhi, contains letters by the US president at the time, Richard Nixon, to the artist about the work. Conquest Of The Moon is now housed within the Smithsonian, Washington, DC.

More recent examples of artistic interpretations of the celestial body can be seen in the work of Jitish Kallat, who has always been interested in the orbital geometry of the moon and Earth. In his 2010 photo work, Conditions Apply 2, displayed at the Nature Morte Gallery, Delhi, images of round rotis wax and wane as if they were the moon, representing the cycles of life. He then created a deeply personal work, Epilogue, a series of photographs of 22,000 rotis to represent the 22,000 moons that his father might have gazed at.

Moon, a collaboration between Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, is in keeping with the fast-changing technology and the new trend of interactive art. A web-based artwork, it offers a shared platform to viewers, who can draw or write on the virtual moon’s surface. “Since its launch at the Falling Walls conference (in Berlin) in November 2013, this interactive lunar landscape has amassed over 80,000 entries," mentions Eliasson’s website. Another example of technology meeting art is the projection mapping and immersive experience of a 363ft Saturn V rocket projected on the east face of the Washington monument as part of the Apollo 50: Go For The Moon show, conceived and commissioned by the National Air and Space Museum. The 17-minute show, on view till 20 July, and created by 59 Productions, combines full-motion projection mapping artwork and archival footage to recreate the launch of Apollo 11.

‘Apollo 50: Go For The Moon’, with full-motion projection mapping artwork and archival footage, unfolds on the face of the Washington Monument. courtesy the national air and space museum, washington, dc
‘Apollo 50: Go For The Moon’, with full-motion projection mapping artwork and archival footage, unfolds on the face of the Washington Monument. courtesy the national air and space museum, washington, dc

What makes the moon the art world’s most steadfast muse? “It becomes a surface on to which we project our own ideas and desires. The night sky becomes a canvas for projection," says artist Rohini Devasher, who hasn’t directly addressed the moon in any of her pieces yet. But she documents the full moon each month with photographs and is interested in the way the moon has been imagined by scientists and artists in the past. “James Nasmyth, for instance, did detailed drawings of the moon through his telescope. But the famous images he took of the moon were actually photographs of plaster models based on his drawings aiming to “faithfully reproduce the lunar effects of light and shadow". His photographs then are part record but also part fiction," she says.

Next Story