A Meeting Of Art, India And Devotion

Posted: January 24, 1986

When Anne d'Harnoncourt, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, suggested that the museum organize an exhibition of Indian paintings from local collections, Stella Kramrisch responded in a way that surprised absolutely no one.

The emeritus curator of Indian art attacked the exhibition as if it were an uncharted continent, which for her it was, to some extent. Known primarily for her pathfinding scholarship on Indian sculpture, Kramrisch gathered up all the books and articles about Indian painting that had been published in the last 20 years and brought herself up to date.

Then, in her catalogue essay, she proceeded to advance some new ideas about artistic patronage in Muslim India, especially concerning the activities of the 16th-century Mughal emperor Akbar. "Painted Delight," the product of her curatorial labor, will open Sunday at the Art Museum with 138 jewel-like miniature paintings.

As Kramrisch's friend and former student Barbara Stoler Miller, a professor at Barnard College, noted, "She has used this exhibition to raise new questions about Indian painting, which at her age is extraordinary." But then, Kramrisch, a scholar of international repute for more than half a century, wouldn't expect less of herself.

"Stella's not one to rest on her laurels," Miller observed. "Everything is a new adventure for her."

In a sense Kramrisch's entire life has been an intellectual and spiritual

odyssey that, to the amazement of friends and colleagues, continually renews itself in projects like "Painted Delight."

Four months shy of 90, she may know more about Indian art, architecture and religion than anyone else alive. Michael W. Meister, a friend who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, describes her as "an old master."

"She's unique among Western scholars in dealing with Indian art on the spiritual-religious level," he said. "Anyone working in a whole range of fields has to take note of her work. And people in India treat her virtually as a goddess."

Goddesses rest, but Kramrisch does not. "She doesn't consciously think about age," Meister said. "For Stella, life is about work, and work is about eternity."

The enigma of eternity has driven Kramrisch to spend her life investigating the philosophical and aesthetic intricacies of Indian culture. She has explored India physically, tramping miles to visit the ruins of Hindu temples, and metaphysically, through sacred Hindu texts.

As Meister noted, "Her real world, in a platonic sense, is the world of ideas she has created. The outside world feeds that real world. And Stella has lived most of her life in isolation."

That detachment began during her childhood in Moravia, now a region of Czechoslovakia, then a part of Austria-Hungary. An only child, she roamed the fields and the woods near her home, developing a deep empathy for nature that she has expressed throughout her life in her affection for animals.

Her father indoctrinated her in natural history, teaching her the German and Latin names of plants and trees and taking her to the natural history museum in Vienna. Her mother inculcated a taste for high culture, imposing

violin lessons and acceding to young Stella's request to learn ballet. Her dance training would help her to understand the essential nature of Indian art.

As she says, "The Indians consider the human body as a vessel of life force. The ideal in Indian art is to paint the human figure as if it were breathing, or to paint anything in nature as if it were moving - not only gesticulating movement, but the sense of presence, of life, breath, flowing through your body."

When Kramrisch was about 10 her parents moved to Vienna. A precocious child, she began to frequent libraries, reading omnivorously. One day she came across a translation of the Hindu epic the Bhagavadgita: "I was so impressed it took my breath away."

Her destiny charted, Kramrisch began to seek out information about Indian culture. Subsequently she enrolled at the University of Vienna, studying Indian art, Sanskrit, anthropology and Indian philosophy, and earned her doctorate in 1919.

Although a certified expert, Kramrisch didn't see her first Indian temple sculpture until she traveled to London in 1919 with a university delegation to lecture at Oxford.

"Each member of the group was invited to give three public lectures," she recalled. "I spoke extemporaneously, filling in with French, Latin and Italian where I didn't know the English."

The great Bengali poet and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, heard her speak and invited her to come to India and teach at a university he had founded near Calcutta.

Arriving in Bombay in 1922, she spent her first day in India at a cave temple. She crossed the country by train and reached her destination late on a calm, cold winter night. The moment was visionary:

"The mimosas were in flower . . . and their scent is lovely. Rabindranath came and he welcomed me. He was followed by a deer. I thought, 'It's too good for words, it looks like a dream.' "

The dream turned out to be a mud hut with a thatched roof, but Kramrisch, far from being discouraged, quickly settled in. A year later she was invited to teach at the University of Calcutta, where, as the only European and the only woman on the faculty, she was regarded warily by both Indians and British colonials.

But her ability to live within herself, occupied totally by art and scholarship, sustained her. She would remain in India for 28 years, devoting all her energy and skills to teaching and creating an Indian art history in which formal history, archaeology, iconography and religion all played a part.

Early on she began to turn out the steady stream of books and articles that would document her theories and discoveries and earn her acclaim. Her major books include Indian Sculpture (1933), A Survey of Painting in the Deccan (1937), The Art of India (1954), The Presence of Shiva (1981) and the book generally considered her masterwork, The Hindu Temple, published in 1946.

Twenty years of reseach went into The Hindu Temple, which relates architectural form to the religious and philosophical writings of sacred texts. The book remains a seminal work that has stimulated considerable scholarship by others.

Kramrisch's dedication to her work was so total that she was reluctant to marry; but in 1929 she did. Her husband was a Hungarian economist, Laszlo Nemenyi, an adviser to the viceroy. She worked in Calcutta, he in Delhi, so in 21 years of marriage they saw little of each other.

After the British left India in 1947, Nemenyi opted to work for the new government of Pakistan and moved to Karachi. In 1950 he was found shot dead on a beach, dressed in evening clothes, an apparent suicide. His death and a decree forbidding non-Indians from holding government jobs prompted Kramrisch in 1950 to accept a standing offer to teach at the University of Pennsylvania.

According to Paul Makler, who with his wife, Hope, has known Kramrisch for nearly 30 years, she had other options. "Her choices were Berlin, Harvard and Penn," Makler said. "She told me she came here because the name of the city seemed like an omen. It's the kind of thing she would do."

Since arriving here Kramrisch has been a major presence at the university, where she taught from 1950 to 1969, and the Art Museum, where she was curator of Indian art from 1954 to 1972 and has been curator emeritus since. (She has also taught at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University since 1964.)

"To all intents and purposes she created the department of Indian art at the museum," d'Harnoncourt said. "Certainly the succession of exhibitions she has done have been of great importance, not only to the museum but in the history of Indian art."

The first of these, in 1960, surveyed the art of Tibet and Nepal. It was followed by "Unknown India," a show of folk and ritual art, in 1968; Himalayan art in 1978, and "Manifestations of Shiva," which in a sense summarized her life's work, in 1981.

Everyone who has known or worked with Kramrisch has been impressed by the range of her aesthetic radar and what d'Harnoncourt describes as "her sense of immediacy" about objects.

"She has such a broad range of interest in modern art, contemporary architecture, crafts, anything visual," Miller said. "The eye that she brings to Indian miniature painting also looks at Renaissance and contemporary


D'Harnoncourt said that as curator of 20th-century art at the museum, "I found her one of the people whose opinion I most valued and one whose opinion I sought."

Kramrisch's most distinctive facility is probably her appreciation of form and detail, what connoisseurs call an "eye."

She evaluates objects as much by intuition as formal analysis. As Makler

put it, "She's the last of the romantic art historians of India. Younger people are technically biased, but that's not the way she does it. She'll touch an object, feel it, try to get vibrations. She'll just sit with it, look at it, live with it. That method is very much disparaged now."

Miller calls Kramrisch's eye "great, unique. I have never met anyone who has the sense for detail she has, the ability to focus on detail, then step back and see the full object. Objects and form really speak to her. At the Manet exhibition all she talked about was hands; I saw the paintings in a totally new way."

Many people see the world differently because of Stella Kramrisch. Elsa Longhauser, director of the Goldie Paley gallery at Moore College of Art, remembers taking her course in Indian art at Penn in the late '60s.

"I never met anyone so self-assured," Longhauser recalled. "She has such style and she knows so much, she makes you want to know everything about what makes a great work of art. She's such a force - this diminutive woman would come into the room and just take it over."

Lately Kramrisch has earned more formal accolades - several honorary degrees and medals, including India's highest scholarly award and the Charles Lang Freer medal of the Smithsonian Institution.

Yet far from being one to seek honor, she is a shy, reserved person whom some find austere, even formidable. She lives alone, as she has most of her life, with two cats in a spacious Center City apartment, looked after by friends who make up what Makler describes as her "support system."

"If you're part of it, as we were for a while, you pay a price. You do a lot of roadwork being her slave, but she gives a lot in return. She's a wonderful person to know."

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