Written by Janice Leoshko

janice-leoshko-120x120THERE ARE MANY THINGS TO BE SAID about the place held by Walter Spink in the study of Indian art, perhaps most especially in regard to his long-term studies of Ajanta. But I want to highlight an aspect that may not always seem apparent in his meticulous ruminations on patronage and dating at this Buddhist site. This is a way in which his humanness has informed the direction of his questions:his interest in what the people who actually worked at this site many centuries ago had to do. Such concerns are especially clear in a brief article, "Flaws in Buddhist Iconology," which appeared in the 1987 volume Facets of Indian Art: A Symposium Held at the Victoria and Albert Museum (edited by Robert Skelton, Andrew Topsfield, Susan Sronge, and Rosemary Crill). Spink uses examples from Ajanta to illustrate the role that artistic choice and specific production problems may have played in the appearance of seemingly anomalous iconographic details. As he notes, iconographic usage in Indian art primarily understood in terms of textual prescriptions, current doctrine, and established convention. What such a perspective unfortunately does not take into account is the role of the artists, the persons who had to deliver the goods, so to speak.

CERTAINLY categorizing images from a relevant textual source is an important aspect of the pursuit of understanding art objects, but too many studies chart the history of Buddhist art solely in this manner. Ironically such studies, which purport to be about the development of imagery, often provide simply a succession of one type replacing another with little or no reflection upon the ways in which such imagery emerged, changed, circulated, interacted, or developed, perhaps independently from texts. Texts can be useful for understanding themes encountered in art (and may even have inspired such presentations), but images present such themes in an entirely different manner, in virtually a different language. What is still lacking in many studies of Buddhist art is not only a more thorough consideration of the complex relationships between texts and images but a more direct confrontation and consideration of the nature of art objects. This is a sustained concern of Walter Spink's work, providing us with examples of the fundamental importance of continually looking and asking questions.

This is not the place to review the limitations of conflating meaning with iconographic identity, but it is important to note that this perspective creates a legacy that emphasizes the identity of something over the question of why something is the way it is. This has been a general problem in art historical studies of many traditions, not just Indian art. While it is increasingly recognized that form and content are not separate issues, the actual activities of artisans in the production of India's plethora of ancient religious art are still seldom considered. Thus Spink's observations on the way artists accommodated geological flaws as they sculpted Buddhist figures out of the specific material they encountered at Ajanta is noteworthy. Although he gives only a few examples, there are doubtless more, as well as more questions to be asked about how artists went about the actual tasks of creation. Even though the names of these individuals have not been preserved, the consideration of such questions can better acknowledge the particular abilities of those responsible for the creation of monuments and works that are certainly one of the wonders of India.

Janice Leoshko

Janice Leoshko :: The Importance of Questions

Prior to joining the faculty in 1993 at The University, Associate Professor Leoshko worked at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for seven years as the Associate Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art

Tribute Authors

Frederick M. Asher

Frederick M. Asher :: In Praise of Walterji

Frederick Asher is a specialist in South Asian art. His current research considers the architecture of contested religious space and the issue of copying/originality in Indian art.

Richard Edwards

Richard Edwards :: Colleague at Michigan

Michigan - History of Art | Professor of Far Eastern Art, 1960 | Professor Emeritus, 1987

Michael W. Meister

Michael W. Meister :: Spink On Wheels

W. Norman Brown Professor of South Asia Studies. He is a specialist in the art of India and Pakistan. He has served as Chair of the Departments of South Asia Studies (SASt) and History of Art and as Director of Penn's South Asia Center.

Janice Leoshko

Janice Leoshko :: The Importance of Questions

Prior to joining the faculty in 1993 at The University, Associate Professor Leoshko worked at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for seven years as the Associate Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art

Susan L. Huntington

Susan L. Huntington :: Homage to a Modern Cave Man

Susan L. Huntington, Ph.D., is Distinguished University Professor and Professor of History of Art, Emerita, but continues to teach and advise graduate students at The Ohio State University. 

Donald M. Stadtner

Donald M. Stadtner :: The Cow Herder Goes to Washington

for many years an Associate Professor at the University of Texas, Austin, after completing his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. His publications include Ancient Pagan: Buddhist Plain of Merit (2005) and Sacred Sites of Burma (forthcoming).