• Dedicated to the life work of Walter M. Spink through efforts of his many friends,
    this resource features, in a small degree, his scholarly work at Ajanta;
    highlights some of his creative writing; and provides insight
    to this well-loved scholar and teacher through the eyes of his colleagues.
  • Walter M. Spink
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Walter M. Spink

Ph.D. (1954) Harvard

Professor Emeritus, History of Art, at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He has published widely on Indian Art in general, and Ajanta and related sites in particular and continues to travel, lecture, and work at the Ajanta Cave site.

an informal interview with Walter Spink discussing his life and work at Ajanta

conducted at his residence in India, 2010
videographer: Dominic Howe | Interview: Marcus Wise

The Journey of Siddhartha

by Walter M. Spink

Recorded July 2014 at Solid Sound Studio, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Walter Spink: narrative | Marcus Wise: tabla | Bruce Hamm: sarod

sample one from the cd

The Journey of Siddhartha, written with the encouragement of Archibald Macleish when I was a graduate student studying Indian Art History at Harvard 1950-1952, owes much to the remarkable Buddhacarita, (the story of the Buddha) of the 1st-2nd century poet Asvaghosa, beautifully translated by E. H. Johnson (1928).

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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

Volumes 1-5 | 2005-2009

Brill Publishers, Leidin