Thursday, August 25, 2011

Indian Artist Frank Wesley



I wanted to provide some information about a great 20th century Indian Christian artist named Frank Wesley (1923-2002).  The following five paragraphs are directly quoted from the Kerrmuller Collection Art Gallery:

Forgiving Father

Wesley was a 5th generation Christian (Methodist).  He was an Indian artist, expressing the Christian story and its meaning within a framework of an Indian setting, with an Indian imagination, and starting from the painting styles and techniques of his indigenous culture, particularly the Lucknow watercolour school technique and the Bengal Renaissance style. This was expanded through other Asian and western influences from several years of study also in Japan and the USA.  Although his Christianity was formed in the Methodist tradition, his choice of religious themes was not confined to that of Protestant art (Rembrandt was an important artist for him), and he drew upon the visual traditions of Catholicism in European art and sought to re-interpret Indian religious iconography with Christian reference. Wesley often spoke of his rejection for Asia of the “fair-haired, blue-eyed Jesus” image, which so often appeared in the publications brought by the missionaries.

Frank Wesley would often say that he was not interested in illustrating the biblical stories. He understood illustration to be the depiction of a scene as it may be observed with detachment. He set out to search for and express meanings, using both traditional and personal symbolism and all the possibilities offered by the techniques he used. He saw himself as not an artist with one technique and style, but as one who chose a style to be a fitting component of the depiction of the subject matter or theme.

Although his Christianity was formed in the Methodist tradition, his choice of religious themes was not confined to that of Protestant art (Rembrandt was an important artist for him), and he drew upon the visual traditions of Catholicism in European art and sought to re-interpret Indian religious iconography with Christian reference.

Mary Goes to Visit Elizabeth
The work Mary Goes to Visit Elizabeth (No. 24, Wray, p.173) is a good starting place because Wesley has written notes about the symbolism on the back. This serves as a guide to many other works also. The figure of Mary is in the centre of an almost circular shape of bright, flat vermilion colour, symbolising the creation, pregnant with the creator. The peacock behind her represents the glory of Christ. Mary is clothed in the events of the future. The design on her skirt shows angels, kings and shepherds. Her apron has a phoenix design, suggesting resurrection. The thatched home tells of humble origins, the golden sky of happiness in heaven. The trees, the banana and the mango, are symbols of fruitfulness, touched in gold to indicate God's presence. Each bird bears a meaning: the crane denotes asceticism, the jacana happiness, the parakeets joy and the doves holiness. The waves in the pond are formed to suggest a multitude of fish, an early Christian sign.

Perhaps the most controversial of Wesley's efforts at expressing the Christian faith in the Indian visual cultural traditions is Before Abraham was I am (No. 10, Wray, p.113), painted in 1949. At first glance it appears to be either Hindu or Buddhist iconography, the depicting of transcendent deity in a female form. “She is the perfection of inactive deity,” says Wray. “In her right hand is a delicate lotus bud, indicating that the deity is not yet in human form.” (Wray, p.112) Here the artist is starting from within the Indian tradition and placing within it the newness of the Christ, rather than asking those who are formed in the Indian religious imagination to accept the full importation of a European imagery for the Christian story. Wesley often spoke of his rejection for Asia of the “fair-haired, blue-eyed Jesus” image, which so often appeared in the publications brought by the missionaries. (There is a parallel in what some Australian indigenous Christians are attempting today when they draw on the rainbow serpent image as a Holy Spirit image, representing the presence of God in this land before the coming of the Gospel of Christ.)

* * *

Another example of Wesley's work that shows a Japanese influence is "Home in Nazareth."

Home at Nazareth
The perspective is Japanese, based on a print by Japanese graphic artist Hiroshige (Wesley lived for five years in Japan, studying art).  Apparently this is one of the few times that a direct Japanese influence can be attributed to one of Wesley's paintings.

The 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road by Hiroshige

The holy family and various elements in the painting set it in India.  And, of course, Jesus is blue, like Krishna, who is often portrayed in his child form.

Jan Peter Schouten writes, “When viewing this painting, a Hindu would without doubt think immediately of Krishna... the little, playful Krishna is a very specific figure within Hindu spirituality.”  In this sense, Schouten writes, Wesley is portraying Jesus as an avatar like Krishna.  An avatar is the Indian concept of the incarnation, when a god deliberately descends from higher spiritual realms to lower realms of existence for special purposes. However, there are differences between this and the biblical idea of incarnation, though I don't know them just yet!  But by portraying Jesus as blue, as Schouten writes, “Wesley's Jesus is completely God from the very first moment of his life, just like Krishna.”

Jesus' forehead is shown in gold, with the knowledge of God's will.  This is an interesting motif in many of Wesley's paintings of Christ (and his first use of it in this painting), which I think is a wonderful symbolic representation of his Godhood.


To read more about Wesley and to see the most exhaustive collection of his work and life, please purchase Frank Wesley: Exploring Faith With A Brush by Naomi Wray.  (If you're seriously interested in getting a copy cheaper than those listed here, contact me and I'll see if the author still lives here in Asheville, NC, and has copies available).  You can also view some small thumbnails of his work here and here.

1 comment:

  1. Naomi Wray, the author of Frank Wesley: Exploring Faith With A Brush, no longer has any copies available of this out of print book.

    ReplyDelete