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Minissale Gregory, Images of Thought, Visuality in Islamic India 1550-1750, Cambridge Scholars Press, Newcastle, 2006, 271 p.

Valérie Gonzalez
p. 319-322

Texte intégral

1This is a much needed and compelling work, the first of its kind in the abundant literature on the great art of Mughal painting. Gregory Minissale’s book “Images of Thought “circumscribes its investigation in the time frame of 1550-1750 in which the most significant works were produced. As the author states in the very beginning of the introduction, his objective is not to “tell a story, at least not the kind of characters and events that has been told in art history many times”. This statement sets the tone of the book that develops a new approach in order to understand a material thus far studied with traditional art history techniques and viewpoints. Thanks to a transdisciplinary methodology Minissale produces a thorough hermeneutics of the miniatures’ visual language and semantic never accomplished before him. This methodology consists in using a great variety of sources and modes of reasoning, particularly the very convincing analytical tool of the comparison with European art. The sole bibliography is telling about the book’s innovative spirit and intellectual orientation. It mixes the indispensable and exhaustive list of studies on Mughal miniature and culture with a rich critical apparatus including history and criticism of Western art, art theory, anthropology, sociology, aesthetic philosophy, psychoanalysis and other hermeneutic material usually absent from the existing writings on the same topic.

2At ease with both types of tools, and equipped with a deep knowledge of the objects as shown in the case studies punctuating the book, Gregory Minissale reshapes the history of Mughal painting. He does so in deconstructing the traditional interpretations. In a short paragraph within the introduction entitled “The Art History of Mughal Painting”, the author points out key epistemological issues such as the questionable European-centric aesthetic judgment and the necessity to update and broaden the critical material for a more fair appreciation of the works. The task of unraveling the flaws of the research on Mughal art partakes of the whole book’s goals. While elaborating his inquiries with great technical precision and aesthetic sensitivity, Minissale shows how reductive and sometime even misleading conventional history of Mughal painting has been. Through this double process of re-examination and deconstruction, the miniatures indeed appear as objects of much more profound intellectuality.

3A last general observation to make concerns Minissale’s exceptional writing skills reflecting his high sense of rhetoric and depth of mind. Rarely one finds such an efficient use of language to communicate complex thoughts and reasoning. The elaborate and elegant linguistic expression is never obscure. In addition, the logical format of the text helps to follow the book’s thesis.

4Four sessions called “readings” focus on four founding concepts essential to understand Mughal pictorial production: anti-illusionism, pictorial order, myth and reflexivity. Each “reading” forms a chapter including analysis of sub-topics and summarizing conclusions. The endnotes, substantially documented and commented, are of particular interest. In the first chapter, “Reading Anti-Illusionism”, Minissale calls into question a common opinion that presents Mughal miniature as the product of some form of naturalistic aesthetics. His critique rests upon abundant quotations from the specialists. This opinion blindly relies on the undeniable historical influence of European art and its illusionist techniques on Mughal art, such as modeling and perspective. Under this influence, artists have created a lively style featuring elements of realism that distinguish it from the Persian model with which it is affiliated. But to Minissale’s mind, the scholars have wrongly based their interpretation on this stylistic aspect as if, similarly to European art, realism constituted the major visual strategy of Mughal miniature. The other stylistic aspects that do not engage naturalistic representation such as abstract designs and patterned forms were either ignored or overlooked. Except for some generic symbolic designs, most of these non-realistic features were considered de facto “decorative”, meaning implicitly devoid of particular significance. In placing illusionism at the higher level of aesthetic expression, historians have reductively singled out one aesthetic characteristic among others of greater significance regarding the images’ semantic. By extension, Mughal painting has been overall evaluated according to the level of accomplishment of illusionist effects, while their conceptual dimension has been silenced. As a result, it has been deemed technically inferior to its Western counterpart and ultimately confined to the category of precious beautiful objects.

5To correct this approach, Minissale proposes to re-investigate the issue of illusionism in Mughal painting by investigating its non- illusionist graphic and abstract components, and the diverse cultural dynamics that help understand the crucial function of these components in the pictorial conception. A series of themes such as artistic individuality, space and body, are explored in order to define what the author calls the “anti-illusionism” of Mughal miniature. To Minissale’ eyes, “Anti-illusionism” is above all an intellectual attitude deeply rooted in the Mughal cultural context, particularly the “Mughal vision of the Universe” (expression coined in p. 101). Here I would just point out some contradiction that, to me, the term “Anti-Illusionism” conveys.

6Minissale argues convincingly that the works’ aesthetics is non-imitative in essence resulting from an artistic conception specifically Indo-Persian on which the European influence had a significant but rather limited impact. Yet, the prefix “anti”, meaning “against”, suggests Mughal aesthetics was designed “against” the illusionist style brought by the Europeans rather than out of a creative dynamic internal to Mughal culture inclined towards other modes of visual expression. The term “Anti-Illusionism” also implies that mimetic practices were somehow forcefully introduced in Mughal art, generating feelings of reluctance towards realistic forms. On the contrary, the recurrence of these features undoubtedly indicates the Mughals’ fascination for the European tradition. Perhaps the expression “Non-Illusionism” would better fit Minissale’s thesis of the Mughal paintings as “images of thoughts” whose primarily conceptual and symbolic visual language has selectively incorporated some illusionist features. However, if the imported European tradition has enriched the range of the artists’ aesthetic manners, it did not modify the profoundly ideal nature of Mughal representation.

7Minissale develops further these main lines of thought in the two following chapters “Reading Pictorial Order”(Chapter 2) and “Reading Myth” (Chapter 3). Chapter 2 focuses on the main structural elements of Mughal painting, namely proportion, geometry and color. These elements create a sophisticated pictorial order fulfilling a function both formal and symbolic. A large sample of painting whose formal construction has been thoroughly screened, reveals the consistency in both Mughal and Persian art of this pictorial order associated with recurrent narrative configurations. The reader can visualize the set of these invisible organizing principles by means of diagrams drawn on the book’s illustrations representing the miniatures. Various modular geometrical constructions like hexagrams are thus brought into visibility, proving the existence of a “geometrically ordered framework as a basis for aesthetic appearance and achievement” (p.52). Here, it is worthy to notice Minissale’s reference to Alexandre Papadopoulo, the first scholar to have detected a meaningful geometrical network in Indo-Persian representation. Papadopoulo’s too intuitive but seminal study has not been properly appreciated. Its important contribution is thus finally recognized.

8In other respects, according to Minissale, the conceptual constitution of Mughal imagery reflects a more general cultural pattern that emphasizes geometry as ideal concept in different realms of human activity. He supports his assumptions with references to meticulously researched texts that were known to the Mughal elite, noticeably the Islamic scientific and philosophical writings dealing with geometry, proportion and order. If the specialists of Mughal painting had already seen the connection between the intellectual and pictorial production, the significant advancement Minissale accomplishes consists in providing solid visual evidences of this. The comparison with Western art and aesthetics of the Italian Renaissance again greatly sustains this discussion.

9In turning to Chapter 3 and 4, one is introduced to the most complex semantic layers of Mughal miniature: its mythical dimension and the intellectual intricacies of its patterns of reflexivity. Relying on celebrated 20th century Western treatises on the theme of myth, Minissale analyses in great detail the Mughal mythical repertoire from an anthropological and sociological viewpoint. Chief topics of the Mughal imperial rhetoric like scholarly dialogue, kingship, religious allegiance, piety and others, form recognizable patterns in the paintings that were indispensable for an optimal aesthetic experience by the users of these times. The last “reading” on reflexivity offers an insight on the popular scenes of Mughal miniature that deals with the aesthetic philosophical issues of art making and the nature of visual representation. Images within images, representations of painters painting, self-portraits, presentation of paintings within the painting and all possible forms involving the process of duplication constitute patterns of reflexivity. These patterns are loaded with symbolic significances related to the aesthetic consciousness in the Mughal context. A bit tedious, this part of the book is the most difficult to follow. It includes the necessary theoretical expose on the complex topic of reflexivity itself that Minissale is careful to relate systematically to the artistic production with concrete examples. However, although well articulated, the argument does not always avoid the trap of the dilution of the objects’ reality in abstract generalities belonging to pure thought. Still, the author eventually succeeds in clarifying the meaning of this peculiar reflexive iconography in Mughal painting.

10Finally, one will just regret the mediocre quality of the book’s illustrations and the absence of fine color plates that do not do justice to both the enlightening text and beauty of the objects under observation. However this defect of the publication does not spoil the excitement of the reading. This inspiring work regenerates the research on Islamic miniature by unveiling a new horizon of reflection on the subject. The reader definitely feels that he/she has re-discovered Mughal painting whose fascinating complexity and subtle cognitivity have been unsuspected. Anyone committed to this field of study must read Gregory Minissale’s “Images of Thoughts”.

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Valérie Gonzalez, « Minissale Gregory, Images of Thought, Visuality in Islamic India 1550-1750, Cambridge Scholars Press, Newcastle, 2006, 271 p. », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 125 | juillet 2009, mis en ligne le 12 mai 2009, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL :

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