Fantastical paintings encompassing an eclectic fusion of the natural world, global artistic influences and memory are the core of “Raqib Shaw: Ballads of East and West,” on view at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum from February 15 – May 12, 2024. The exhibition features the puzzle-like paintings of London-based Kashmiri artist, Raqib Shaw, who blends Eastern and Western cultures to conjure a paradise in the wake of violence and displacement.
To create his intricate compositions – populated with vibrant flowers, hybrid beasts and snow-capped mountains – Shaw uses porcupine quills and fine needles to manipulate glossy enamel and metallic paint outlined in embossed gold, usually onto birch wood panels. Shaw incorporates a range of literary, art historical, and spiritual references in his work.
“Raqib Shaw’s love of Asian art and European Old Masters, his fascination with textiles and patterning, his interest in horticulture and natural detail, even his profound relationship to his dog, all find a kinship in Isabella Stewart Gardner’s life and passions,” Peggy Fogelman, Norma Jean Calderwood Director of the Gardner Museum, said. “It is thrilling to show Raqib’s work in the context of the Gardner Museum and to discover the utopias and dystopias that he so artfully envisions. Every visitor will find their own personal meaning in his work, just as they do in the Museum’s wide-ranging collection.”
Raqib Shaw was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, in 1974, and grew up in the valley of Kashmir, surrounded by gardens, lakes and the Himalayan mountains – a place that he remembers as paradise on earth. Due to growing religious tensions and violent insurgencies, Shaw’s family relocated to New Delhi in 1992, before moving to London in 1997. Shaw’s paintings are deeply self-reflective, filled with associations to the beauty and trauma of his childhood.
“Raqib Shaw: Ballads of East and West,” the artist’s first major North American survey, brings together more than twenty works from private and museum collections worldwide. The exhibition was co-organized by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, TN, and co-curated with Dr. Zehra Jumabhoy. The Gardner Museum is the second stop for the exhibition, following the Frist Art Museum (where it was on view September 15 – December 31). The exhibition will travel from Boston to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in Texas (June 9 – September 2, 2024) and The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California (November 16, 2024 – March 3, 2025).
For the Gardner presentation, Shaw’s works unfold across the entire Museum – predominantly in the Hostetter Gallery (second floor of the new building), but also in the Fenway Gallery (first floor of the palace), which will focus on the artist’s process. A new work, commissioned by the Gardner, will be on view on the new building’s façade.
The main space of the exhibition features seventeen paintings and one sculpture spanning the last twelve years of Shaw’s career. The artist’s works contain many recurring components – references to historic masterpieces, self-portraiture, and autobiographical moments. Shaw takes inspiration from iconic Renaissance paintings, infusing their narratives with Asian motifs – ranging from sumptuously-patterned Kashmiri carpets to luminous Japanese lacquerware.
In his self-portraits, Shaw depicts himself in a variety of guises – as saint, satyr, joker, philosopher, as well as a blue-skinned Hindu deity – often with Kashmir in peril in the background.
“There’s something that binds everything together … beauty,” Raqib Shaw said. “I do believe that it has a soul- cleansing and a calming quality and an uplifting quality that is rather primordial. I don’t think that that’ll ever change.”
Upon entering the first of the two rooms in Hostetter Gallery, visitors will encounter five canvases of infinite colors depicting vivid environments.
In the main gallery, Shaw’s recently created La Tempesta (After Giorgione) (2019–21) finds its inspiration from Giorgione’s The Tempest (about 1508), considered one of the Italian Renaissance’s most enigmatic masterworks. In Shaw’s interpretation, he blows a transparent “memory bubble” filled with the idyllic scene of peacefully flowering trees, while a brutally different reality of the burning city of Srinagar rages behind him.
Shaw’s cornerstone work, The Retrospective (2002-22), depicts more than 60 miniaturized versions of his own paintings and sculptures, including many that surround it in this exhibition. This painting reimagines the eighteenth-century picture gallery by Italian artist Giovanni Paolo Panini, Picture Gallery with Views of Modern Rome (1757), from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
In the midst of Shaw’s invented picture gallery, the artist stands atop a stack of packing crates marked “Fragile” wearing a Venetian carnival mask and ceremonial kimono. He triumphantly and satirically waves a toilet plunger over his head like an orchestra conductor directing a symphony.
In the Fenway Gallery, adjacent to the Museum’s Courtyard, visitors will gain a deeper understanding of Shaw’s creative process that combines memories and art historical references to trace his personal story of beauty and loss. The gallery, evocative of the artist’s studio, features the finished painting, The Departure (after Tintoretto) (2021–22), as well as some of the artist’s tools, objects of inspiration (like books and a small golden pagoda), photographs of staged performances by the artist on which drawings are later based, preparatory sketches, tracings, and watercolors for the painting.
This painting reimagines the Italian artist Tintoretto’s Presentation of the Virgin (1556). In Tintoretto’s work, Mary ascends a staircase to dedicate her life to serving God. In Shaw’s interpretation, Mr. C, the artist’s beloved Jack Russell Terrier, who passed away last year, is surrounded by celestial light.
Anne H. Fitzpatrick Façade
The Gardner Museum commissioned Shaw to create a site-specific public art work for its Anne H. Fitzpatrick Façade on Evans Way. In The Perseverant Prophet, Shaw uses Peter Bruegel the Elder’s The Tower of Babel (1563) as a point of departure.
Flames engulf the tower and the surrounding Himalayan landscape, igniting a pile of art history books. On the left, the artist Raqib Shaw fights the conflagration with a Japanese parasol, never surrendering to catastrophe in the face of perpetual chaos and seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
The commission will be on view from February 6 – June 4, 2024/