I recently had the privilege of attending a large exhibit of the sculptures of this extraordinary woman (1949-2015). Although her work is probably not to everyone’s taste, I believe you can appreciate the imagination, sheer artistry, and dexterity she demonstrated.
I regret that my photos—taken on site and from the book I purchased—do not adequately capture her genius.
In a career spanning 40 years, Mukherjee focused on creating large, elaborate fiber structures and later turned to ceramic and then bronze pieces. I found her fiber works awe-inspiring in their beauty—or deliberate ugliness—and size.
Mukherjee’s fiber was a type of rope called San or Shani, which she said was “something close to hemp…I don’t know whether it is flax, but it is not jute. Maybe it is something in between.”
She had to stop generating these fiber pieces, according to the exhibit’s program guide, because “working with fiber was physically demanding, the rope Mukherjee used was now being combined with synthetic fibers, and a ban was imposed on the dyeing units needed to achieve her preferred colors.”
Mukherjee was the daughter of artists. She spent her childhood in part in the Himalayan foothills and in West Bengal, India. Those were the areas that nurtured her love of the natural world.
She was encouraged by parents who were drawn to nature; her father developed an ecological philosophy studying at a school founded by Tagore, the poet who has also been called a polymath, or Renaissance man.
After earning a diploma in painting, she studied mural design with one of her father’s former students, who encouraged his own students to explore widely among varying styles of Indian arts and crafts, and to move beyond the traditional materials and approaches. She certainly internalized those messages.
Her signature style was the knotting visible in all the fiber structures, accomplished using not a loom, but “makeshift frames and armatures.”
In the 1970s, she drew from Indian mythology, using Sanskrit titles of divine entities, but applying them to figures that weren’t identifiable as plants or creatures.
The program guide suggests: “These now-biomorphic objects signified states of metamorphosis and transfiguration.”
Unlike most artists, she never made sketches first, and her works since the 1980s rarely hung from a wall; I felt their placement on a floor or hanging from a ceiling, drawing on the available space and light, enhanced their exceptionalism.
In freeing them from the wall, she said, she wanted to capture
“the feeling of awe [you get] when you went into the small sanctum of a temple and look up to be held by an iconic presence.”
“My idea of the sacred is not rooted in any specific culture..my work is not…the iconic representation of any particular religious belief, rather it is the metamorphosed expression of varied sensory perceptions.”
The “anthropomorphic deities,” she stressed,
“have no relationship to gods and goddesses in the traditional iconographic sense, but are parallel invocations in the realm of art.”
When she moved on to ceramics, she was hindered by her inability to access kilns large enough for the work she envisioned, as well as an absence of the glazes she sought.
According to the book Mrinalini Mukherjee, edited by Shanay Jhaveri, she was told at the European Ceramic Work Centre that “You are always extending the material a little bit beyond what it should be. But that’s because you have not been trained, and nobody has taught you a way.”
Undaunted by the criticism, Mukherjee viewed her lack of specific training and her possible overreaching as advantages.
“It was through the sheer force of will that Mukherjee, by her own hand and the simple, direct manipulation of a series of materials, managed to invoke ‘awe.’”
In the early years of this century, she began working with bronze, apparently inspired by her mother’s small bronze figures. She sculpted in the lost-wax process: a mold is made of wax, into which molten metal is poured. The wax model is then melted away.
This technique, once again so different from the fiber she’d been accustomed to, required some adaptation.
One intriguing story is that she finished her cast bronze works using tools she’d obtained from the laboratory of a neighborhood orthodontist.
I can imagine her teacher’s delight if he’d learned how well she adapted his guidance to use unusual methods and approaches.
Her work has been praised for its “bewitching otherness.” Some of it was actually
“nature cast in art…the leaves and stalks she chanced upon and found arresting for their shapes were moulded in wax or plaster.”
I could go on and on about her works, but it seems best at this point to show you a sampling.
After spending several hours wandering among these highly diverse pieces, I emphatically agreed with the program guide’s conclusion:
“Mukherjee’s sculptures challenge the imagination to go beyond logic and reason and enter into a world that is teeming and full of potential.”
What are your impressions of Mukherjee’s work?
Update: In response to a query, I came across a terrific review of the exhibit, with additional photos, from The New York Times. For some reason, the article won’t hyperlink, but you can Google “Sculpture, Both Botanical and Bestial, Awe at the Met Breuer, July 11, 2019.” Here’s the reviewer’s conclusion:
“But my immediate question after seeing the Breuer show was simply: when did this artist ever rest? The sheer amount of energy generated by her formal inventiveness, self-developed virtuosity, pre-postmodern thinking, and un-Modern emotion makes for one of the most arresting museum experiences of the season. It is an astonishment.”