9 Bookmarks: Rawson’s writing and the influence of Abhinavagupta (HT23)

Location: OCHS Library
Speaker: Professor Chris Dorsett
Date: March 2, 2023
Time: 2.00pm – 3.00pm

Lecture two is an analysis of Philip Rawson’s textual references to the aesthetic speculations of Abhinavagupta, which not only influenced the layout of the Tantra exhibition, but also provided a theoretical underpinning for the many art books Rawson wrote throughout his career. He was a very creative museum professional who also thought of himself as an art educator and, from this perspective, he saw art schools as laboratories for the advancement of sensory experience and the amplification of what we now call ‘affect’.

In the Tantra exhibition he had (purposely, I think) addressed the experimental aspirations of Western art students, and those of us who thronged the Hayward Gallery were busy reading his latest publications. In particular, Drawing (1969) and Ceramics (1971) were landmarks in their field, and Indian aesthetics are perceptively at work in both books – both entwine passionate explorations of the ‘language’ of these art forms with the sensible, embodied, and numinous values we associate with Abhinavagupta’s philosophical reflections. Consequently, in this second lecture I discuss some of the most theoretical passages in Rawson’s writing at the time he was curating the Hayward show.

Over the years, my own copies of Drawing and Ceramics have accumulated impromptu bookmarks made from offcuts of my drawings, and these must figure in the discussion because they are a by-product of my long rumination on Rawson’s educational thinking. A year after the Tantra exhibition closed he joined the staff at the Royal College of Art and became my teacher and mentor. Thus, my account is built upon a great deal of direct knowledge which is, on the one hand, sensitive to the educative significance Rawson attributed to aesthetic encounters, but on the other hand, inflected by an acknowledgement that his books are now placed at some distance from a world that is post-structuralist, postmodern, and postcolonial.

Professor Chris Dorsett is an artist and academic whose career has been built on curatorial partnerships with collection-holding institutions. In the UK he is best known for his pioneering exhibitions at the Pitt Rivers Museum where, having stepped back from his art school commitments in 2018, he is now an Associate Researcher. Dorsett’s many overseas projects include museum ‘interventions’ across the Nordic region and fieldwork residencies in the Amazon and at the walled village of Kat Hing Wai in the New Territories of Hong Kong. These projects were developed during university appointments at the Ruskin School of Art, Oxford; Central St. Martin’s School of Art, London; Royal University Institute of Fine Art, Stockholm; Northumbria University, Newcastle Upon Tyne; and Edinburgh School of Art. He is on the editorial board of Museum Worlds and has written extensively on the interface between experimental art practices and the museum/heritage sector for publishers such as Routledge and Intellect Books. Most recently, in conjunction with the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, he has been researching the museological legacy of the historian of Indian Art, Philip Rawson.