Scientists, showmen and painters
B.N. Goswamy

Metamorphosis: Landscape by an unknown German artist; early 17th century
Metamorphosis: Landscape by an unknown German artist; early 17th century

IN his Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie has a long and evocative description of the kind of picture showmen that used to go round towns and villages carrying those magic boxes to the big lenses of which children would sit glued, taking in wondrous sights while the showman sang and the images moved at a leisurely pace. One remembers, even from one's own sepia-tinted childhood, all the excitement and squeals of delight, views of Bombay and Basra, of dancing hour is and the inevitable fat lady, the barah man ki dhoban. For all the sophisticated technology that one is surrounded with today, that magic has never really gone away.

I continue to be interested in that lingering magic for another reason, too, for I have been trying to crack the mystery of some 18th century paintings from Kutch that were copied directly from European engravings showing receding vistas of towns like Venice and Vienna. Straightforward 'copies' as these views appear at first to be, I have a hunch that they were originally meant to be seen through some optical device, like a magic box, which gave them the illusion of great depth. But what kind of box, or device, I do not know. At least not yet. Not long ago, however, this quest led to an expert who encouraged me to look for a possible answer in a book that accompanied a major exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in California. Devices of Wonder: From the World in a Box to Images on a Screen, is how the book is titled. With mounting excitement I took the contents in, for truly it is a "dazzlingly daunting compendium of ideas and devices from peep shows to digital projections, early automata to modern robots", a history of the beautiful 'eye machines' humans have created "out of our desire to see more, better, farther, and in a different way", as some notices of this unusual project say. Page after page of the book is filled with descriptions, and images, of devices that have held people in thrall over generations: curiosity cabinets, faceted lenses, solar microscopes, blow books, lodestones and magnets, pantographs, writing automatons, magic lanterns, perspective theatres, camera obscuras, lithophanes, roto-reliefs, stereographs, shadow boxes, vues d'optique, images in motion. The list is endless, and the research exhaustive.

'Time which destroys all, gives existence to all...' by Claude Fortier; ca. 1805
'Time which destroys all, gives existence to all …' by Claude Fortier; ca. 1805

The book does not treat only of objects frozen in history, however. For, like a rich cabinet of 'ocular and philosophical curiosities' that it is, it remains constantly engaged with establishing connections between the past and the present, analysing and seeking out social and cultural intersections between old and new technologies. Strategies that produce 'perceptual, imaginative, and intellectual intensification' have remained a constant concern, it asserts. Take the case of all those 'cabinets', for instance. The term is complex, meaning at once a small private chamber, an executive council of state, and a room for the display of works of arts. But by the 17th century, it had also turned from a simple cupboard into a box with compartments, drawers, shelves, and doors that could house wondrous collections of disparate objects: the wunderschrank, or wunderkabinett of German description, not too far from what the contemporary sculptor, Joseph Cornell, makes: miscellaneous fragments of everyday life assembled into boxes to create lyrical compositions layered with meaning, and invested with the air of a private mythology.

It is in this manner that the book proceeds: seeing connections, provoking thought, expanding the mind, and always inviting the reader to glimpse, if not enter, magical domains. A small but diverting section of the work deals with what have been called 'anthropomorphic landscapes', a prime example of which was a painting depicting a mountain as the head of a bearded man, by the Swiss-German artist, Matthaeus Merian. Once known, and widely circulated as a print, the painting became astonishingly influential, artists everywhere in Europe producing their own versions of 'human' or 'figural' landscapes around them, eliciting astonishment in the viewer because of their ability to be two things at once: shrubbery or tangled beard; deserted hut or nose; small pool of water or blue eye; rocky depression or sunken cheek; and so on. Words of the philosopher Descartes come to mind: "When our first encounter with some object surprises us and we find it novel, or very different from what we formerly knew or from what we supposed it ought to be, this causes us to wonder and to be astonished at it." In that philosopher's thought, wonder—vismaya, in our own Sanskrit vocabulary of aesthetics—was 'the first of all the passions'.

This feature was published on June 27, 2004