Remembering Robert Powell


Robert Powell’s drawing of the courtyard façade of Kuthu Math in Bhaktapur is a prime example of his singular style: light enters from the left and the contrast between surface and shadow accentuate the depth of the carvings, guiding the viewer’s eyes.

The windows are the many eyes on the wall, some open and some closed, some watchful and some resting. The blackness behind the openings contours the face and enhances the intricate latticework. There is a stillnessto the painting, but wait: is that a flying pigeon frozen in time under the second-floor window?

The retrospective exhibition at Taragaon Museum is a tribute to Robert Powell who died in Thailand on 16 December 2020. It is also a celebration of talent that sheds light on the artist’s unique visual range, subtle playfulness and an austere dedication to detail.

There are 30 of Powell’s works on exhibit, including the museum’s recent acquisition: the artist’s rendition of the 17th century Licchavichaitya at Vambaha in Patan. Individual pieces of the original chaitya date to the 7th century and was only later assembled. 

This is an intricate drawing of an exquisite sculpture, and Powell’s brush strokes add to the superior craftsmanship of its unnamed master. Directly beneath the dome sits a Buddha flanked by two ferocious lions looking in opposite directions. The fiery tails of the lions rise to frame the niche where the Buddha meditates and are swallowed by Kirtimukha above, who then regurgitates water, signifying rain.

Where is the line between the opposites – fire and water? Where does one begin and the other end? Meanwhile wide lotus leaves jut out of the tails on each side. The details are immaculate, each curl of the tails and manes rendered to perfection.

The drawing captures the essence of the sculpture in minute scale, carefully measured and rendered on paper. The chaitya itself is of special interest because unlike other Lichhavi era sculptures in Kathmandu, where the niches are empty, this has the Buddha meditating in it.

Powell does not just portray what is literal. These are hyper-realistic impressions taken to another realm by his artistic genius. There is an added dimension inaccessible to the human eye, or even to the camera. Reality mingles with the artist’s own impression.

Take, for example, his drawing of Taka, a Magar village in Rolpa, which depicts a 3-storeyed structure seen from above. The surface appears as if in motion with the viewer almost hovering overhead, as the hat-like granaries on the flat roof leap out of the frame. The rows of houses represent the Magar marriage system in architectural form: matrilineal unions between cousins across 3 lineages.

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The painting of a temple with an overgrown pipal shows the carved arch interlocked between the Kirtimukha and the trunk, both vying to devour it. Much of the front façade has crumbled and the bricks lie about as the tree lifts the shrine. Inside is a solitary shivalinga, displaced or at home among nature, one cannot say.

The interaction between natural and human structures is what ties together Robert’s work, even though the paintings themselves are not peopled. The houses, windows, lonely temples, and even thowo (row of piled up stones) – all are either placed amidst nature or built of natural materials. Earthy pigments of ochre, yellow, white, colour the canvas in thin effervescent layers.

The lack of people could make the structures appear forlorn. A house in one of the drawings has visible cracks on its brick wall, looks worn out and abandoned, ready to give up. There is a sense of melancholy, but an aesthetic one. The landscape revels in its objective existence, seen as themselves. Robert is careful not to overlay his own influence onto the canvas, his point of view is reflected solely by what he selects to draw.

This is architectural documentation at its best. Historians and conservationists draw lines with sharp pencil or ink, without using a T-square, aiming to depict an objective reproduction of the artefact without manipulating it, or completing the missing details. Powell famously counted the bricks in the courtyard of Kuthu Math in Bhaktapur and meticulously painted each of their colour, texture and size.

Such exactitude adds a layer of poetry to Powell’s art which aims not to influence but to uncover what was previously unseen or unnoticed, giving a more holistic image of the structure with surgical precision and mythic elevation.

The Taragaon exhibition showcases Robert Powell’s powerful narrative quality that augments an archival contribution to architecture and ethnography, full of aesthetic and historical significance. The eyes on the windows watch us as we pass, and their doors open to remind us of the cities of the old from where we have come. These drawings are vessels for memory, since only the material world is transient. 

Robert Powell Exhibition

The Taragaon MuseumBoudha

Till 12 November 2021


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Pictured right, Rob Powell in his Koh Samui studio.

Ashish Dhakal