What a tragic paradox! The Asian tiger has been loved, worshipped, feared – and hunted to the point of extinction. This exhibition, pleasingly presented in two bijou rooms in the rather murky basement of Asia House, reminds us of the impact that this gorgeous, sad and soon-to-be-extinct (there are fewer than 3,500 left) animal has had upon the arts of Asia.
The exhibition begins with representations of the hunting of the beast. A photograph from the middle of the 19th century shows four trigger-happy colonials, lounging around on tiger skins. At their back, four astonishingly beautiful tiger pelts are arranged, Catherine wheel-like, at full stretch. Major General John Frazer Vans-Agnew's The End of a Day's Shooting could not be more arrogantly repulsive if it tried.
And yet we can't exactly blame the Brits for this. They didn't invent these murderous impulses. Just a foot or two away hangs a wonderful watercolour, from around 1800, by an artist from Jaipur. It shows a maharajah's retinue surging across the landscape. These men, with their spears, are out hunting for tigers too. The whole scene is a model of colourfully decorous display. The dying tiger's wound is in the form of a pin wheel. The horses are polka-dotted. The painting's astonishing visual sweep is beautifully enhanced by the lavish use of gold leaf.
Why kill the beast? Because to subdue it was to assume its potency, to mean everything the tiger meant. From the 11th century, the Chinese army often wore tiger-striped uniforms – they represented fearsomeness and even a measure of invincibility. We see them on these walls, fighting the redcoats in the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century.
The objects here are many and various, from screens to rugs, from a not-especially-restful-looking ceramic pillow to a range of tiger-themed netsukes, from scrolls to embroidery from Vietnam. Tigers are protectors, embodiments of wisdom and spirituality. Even fertility is within their gift. The most fascinating object can only be seen on film. Tipu Sultan (the "Tiger of Mysore") adorned his possessions with tiger motifs. We see here a single jewel-encrusted tiger finial from his palanquin. On film we see "Tipu's Tiger", a mechanical organ that shows a huge tiger standing on a life-size British redcoat, tearing at him. When you turn the handle, the tiger roars. In 1799, Tipu Sultan's capital was sacked and he was killed by the British.
What intrigues most about this wonderful exhibition – and how sad that it has no catalogue, because its story is so rich and so much worth the telling – is that the tiger seldom looks really fearsome, even when the artist seems to be doing his best to make it look as terrifying as possible. Nature has adorned it too beautifully. So some of the finest works here do little other than take the tiger and its stripes and play with them as forms of exquisite abstract patterning. See how the stripes in a 19th-century woollen tiger rug from Tibet, for example, have been made to flow and undulate away from its spine.
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