VISUAL ART The Peaceful Liberators Victoria and Albert Museum

The religious philosophy of the Jains may be complex - but the appeal is universal.
Click to follow
The statue is beguilingly simple - a mere nine inches high. It depicts a youth, his hair in curls, his arms hanging loosely at his side, the muscles of his body subtly delineated beneath polished copper flesh. This small effigy of a Jina, from Tamilnadu in southern India, is one of the highlights of an exhibition opened recently at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which demonstrates succinctly two very different ways of looking at art.

"The Peaceful Liberators" is a celebration of the art of the Jains, a popular Indian religious order whose basic tenet is that all life forms are sacred. In effect a stricter form of Buddhism, Jainism is also considerably more complex, and herein lies the importance of this exhibition. Whereas Buddhism operates through the offices of the Lord Buddha, the Jains believe in a pantheon of 23 co-existing Jinas, or liberators, who intercede on their behalf between the temporal and the spiritual worlds. This is no less baffling to untutored Western eyes than it sounds, and it beggars the question: "How are we to understand this exhibition without some knowledge of the religion which is its inspiration?" The answer is that we should not even attempt to understand it. We should simply experience it.

Whereas in the West the sensual element which dominates much of modern art grew out of the increasing secularisation of painting and sculpture which took place half a millennium ago during the Renaissance, in Jain culture, art and religion are united by sensuality, the artist using the beauty of his creations as a visual celebration of his own devotion. That said, there is nothing over-elaborate in these works. There is something both serene and muscular about Jain sculpture. The figures of Jinas and Yakshis (goddesses) possess an engaging formal fluency, while avoiding the over-decoration so common in Hindu art. To use a familiar Western parallel, the standing Jinas in particular have the sensuous rigour of a 5th-century BC Greek Kouros.

But if it is possible to appreciate Jain sculpture for its form alone, the paintings in this exhibition demand something more of the viewer. We may not be familiar with Jain teaching, but we can at least understand the idea behind the two huge pilgrimage paintings which form the centrepiece of the graphic work here. Portraying the route of a pilgrimage to Satrunjaya, seductive colours combine with illustration to create an effective vicarious votive mechanism. It is possible, though, to stand back from these works and engage with them through their abstract qualities. Here, in all the colours of India - from bright pink to saffron yellow - is the Jain equivalent of Colour Field abstraction.

Whether from necessity or from choice, if we approach any of these works in ignorance of the original raison d'etre, we can, through their unquestionable power and beauty, discover much, not merely about a specific religion, but about the condition of mankind.

Details on 0171-938 8349. To 21 January, 1996