The Art Historian as Ethnographer: Photographs from the Ananda K. Coomaraswamy Archive

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Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, a self-taught art historian with a Ph.D. in geology, is best known as a scholar of Indian art and civilization. In 1903 he began his doctoral work, a scientific survey of the mineralogy of Ceylon. Accompanied by his wife, the English photographer and artist Ethel Mary Partridge, he travelled throughout Ceylon from 1903 to 1907. While living and conducting field research in Ceylon, Coomaraswamy discovered the vibrant folk and utilitarian arts, the customs, and the ceremonial life that still defined daily existence in remote regions of the country. His interest in photography as a means of documenting this art and culture originated with the photographs, taken by Partridge, that were used to illustrate his first book, Medieval Sinhalese Art. Published in 1908, the book stressed the beauty and spirituality of traditional arts and crafts in Ceylon. Coomaraswamy believed that in traditional societies, unlike modern ones, there is no distinction between fine arts and other art (decorative arts, useful arts, handcrafts, etc.) and no distinction between religious and secular arts. “For him the most humble folk art and the loftiest religious creations alike were an outward expression not only of the sensibilities of those who created them but of the whole civilization in which they were nurtured.”

Between 1900 and 1913 Coomaraswamy divided his time between England, India, and Southeast Asia, where he continued his study of traditional arts and crafts. In 1910, after he and Partridge divorced, he began to take his own photographs and to collect images of the daily life and work of the indigenous peoples of India and Southeast Asia.

Coomaraswamy emigrated to America in 1917 and became curator of Indian art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In 1920 he met the artist and ethnic dancer Stella Bloch, who accompanied him on a trip to India and the Far East, where she learned the native dances of Bali, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, and Java. Bloch’s interest in the performance arts was compatible with Coomaraswamy’s belief that the survival of ancient culture was dependent on theater, music, and dance. This shared fascination prompted him to expand his collection of photographs of performers and performances.

At the time of his death in 1947, Coomaraswamy had amassed a large collection of ethnographic prints, each of which portrays some aspect of a people’s life. Produced by photographic firms and studios operating in the region, the prints in the archive include portraits and genre scenes; photographs of craftsmen and laborers; and images of dancers, musicians, and entertainers. For Coomaraswamy, these images were a means of preserving a culture and disseminating information about a people and lifestyle. The photographs in this exhibition were taken between the 1860s and the 1940s by Coomaraswamy and other photographers and are now part of the Coomaraswamy archive in the Research Photographs Collection of the Department of Art and Archaeology.

A Selection of Images