The Mother as an Artist
Early Art Studies
Years in the Studio
Life among Artists
Théon and Algeria
Sojourn in Japan
Pondicherry: The Later Paintings and Drawings
Some Bibliographical Details
A brief sketch of the Mother's training and activity as an artist has been given in the Introduction. A detailed account of the subject will be presented below, as far as the available information permits.
Little is known about this aspect of the Mother's life. This is especially true of the early periods. We must depend primarily on what she herself disclosed on a few occasions, in passing, whether in conversations with individuals or in the talks published in her Collected Works. This is supplemented by a few facts from other sources. Some of the information in this article, based on research done by members and friends of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives, is appearing in print for the first time.
Early Art Studies
Out knowledge of the Mother's early art training is confined to a few bare facts. The Mother once said that she began to draw at the age of eight and started to learn oil painting and other painting techniques when she was ten.1 She added on another occasion that at twelve she was already doing portraits.2 Her recollection about the beginning of her art studies is confirmed and amplified bya surviving letter to her father dated 1886, when she was eight. In the letter, young Mirra mentioned her art teacher, Marie Bricka. Actually, two Mademoiselles Bricka are named in the letter, Marie and Blanche. Marie used to give Mirra private lessons at home. According to the letter, once Marie was ill and Blanche came to replace her sister. It appears that a third sister also taught art, for the Mother spoke in one of her talks of having learned to paint from “three old sisters” who had a studio.3
Mirra studied with Marie Bricka or one of her sisters until she was fourteen or fifteen. The catalogue of the International “Blanc et Noir” Exhibition of 1892 in Paris describes her as a student of Mademoiselle Bricka. The Mother was fourteen in this year. One of her charcoal drawings called “Le Pont de la Divonne (Ain)” (“Bridge on the river Divonne”) appeared in the exhibition.4 The town of Divonneles-Bains is close to the Swiss border in the department of Ain in eastern France. The small river empties into Lake Geneva. The Mother probably did the drawing on a visit to her maternal grandmother, Mira Ismalun, who was living in Lausanne. Unfortunately, this drawing has not survived.
The Mother once mentioned that when she was fourteen she was teaching painting every Sunday to a class of small children.5 No further information relating to her art activities in this period has come to light.
A glimpse of the inner side of the Mother's early artistic development is of greater interest than any outward facts. We know from several statements in her talks that her conscious practice of meditation had begun spontaneously at the age of five. A great “light” which she often felt above her head and later penetrating her brain had begun to shape her life, though she could not yet understand what it was. Concentrated work on the purely mental faculties would come at a later stage. From about the time she started drawing and painting, the focus was on perfecting the “vital being” whose domain is sensations, emotions, life-energies:
“All aspects of art and beauty, but particularly music and painting, fascinated me. I went through a very intense vital development during that period, with, just as in my early years, the presence of a kind of inner Guide; and all centred on studies: the study of sensations, observations, the study of technique, comparative studies, even a whole spectrum of observations dealing with taste, smell and hearing — a kind of classification of experiences. And this extended to all facets of life, all the experiences life can bring, all of them — miseries, joys, difficulties, sufferings, every thing—oh, a whole field of studies! And always this Presence within, judging, deciding, classifying, organising and systematising everything.”6
At a young age, the Mother not only acquired the techniques of drawing and painting but learned to see with the eyes of an artist. She once described what this means, in its most basic terms:
“There is a considerable difference between the vision of ordinary people and the vision of artists. Their way of seeing things is much more complete and conscious than that of ordinary people. When one has not trained one's vision, one sees vaguely, imprecisely, and has impressions rather than an exact vision. An artist, when he sees something and has learned to use his eyes, sees — for instance, when he sees a face, instead of seeing just a form, like that, you know, a form, the general effect of a form, ... he sees the exact structure of the face, the proportions of the different parts, whether the face is harmonious or not, and why;... all sorts of things at one glance, you understand, in a single vision, as one sees the relations between different forms.”7
An experience the Mother had when she was fourteen, though it relates more to music than to the visual faculties, shows how readily her keen aesthetic response to beauty could intensify into a sudden spiritual opening, even at this age:
The Jewish temples in Paris have such beautiful music. Oh, what beautiful music! It was in a temple that I had one of my first experiences. It was at a wedding. The music was wonderful. I was up in the balcony with my mother, and the music, I was later told, was music of Saint-Saens, with an organ (it was the second best organ in Paris — marvellous!) This music was being played, and I was up there (I was fourteen) and there were some leaded-glass windows — white windows, with no designs. I was gazing at one of them, feeling uplitted by the music, when suddenly through the window came a flash like a bolt of lightning. Just like lightning. It entered-my eyes were open-it entered like this (Mother strikes her chest forcefully), and then I... I had the feeling of becoming vast and all-powerful. And it lasted for days.8
Years in the Studio
The Mother passed her final examinations at school when she was fifteen. She then joined an art studio where she devoted eight hours a day to painting.9 The name of the institution to which the studio belonged is not mentioned in her recorded talks or in any available documents. However, it can be inferred with reasonable certainty from several facts.
First, the prevalent idea that the Mother studied at the Ecole des Beaux- Arts, the French national school of fine arts, must be dismissed since women were not admitted there until 1897.10 The Mother finished her art schooling and married in that year. Prior to 1897, it appears that the only place in Paris where women could study painting seriously was the Académie Julian.
This institution was founded by Rodolphe Julian in 1868, grew rapidly until its founder's death in 1907, and continued to exist unti11959.11 By the 1890s the Académie possessed several studios in Paris, including some for women. The young Russian, Marie Bashkirtseff, who entered one of the first ateliers for women in 1877 and left a vivid account of it, chose the Académie Julian because it was “the only serious art school for a woman”.12 Rodolphe Julian believed that women could equal men in the arts and sciences, and he implemented this principle in his school. For this reason among others, he was hailed as “a revolutionary in the field of artistic education” and even regarded as a father of the feminist movement.13
The professors chosen by Julian were highly qualified. All accounts of the Académie refer to the rigorous traditional training imparted there, combined with an encouragement of individuality within the limits of the general style that was taught. The Julian teachers sought to inculcate in the students especiallya love and understanding of nature and an honest expression of their own perception. On the technical side, there was an emphasis on drawing and a resistance to new trends which revelled in pure colour and pattern.14 The Mother's paintings and drawings certainly attest to her having received the kind of thorough classical training offered by the Académie Julian, though she soon went beyond the formulas of the French “academic” style.
It may be noted that Julian was particular about providing living models in his studios. The Académie held monthly competitions for prizes, in which both men and women of the various studios competed on an equal basis.15 The Mother was probably referring to one of these competitions when she said she had won a first prize in Paris for a still-life painting of hers.16
Though we have no record of the Mother mentioning the name of the art school she attended, she described its organisation in a manner that points unmistakably to the Académie Julian. In a talk by one of her granddaughters based on notes gathered in the course of conversations with the Mother, the following statement occurs:
“At the age of fifteen or sixteen, she was going every day to a studio to learn painting. There was a teacher who came twice a week to see what the students had done. He was a man who had opened several studios like that in Paris, and there was a monitress, a woman of twenty-four or twenty-five years, who was there as supervisor.”17
In the 1890s, as far as we know, there was only one man who had opened several art studios in Paris, namely, Rodolphe Julian. The above account does contain a minor discrepancy with what is known of the operation of Julian's studios, but it is a detail which does not alter the definite impression that the Académie Julian is meant. The teacher who came twice a week would not have been the man who had opened the studios, namely, Julian himself. In the beginning, Julian had supervised the activities of his workshops, but “as the Académie expanded, he withdrew from close personal contact with most of the students”.18 It must have been one of his professors who came twice a week to criticise the students' work. This agrees with an account of Julian's Académie in the 1880s which speaks of the professors visiting twice a week.19
In Julian's studios, “management of the ateliers was delegated to the ‘massier’ or ‘massière’ [student in charge] who was either elected or chosen by Julian.”20 This was the monitress referred to above. The Mother was friendly with the girl who was monitress of the studio she attended, and once saved her from being dismissed on false charges. The above quotation introduces one version of this story. Another version is worth quoting in full for the glimpse it provides of the Mother's unusual strength of character even at this age:
In her sixteenth year she joined a Studio to learn painting. It was one of the biggest studios in Paris. She happened to be the youngest there. All the other people used to talk and quarrel among themselves, but she never took part in these things — she was always grave and busy with her work. They called her the Sphinx. Whenever they had any trouble or wrangle, they would come to her to settle their affairs. She could read their thoughts and, as she replied more often to their thoughts than to their words, they felt very uncomfortable. She would also make her decisions without the least fear, even if the authorities were concerned. Once a girl who had been appointed monitress of the Studio got into the bad books of the elderly lady who was the Head of the place. This lady wanted to send away the monitress. So the Sphinx was sought out by the young woman for help. She felt sympathy for the girl, knowing how poor she was and that if she left the place it would be the end of her painting career. The Head of the Studio had now to confront a determined little champion. Sensible pleading was first tried, but when it fell on deaf ears the champion took another line. With a bit of anger she caught the elderly woman's hand and held it in a firm grip as if the very bones would be crushed. It was soon agreed that the monitress would be allowed to stay on. Mahakali had been at work again.21
The Mother said little about her years as an art student; of the little she said, almost nothing relates to art. As with all of her early life, one can only glean stray details from passing remarks, but these cannot often be dated with any precision. We know that she took a trip to Italy with her mother when she was fifteen. They had relatives there, since her mother's sister had married an Italian. It may be assumed that this visit was a stimulating one for the Mother s developing artistic sensitivity. She mentions that she painted in St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice, but this may have been on a subsequent trip to Italy. She said about Venice: “The cathedrals are so beautiful there! Oh, it is so magnificent!”22
It was undoubtedly during her years of concentrated work in the studio that the Mother matured from a gifted child into an accomplished artist. But she had no ambition for fame or a successful career. Nor was art itself her single all-absorbing preoccupation. She always spoke of it as one part of the many-sided growth in consciousness which was taking place in these years. The spirit in which she studied may be inferred from what she said later about Art and Yoga:
“The discipline of Art has at its centre the same principle as the discipline of Yoga. In both the aim is to become more and more conscious; in both you have to learn to see and feel something that is beyond the ordinary vision and feeling, to go within and bring out from there deeper things. Painters have to follow a discipline for the growth of the consciousness of their eyes, which in itself is almost aY oga. If they are true artists and try to see beyond and use their art for the expression of the inner world, they grow in consciousness by this concentration, which is not other than the consciousness given by Yoga.”23
Life among Artists
On 13 October 1897, Mirra Alfassa married the artist Henri Morisset. She kept the name Alfassa. Henri Morisset, born in Paris on 6 April 1870, was eight years older than she and already had an established reputation as an artist. He had studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts with Gustave Moreau, the Symbolist painter, who taught Matisse around — the same time. Moreau was a liberal teacher who did not impose his own style on his students. Before entering the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1889, Morisset had studied for four years at the Ecole Nationale des Arts Oecoratifs. There his teachers were Bouguereau and Robert-Fleury, who were also professors at the Académie Juulian. Morisset was at the Académie Julian in 1889, as is shown by a surviving register of male students. It was apparently not uncommon at this time for art students to study simultaneously at the Académie Julian and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
We do not know when the Mother met Henri Morisset, but it is likely that she knew him for a few years before their marriage and that he was instrumental in her joining the Académie Julian. She was introduced to him by her grandmother Mira Ismalun, who had long known Henri's father Edouard Morisset, a noted artist. Mira Ismalun lived much of her life in Egypt. There she was employed to supply the wardrobes of the princesses, which she ordered from the best dressmakers in Paris. She also commissioned portraits of the princesses “to be done from photographs by the painters Vienot and Morisset”.24 This may have been the origin of her acquaintance with Edouard Morisset. In her reminiscences in 1906, Mira Ismalun enumerated her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, ending with her daughter Mathilde and her family:
Finally, Mathilde and her husband Maurice Alfassa, who became a French citizen in 1889, have had, after losing a son Max, two children: Matteo, who entered the colonial service on graduating from the Ecole Poly-technique and married Eva Brossé, and Mirra, who married the well-known painter Henri Morisset; I knew his father, and it was I who first took her to their home. They have had a son, André.
André was born on 23 August 1898. Earlier that year, Mirra and Henri had been in Pau, a town in the southwest of France, painting murals in a church. The Mother recalled long afterwards:
I remember a good-hearted priest in Pau who had a church — a very small cathedral — and he wanted to have it decorated (he was an artist). He asked a local anarchist to do it — this anarchist was a great artist — and the anarchist knew André's father and me. He told the priest, “I recommend these people to do the paintings.” He was doing the mural decoration: there were panels, eight panels, I believe. He said, “I recommend these people to do the paintings because they are true artists.” So I worked on one of the panels. It was a church of Saint James of Compostela about whom there was a legend in Spain: he had appeared in a battle between the Christians and the Moors and because he appeared, the Moors were vanquished. And he was magnificent! He appeared in golden light on a white horse, almost like Kalki here. And there were all the slain Moors at the bottom. It was I who painted the slain and struggling Moors, because I couldn't climb up; one had to climb high on a ladder to paint, it was too difficult, so I did the things at the bottom.... Then, naturally, the priest received us and invited us to dinner, the anarchist and us. And he was so kind! Oh, he was really a good-hearted man! I was already a vegetarian and didn't drink. So he scolded me very gently, saying, “But it is Our Lord who gives us all this, so why shouldn't you take it?” I found him charming.... And when he looked at the paintings, he tapped Morisset on the shoulder (Morisset was an unbeliever), and said, with the accent of Southern France, “Say what you like, but you know Our Lord; otherwise you could never have painted like that!”25
The Church of Saint James in Pau still stands, and the mural paintings are intact. Four panels are attributed to Henri Morisset. The one described by the Mother, the lower part of which she painted, is called “Apotheosis”. The other panels done by Morisset are “Vocation”, “Preaching” and “Martyr”. The artist referred to by the Mother as “a local anarchist” was, it seems, Joseph Castaigne, to whom some of the paintings in the church are ascribed. The article on Henri Morisset in the Benezit, a French dictionary of artists, mentions the murals at Pau among his important contributions: “We owe him mural paintings, notably for the church of Saint James in Pau.”26 The fact that the Mother has received no credit for her part in the paintings would have been a matter of complete indifference to her.
After their marriage, Henri and Mirra had a flat in Paris with an attached painting studio. André as a small child did not stay with them but with his aunts and his grandfather (Edouard Morisset) in Beaugency on the Loire. Towards the end of his life he reminisced about these places and his parents' visits to the country house:
My earliest remembrances date back to the very beginning of this century and lack clearness. They centre round two spots. One is Beaugency, a little town on the river Loire, where I lived with two aunts, my father's sisters, my grandfather and my nurse. The other is 15 rue Lemercier in Paris where my mother and father had a flat and their painters' studio which I considered the most wonderful place in the world.
Beaugency is still vivid in my mind for the garden which was at the back of the house and separated from it by a small courtyard.... But what struck me most were the visits which mother and father paid to us in their motor car. It was a Richard Brazier and had not to bear a number plate because it could not do more than thirty kilometers per hour. I cannot remember if I took this fact as a big advantage or, on the contrary, the sign of an irretrievable inferiority. My parents used to carry with them a couple of bicycles “just in case”. As a matter of fact, on the first hundred-and-fifty kilometers trip to Beaugency, the steering gear broke after fifty kilometers, at Etampes, and the car stopped inside a bakery. They stayed there overnight, used the cycles to visit the place and left the next day, the car having been repaired by the local blacksmith.
In Paris, my parents leased a flat on the first storey of the house, a fairly large garden at the back of it and a big studio in the garden. The studio had a glass roof high enough for a foot-bridge to link the flat and the studio at first storey level. An inside staircase climbed from the studio ground level to the foot-bridge. It was therefore possible to reach the studio from the outside either through the hall of the house and the garden, or by climbing to the first floor of the house and getting in the flat, crossing a small drawing room and catching the foot-bridge.27
The Mother painted both in the studio at home and on trips to the countryside. A landscape painting of fields with a church in the background has been identified as a scene at Tavers, a village on the banks of the Loire five kilometres from Beaugency.28 An interior with an antique bed and a flower vase near the window may have been done in the Chateau de Beaugency, near the Morissets' house at 42 Rue du Pont.29 29 Rue du Pont leads from the Morissets' house to a big bridge over the Loire, not far away. The bridge represented in a drawing dated 14 November 1907 looks like this bridge.
The Mother also spoke of having visited Normaridy and done some paintings there. She is reported to have said about the painting of a lady on a staircase, : “This is the interior of the Manoir de Cantepie in Normandy, France. I spent some time there and did some paintings.”30 This painting is dated 1903. The manor house called Manoir de Cantepie has recently been traced in the village of Cambremer in the Calvados region of Normandy, near the sea. Photographs showing an identical floor design and staircase to that of the painting leave no doubt about its correct identification. However, nothing is known about the other paintings said to have been done in the same place.
The information we possess about a few of the Mother's paintings sheds light on her acquaintances at this time. The painting of a chair seems to have been done in the studio of Abel Faivre. Faivre (1867-1945) was a painter who studied with Renoir, but he became most famous for his caricatures which were published in many journals. Plate 13 shows the studio of another artist, Charles Duvent. About Plate 4 the Mother is reported as saying: “This is a musician's room. I pinted the picture in the house of Erlanger, the composer of Fils de l'Etoile, in 1902-1903 in France. You can see in the painting a play of light and shadow.”31 The painting actually carries the date “04” below the signature. Camille Erlanger (1863-1919) was a composer noted for his vocal music, including many songs and a number of operas.
The period of the Mother's marriage with Henri Morisset, from 1897 to 1908, was one in which art had a prominent place despite her increasing preoccupation with her inner life. Psychologically, she looked back on these years as a time when the cultivation of the vital being and aesthetic consciousness still predominated, at least from the point of view of the outer, active nature.32
Perhaps the largest number of the Mother's paintings are from this period, though the dating of her early works is often uncertain and many are now lost. She did not pursue “success” in the art world, but she did get several of her paintings exhibited in the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1903, 1904 and 1905. Two of her paintings appeared each year. Morisset had been exhibiting regularly in the Salon since 1898 and probably encouraged Mirra to submit some of her work. The names of the paintings accepted by the Salon are listed in the yearly catalogues of the exhibitions: “Salon”, “Dans l'atelier” (1903); “Nature morte”, “Vestibule” (1904); “Bibelots”, “la console” (1905). The last-mentioned was included in the illustrated catalogue of 1905. The other paintings have not been identified.Some of titles might refer to paintings reproduced in this book. “Bibelots” (“Curios”), for example, could plausibly describe the assortment of objects seen in Plate 3.
The Mother's only known reference to the Salon is a somewhat ironical one which suggests that she did not take the pomp of the occasion too seriously. In speaking of the vanity of the vital being and its craving for praise from even the most incompetent sources, she said:
I am reminded of the annual opening of the Arts Exhibition in Paris, when the President of the Republic inspects the pictures, eloquently discovering that one is a landscape and another a portrait, and making platitudinous comments with the air of a most intimate and soul-searching knowledge of Painting. The painters know very well how inept the remarks are and yet miss no chance of quoting the testimony of the President to their genius.33
This humorous account of the opening ceremony should not be taken as reflecting on the competence of the participating artists or the jury which selected the works exhibited. The Salon was known for its high standards. In some years, so many works had been rejected that a Salon des Refuses, an exhibition of the rejected works, had to be held to appease the outcry. To a certain extent this was due to the conservatism of the official Salon, which from the 1870s onwards forced many of the more progressive artists to exhibit in private shows or in the newly founded Salon des Independants and Salon d' Automne. But the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts remained the Salon in the eyes of most Frenchmen.
A reviewer of the Salon of 1905 makes passIng mention of Mirra Alfassa while praising the contributions 'of women to the exhibition. He refers to her paintings simply as “silent interiors”.34 This is more a description than a critical evaluation. The context of the phrase does, however, imply some recognition of artistic merit.
The Mother more than once spoke of the years of her marriage with Henri Morisset as a time when she “lived among artists”. This phase of her life gave her a keen insight into the psychology and character of artists. She was once asked, for example, “Why are artists generally irregular in their conduct and loose in character?” She replied:
When they are so, it is because they live usually in the vital plane, and the, vital part in them is extremely sensitive to the forces of that world and receives from it all kinds of impressions and impulsions over which they have no controlling power. And often too they are very free in their minds and do not believe in the petty social conventions and moralities that govern the life of ordinary people. They do not feel bound by the customary rules of conduct and have not yet found an inner law that would replace them. As there is nothing to check the movements of their desire-being, they live easily a life of liberty or license. But this does not happen with all. I lived ten years among artists and found many of them to be bourgeois to the core. They were married and settled, good fathers, good husbands, and lived up to the most strict moral ideas of what should and what should not be done.35
When the Mother referred to this period of her life, it was usu:ally in the most general terms. She seldom revealed the names of individual artists she knew. She did, however, speak of having contact with “the great artists of the day” at the end of the last century and the beginning of this one. The Universal Exposition in Paris in 1900 stood out in her memory in this connection. She recalled the artists with whom she associated at this time as being ten to twenty years older than herself, yet she felt privately that she was “more advanced in their own field — not in what I was producing (I was a perfectly ordinary artist), but from the point of view of consciousness”.36
The Mother's description of the ages of the artists in her circle of acquaintances should be noted. “They were all thirty, thirty-five, forty years old,” she said, “while I was nineteen or twenty”. This statement poses problems for those who might wish to associate the Mother with specific names of great artists of the time. Many of the most famous French painters who were alive, at the turn of the century, especially the impressionists and some of the postimpressionists, fall well outside the specified age bracket. Monet, Renoir, Cezanne and Degas, for example, were all around sixty in 1900. Some of these artists, besides, had become reclusive or no longer frequented Paris. Perhaps, the range of ages given by the Mother should not be taken too literally. But it is probable that she was referring in part to artists who were well-known in their own time but whose names are not household words today.
One name the Mother did mention is Rodin's. Not only did she express a warm admiration for his sculpture, but an anecdote she told suggests that she must have known him quite well. It seems that Rodin was plagued by jealousy between his wife and his favourite model. The situation had reached the point : where it had rather serious consequences for his work. For whenever he was( out of town for a short while, he would leave his clay models covered with wet cloth which had to be sprinkled with water each day. Both the wife and the model, who had her own key to the studio, insisted on performing this function. They would each come to the studio at different times and sprinkle water everywhere seeing very well that it had already been done by the other one. The result was that on his return, Rodin would find the clay running and his work spoiled. He asked the Mother for her advice on this dilemma. From the nature of the problem he put before her, we can infer that he and Mirra were on somewhat familiar terms.
Rodin, incidentally, was nearly forty years older than the Mother. The context in which she spoke of him, in a talk of 17 March 1954, is of interest. She had been talking about the fairly common type of artist she had encountered who, when he was seen at his work, “lived in a magnificent bauty, but when you saw the gentleman at home, he had only a very limited contact with the artist in himself and usually he became someone very vulgar, very ordinary”. On the other hand, there were “those who were unified, in the sense that they truly lived their art”. Mention of the latter category, who were generous and good and incapable of cruelty, seemed to bring Rodin to mind. The Mother concluded her anecdote with a description of the great sculptor as she remembered him:
He was an old man, already old at that time. He was magnificent. He had, a faun's head, like a Greek faun. He was short, quite thick-set, solid; he had shrewd eyes. He was remarkably ironical and a little... He laughed at it, but still he would have preferred to find his sculpture intact!
Another artist with whom the Mother seems to have been well acquainted is Matisse who, like her husband, was a student of Gustave Moreau. She did not mention Matisse by name, but in a talk on 9 April 1951 she told a story about a painter she knew who was a student of Moreau. This painter was “truly a very fine artist” and he “was starving, he did not know how to make both ends meet”. The painter later “won a world reputation” and the Mother said to the Ashram children to whom she was speaking: “If I were to tell you his name, you would all recognise it.” The only student of Moreau who attained this kind of eminence was Henri Matisse. The financial straits of the painter spoken of by the Mother also tally with Matisse's situation in early life.
Matisse was a few months older than Morisset and they were both studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the early 1890s.37 After 1900, their careers went in quite different directions. Morisset pursued a successful career within the French art establishment which led to his being honoured in 1912 with membership in the Legion of Honour. Matisse, after an initial hesitation, threw in his lot with the avant-garde. But he had an advantage over many other modernists in that he had thoroughly mastered all that a traditional training could offer, The Mother liked his work better than most modem art, for “he had a sense of harmony and beauty and his colours were beautiful.”38 She had little positive appreciation of modem art in general. At best, the Cubists and others “created from their head. But in art it is not the head that dominates, it is the feeling for beauty.” Yet for all the apparent incoherence and ugliness of many of its manifestations, the Mother could detect in the modem art movement “the embryo of a new art”.39
The Mother was divorced from Henri Morisset in March 1908. According to her own account, this year marked the end of a distinct phase in her life, the period of predominantly “artistic and vital” development, “culminating in the occult development with Théon”.40 Art was to occupy less of her attention from this time onwards, though under the stimulus of the beauty of Japan her active interest in painting revived for a while between 1916 and 1920 as she awaited the final voyage to India. None of her paintings can be dated definitely to the years between 1908 and 1915.
In contrast to the period of her life among artists, the years from 1908 to 1920 were, as the Mother recollected, a time of “intensive mental development... especially before coming here [to India] in 1914.”41 This meant not academic study but developing the mind “to its extreme upper limit, where one juggles with all ideas, that is, a mental development where one has already understood that all ideas are true and that there is a synthesis to be made, and that there is something luminous and true beyond the synthesis.”42 Just as the previous stage of the Mother's life had linked her with the artist Henri Morisset, so she now became associated with Paul Richard, a complex and highly intellectual personality, with whom she was engaged in writing and editing books and journals and whom (as a legal formality on which he insisted) she married in 1911.43
Théon and Algeria
Sometime between 1901 and 1903, the Mother had been introduced by Louis Thémanlys, a friend of her brother Matteo, to the teaching of the Polish occultist Max Théon.44 Her solitary inner exploration received a decisive stimulus from contact with a well-formulated system founded on ancient esoteric traditions. She joined Théon's organisation in Paris and became active in the editing and publication of his monthly Revue Cosmique.
Théon himself lived in nemcen, Algeria. His wife, an Englishwoman, was a gifted clairvoyant whose occult experiences formed much of the content of the Revue Cosmique. The Mother corresponded with them and met Théon in Paris in 1905. In the summer of 1906 and again the following summer, she journeyed to Tlemcen to study for a few months with Théon and his wife. Théon had a large and beautiful estate which “spread across the hillside overlooking the whole valley of Tlemcen”.45 The Mother did some paintings of his house and garden. She also drew his portrait.
It may have been in the summer of 1905 that the Mother had an experience in the garden of some friends with whom she was staying. It was near the sea. This makes it almost certain that the friends were Thémanlys and his wife, who had some property in Courseulles, Normandy, on the English Channel near Caen.46 The Mother is known to have stayed with Thémanlys in the summer of 1905, because Théon wrote to her in Courseulles in July of that year.47 For months she had been working hard to overcome a hiatus between two planes of her inner consciousness. An undeveloped link at a certain point was blocking a whole range of experiences from easily reaching her outer awareness. All her efforts had produced no apparent resultl but still she persisted:
It was at the end of July or the beginning of August. I left Paris, the house I was staying in, and went to the countryside, quite a small place on the seashore, to stay with some friends who had a garden. Now, in that garden was a lawn... where there were flowers and around it some trees. It was a pretty place, very quiet, very silent. I lay on the grass, like this, flat on my stomach, my elbows in the grass, and then suddenly all the life of that Nature, all the life of that region between the subtle physical and the most material vital, which is very living in plants and in Nature, all that region became all at once, suddenly, without any transition, absolutely living, intense, conscious, marvellous. And it was the result of six months of work which had given nothing. I had not noticed anything, but just a little condition like that and the result was there!48
It is tempting to connect this experience with the Mother's reported comment on the painting. An Ashram artist recalls: “It was about this painting that the Mother said that once when she was meditating in this garden she had the experience of identity with the earth.” The experience is not described in exactly the same terms, but there is the common element of the garden. “Identity with the earth” might be a simplification of an experience whose precise description (“a region between the subtle physical and the most material vital”) is a little esoteric. It should be noted that the painting does not attempt to express the experience in question, but is simply a painting of the garden in which the experience took place.
Madame Théon died unexpectedly in September 1908 and the Revue Cosmique came to an end three months later. The Mother had already met Paul Richard, who joined the Groupe Cosmique after a stay with Théon early in 1907. In a few years Richard would take her to India to meet Sri Aurobindo. From the time of her divorce from Henri Morisset or a little before, the Mother's close involvement with art and artists can be seen as giving way to new preoccupations. Yet the essence of the artistic impulse remained an inalienable part of her consciousness. The quest for the perfect expression of beauty did not cease, but assumed a higher and larger form. As she said years later:
Skill is not art, talent is not art. Art is a living harmony and beauty that must be expressed in all the movements of existence. This manifestation of beauty and harmony is part of the Divine realisation upon earth, perhaps even its greatest part.49
Sojourn in Japan
On 18 May 1916, Mirra and Paul Richard arrived in Yokohama, Japan, after a hazardous two-month journey from England on the Kamo Maru. Two years earlier they had been in India. Together with Sri Aurobindo they had started to bring out a monthly philosophical review, Arya, with an English and a French edition, expounding a new synthesis of Eastern and Western thought. While the Mother and Paul Richard were in India in 1914-15, they were visited by a friend from Paris, the Danish artist Johannes Hohlenberg. He painted a portrait of Sri Aurobindo. The Mother herself is not known to have done any painting or drawing during this period.
The meeting with Sri Aurobindo was the turning point in the Mother's life. But Richard was forced to go back to France early in 1915 because of politics and the war, and she had no choice but to go with him. Now, a year later, they were returning to the East. Richard had been exempted from military service on medical grounds and had managed to have himself sent to Japan on business as a representative of certain companies. The Mother explained: “People didn't want to travel because it was dangerous — you risked being sunk to the bottom of the sea. So they were pleased when we offered and they sent us to Japan.”50
The Mother knew little about Japan before her visit. An early painting of hers is evidently a copy of a Japanese wood-block print. These were in vogue in France in the late nineteenth century and influenced some artists in search of new ideas. But the Mother's painting does not show that she had any further familiarity with Japan and its culture beyond whatever negligible impressions were current in France at that time. In fact, she once stated, “I knew nothing of Japan.”51 The Mother went on to recollect that she had seen Japanese landscapes in vision while she was in France, exactly as she would see them later with her physical eyes. But she had thought they were scenes of another world, for they seemed to her too beautiful to belong to the physical world. She wrote in the second year of her stay:
... the country is so wonderful, picturesque, many-sided, unexpected, charming, wild or sweet; it is in its appearance so much a synthesis of all the other countries of the world, from the tropical to the arctic, that no artistic eye can remain indifferent to it.52
The Mother plunged, outwardly at least, into her Japanese experience. A remark in one of her talks in the 1950s certainly applies to her stay in Japan: “I have seen many countries, done what I recommend to others; in every country I lived the life of that country in order to understand it well, and there is nothing which interested me in my outer being as much as learning.”53 At the same time, those of the Mother's Prayers and Meditations which were written in Japan show the intensity of her inner life in this period. From these intimate records of communion with the Divine, it is clear that she was far from being fully absorbed in the scenes, contacts and events of the world around her. Her life in Japan had another dimension than that of an ordinary sympathetic European visitor.
Besides learning Japanese, the Mother began to paint again. The paintings she did in Japan are among her most appealing and reveal her affinity with the land and its people. In a talk many years later, she described in vivid detail the splendours of the Japanese landscape in various seasons and the skill and taste with which human hands have moulded Nature and blended their own constructions with the environment. She concluded: “I had everything to learn in Japan. For four years, from an artistic point of view, I lived from wonder to wonder.”54
Perhaps the principal artistic lesson to be learned from Japan, according to the Mother, is the unity of art with life. The Japanese culture, more than any other in recent times, has exemplified this truth:
True art is a whole and an ensemble; it is one and of one piece with life. You see something of this intimate wholeness in ancient Greece and ancient Egypt; for there pictures and statues and all objects of art were made and arranged as part of the architectural plan of a building, each detail a portion of the whole. It is like that in Japan, or at least it was so till the other day before the invasion of a utilitarian and practical modernism. A Japanese house is a wonderful artistic whole; always the right thing is there in the right place, nothing wrongly set, nothing too much, nothing too little. Everything is just as it needed to be, and the house itself blends marvellously with the surrounding nature.55
But it was not only the landscapes and the aesthetic side of Japan which delighted the Mother. She saw much to admire in the character of the people: the energy, the spontaneous love of beauty found even in working-class people and peasants — not only in an elite as in Europe and the capacity for abnegation and self-sacrifice. The Mother wrote in 1917 about the characteristic restraint, the unselfishness and the hidden emotional qualities of the Japanese when unspoiled by the less fortunate aspects of Western influence:
But if you have — as we have had — the privilege of coming in contact with the true Japanese, those who have kept untouched the righteousness and bravery of the ancient Samurai, then you can understand what in truth is Japan, you can seize the secret of her force. They know how to remain silent; and though they are possessed of the most acute sensitiveness, they are, among the people I have met, those who express it the least. A friend here can give his life with the greatest simplicity to save yours, though he never told you before he loved you in such a profound and unselfish way. Indeed he had not even told you that he loved you at all. And if you were not able to read the heart behind the appearances, you would have seen only a very exquisite courtesy which leaves little room for the expression of spontaneous feelings. Nevertheless the feelings are there, all the stronger perhaps because of the lack of outward manifestation; and if an opportunity presents itself, through an act, very modest and veiled sometimes, you suddenly discover depths of affection.56
The Mother is evidently thinking here of her own Japanese friendship. She had adopted the Japanese way of life in order to get to know the real Japan. She understood the conditions for entering into the heart of the Japanese culture, with its elaborate rules of behaviour:
If one does not submit oneself to rules there, one may live as Europeans do, who are considered barbarians and looked upon altogether as intruders, but if you want to live a Japanese life among the Japanese you must do as they do, otherwise you make them so unhappy that you can't even have any relation with them. In their house you must live in a particular way, when you meet them you must greet them in a particular way....57
Mirra and Paul Richard lived in Tokyo during their first year in Japan. There they shared a house with a young couple, Dr. S. Okhawa and his wife. Okhawa was a professor of Asian History who actively sympathised with the Indian freedom movement. Interviewed in 1957, Professor Okhawa recalled his close contact with the Richards: “We lived together for a year. We sat together in meditation every night for an hour. I practised Zen and they practised yoga.”58 A painting of a Japanese lady on a verandah overlooking a lake is said to be of Madame Okhawa in a house in Kyoto where the Mother stayed with her one summer. This painting is dated 1918.
The Richards moved to Kyoto sometime in 1917 and remained there through the following year.59 In Kyoto they came to know Dr. and Madame Kobayashi. Kobayashi was a surgeon by training but had turned to a method of meditation and natural healing taught by a certain Dr. Okhata. The Mother spoke of this simple and practical discipline in a talk on 8 September 1954. The practice, called “still-sitting”, attracted thousands of followers. After Okhata's death in 1921 and Kobayashi's in 1926, Madame Nobuko Kobayashi continued the movement.
Nobuko Kobayashi sometimes meditated with Mirra in a small room on the second floor of the house where the Richards were staying, which was later converted into a Tea House.60 While in Kyoto, the Mother did a painting of her. friend preparing medicine in her room, as well as a portrait of her in ink and a miniature portrait in oil on ivory which she presented to her. They remained in contact long afterwards and Madame Kobayashi visited the Mother in Pondicherry in 1959.
Among a number of drawings done by the Mother in Japan we find a pencil sketch of Rabindranath Tagore dated Tokyo, 11 June 1916. Tagore had come to Tokyo a week earlier, a few days after his arrival in Japan for a three-month visit which was his first to this country. On the afternoon of the 11 th, the date of the drawing, he delivered a speech at the Imperial University in Tokyo, “The Message of India to Japan”.61 The Mother's pencil drawing of the poet was later rendered in ink, of which there are two versions. The Mother met Tagore again in 1919 in Kyoto. She is seen with him in a group photograph taken there.62
One of the Mother's outstanding portraits is the one of Hirasawa Tetsuo, a poet and an artist. The circumstances of their acquaintance are not known. The Mother said the portrait was done in one sitting.
The Richards visited the Daiunji temple in Sarashina, Nagano prefecture, about 200 km northwest of Tokyo, between 12 and 15 September 1918. The Mother must have been especially struck by the beauty of this temple and its surroundings, which she depicted in some pencil drawings, a couple of oil paintings, and a long scroll on paper in India ink. This scroll is dated and signed in Japanese in the lower right corner: “15th September, 1918 / At the Daiunji Temple / Mirra”.
The scroll contains some other calligraphic writing in Japanese in spaces not occupied by the painting. This writing is by two persons whose names are given, presumably monks of the temple. In the central part of the scroll are some lines “written by Shu Ogawa”, who took them “from a composition by Rihora”. The writer declares, “Cod makes his temple with heaven and earth.” He exhorts people therefore not to shut themselves up in their temple and think of it as their heaven and earth. In the lower left corner of the scroll is a somewhat longer passage “written by Kyozen Fugai when Master Caji Rishi visited the Daiunji Temple”. The name “Caji Rishi” is puzzling, but it must refer to Paul Richard.63 The Japanese verses compare the people scattered over the earth, who are in their origin “celestial people”, to “the seeds of millet sown in a ploughed field”. The writer concludes:
Likewise, whoever visits this thousand-year-old temple, from however far-off a country he might come, has the same mind as I have in the Dharma of the universe.
The Mother brought with her to Pondicherry another scroll with Japanese writing signed and dated by the chief priest of the Daiunji temple. This scroll praises the beauty of the temple in various seasons and invites the visitors to return at any time. Before leaving, the Mother made an ink sketch of Paul Richard in the temple's visitors' book and signed it in Japanese. Richard wrote a message in French.
The Mother's sojourn in Japan approached its end. For all the beauty which attracted the eye in this country, and for all the virtues of the national character, she felt that something was missing. “Not once,” she remarked about Japan, “do you have the feeling that you are in contact with something other than a marvellously organised mental-physical domain.”64 The very efficiency of the organisation seemed to exclude the possibility of a higher spiritual freedom. The Mother's stay in Japan could be no more than an interlude and a period of preparation for her real work. Having already met Sri Aurobindo, she knew that her destiny lay in India. She and Paul Richard departed as soon as circumstances allowed, arriving in India on 24 April 1920.
Pondicherry: The Later Paintings and Drawings
After the Mother's return to India, she became within a few years the centre of a growing spiritual community in Pondicherry, known after 1926 as Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Sri Aurobindo recognised in her the one person who could share, as an equal collaborator, his labour of developing the new spiritual path which he called Integral Yoga. When, at the end of 1926, Sri Aurobindo withdrew into seclusion for intensive spiritual work, the supervision of the day-to-day activities of the Ashram and the guidance of the increasing numbers of disciples became largely the Mother's responsibility. This left little or no time for her to pursue private art projects.
Nevertheless, the Mother's ingrained artistic impulse found spontaneous expression from time to time, especially in sketches and drawings in pencil, ink or charcoal. Some of these were dashed off in a moment, others were more carefully executed. The oil paintings from this period are few in number and small in size. After about 1930, the Mother painted only on very rare occasions in order to demonstrate the technique to someone who wished to learn.
The painting to which the Mother gave the title “Divine Consciousness Emerging from the Inconscient” exemplifies the spontaneous, unpremeditated character of a good part of her later work. The story behind it helps to explain its “modem” appearance. During the early 1920s Sri Aurobindo's brother, Barin, was doing some oil painting under the Mother's guidance. As is the common practice of artists, a small board was kept for depositing the surplus paint left on the palette after each session. A random mixture of colours covered most of the surface of this board. One day when Barin had finished his work the Mother asked for the palette and, with the remaining paint, gave a few deft brush strokes to the centre of the board covered with old palette-scrapings. Thus the painting was completed.
Evidently, something had struck the Mother in the swirl of colours on the board. The suggestion of a face may have been already visible in the midst of it. In the finished painting, a face resembling Sri Aurobindo's emerges from the chaos of colours which appropriately represents “the Inconscient”, according to the Mother's title. The Mother herself confirmed that the face is Sri Aurobindo's. It is likely, as is reported in one version of the story, that Sri Aurobindo was present at the time of this incident and she took the opportunity to paint a quick portrait of him. The Mother liked the painting enough to have it printed along with the title she gave it.
Portraits form the largest category of the Mother's later drawings. Perhaps the most precious of these are a pencil portrait of Sri Aurobindo and a few self-portraits. Of the portraits of disciples, several in charcoal done in 1931 are especially fine. Prior to 1931, there is a ten-year gap in the Mother's dated drawings after the portraits of 1920. A similar gap occurs from 1936 to 1946. Then we find a number of portraits dated 1947 and 1949, and a few scattered through the 1950s. The last dated portrait is a sketch of Champaklal, the Mother's attendant, done on 23 December 1959 to try out some new handmade paper. The Mother wrote next to the sketch, “it can be useful as drawing paper”.
The Mother's drawings other than portraits may be divided into three or four categories. A set of animal studies includes several charming sketches of cats, an expressive face of a dog, and an imposing lion. Then there is a group which may be described as visions and symbolic drawings. These are all undated. Some belong to the pre-Pondicherry period. The one the Mother called “Ascent to the Truth” is perhaps the most significant in this category. The version on has often been reproduced. Among the Mother's other studies and sketches, a few landscapes and nature studies may be mentioned.
The story behind one of the portrait-sketches is of interest for the light it sheds on the Mother's method of drawing. The portrait of Champaklal done on 2 February 1935 is unique in that it was done with closed eyes. When the Mother took the picture to Sri Aurobindo she said, “The pencil just went on moving.” Though this kind of feat was not the Mother's normal practice, it is a striking illustration of a principle on which she more than once insisted, namely, that the hand must acquire its own consciousness:
I have told you that no matter what you want to do, the first thing is to put consciousness in the cells of your hand. If you want to play, if you want to work, if you want to do anything at all with your hand, unless you push consciousness into the cells of your hand you will never do anything good.... You can acquire it. All sorts of exercises may be done to make the hand conscious and there comes a moment when it becomes so conscious that you can leave it to do things; it does them by itself without your little mind having to intervene.65
The Mother gave her help and encouragement to a number of people in the Ashram who wished to draw and paint, both beginners and trained artists. The results were varied, often original and sometimes remarkable. For two or three aspiring artists she herself made sketches and suggested compositions. The paintings of Chinmayi (Mehdi Begum) display an impressionistic style and carry a great deal of the Mother's training and influence. The Mother demonstrated the technique of oil painting to Barin, Sri Aurobindo's brother, in the 1920s, to Sanjiban in the 1930s and to Huta in the 1950s.
Sanjiban has recounted how the Mother introduced him to oil painting after he had made sufficient progress in painting with pastel colours:
I wanted to do oil painting. The colours and brushes were ordered from Calcutta and paid for by Mother. She asked me to meet her at 10. 30 in the morning on Pavitra's verandah. She had an old piece of canvas ready and called Chinmayi to pose for her. Then she showed me how to take out the colours and arrange them on the palette. She gave me a palette knife which she had used and asked me to keep it with me.
Then she painted Chinmayi — only her face, forehead, hair and the background. While she painted she talked. “Do not put direct dark colours on the head,” she said, “first put the facial colours and. then the dark colours — this will give a better impression. If you put black directly, it will give the impression of a hole.” Then she asked, “Do you know how to do the background?” She took another brush and did the background. “See, the head is not touching the background. There is space in between.” Then she blended the edges of the hair with the background.66
This portrait of Chinmayi has not been found.
The Mother encouraged Huta to illustrate Sri Aurobindo's epic poem, Savitri, and herself made sketches for the paintings. Her sketches are not reproduced in the present volume, but some of the paintings based on them and done according to her instructions have been published elsewhere.67 Naturally, the actual execution of the paintings represents Huta's style and ability and cannot be considered identical to what the Mother would have done with her own hand. Yet these “meditations on Savitri” give a hint of the kind of mystical imagery and symbolic expression she might have employed if she had taken up painting again in her later years. Their purpose is, in the Mother's own words, to make us “see some of the realities which are still invisible for the physical eyes.” The work with Huta in the 1960s on the illustration of Savitri was the Mother's last substantial involvement with art.
The Mother attached little importance to her own artistic accomplishments. Her attitude towards her own art was one of complete detachment and impersonality. This was true with regard to both her earlier paintings and her later work. A conversation recorded by K. D. Sethna reveals that this was more than ordinary modesty. Here we get a glimpse of the consciousness in which the Mother lived:
Vividly does one of her disciples remember what she spoke apropos her own paintings. Himself an amateur with the brush, he was acutely concerned about the almost thoughtless scatter of her best work over many countries. She mentioned a decade in which she had done her finest painting and said that most of the pieces had been given away to various people at different times and in different places. The disciple said: “Should we not do something to collect them again?” The Mother calmly replied: “Why? Is it so important?” “Surely, such masterpieces deserve to be found and kept safely. You had taken so much pains over them.” “It does not matter.” “But, Mother, don't you think there will be a loss if they are not preserved?” Then the Mother, with eyes far away yet full of tenderness for the agitated disciple, said in a quiet half-whisper: “You know, we live in eternity.”68
1 According to unpublished notes by Mrityunjoy on a talk by the Mother to some students on 7 February 1952.
2 Talk of 25 July 1962.
3 Talk of 7 February 1952. See also Sujata Nahar, Mother's Chronicles—Book One: Mirra (Paris, 1985), pp. 94-95. The Mother was asked, “When did you first start painting?” She replied, “At the age of eight, with three old sisters.”
4 Catalogue Officiel de la 5e Exposition Internationale de Blanc et Noir, Paris, 1892. The catalogue of the exhibition contains a peculiar error. It lists the artist as “Alfassa (Matteo) (Mme), née à Alexandrie (Egypte)”. It should have been: “Alfassa (Mirra) (Mlle), née à Paris”. Matteo was the Mother's brother and it is he who was born in Alexandria. He was not an artist. The femi¬nine forms “Mme” and “née” show that there is a mistake.
5 Talk of 7 February 1952.
6 Talk of 25 July 1962. Most of the talks of the Mother quoted in this book have been translated from French.
7 Talk of 31 March 1954. The Mother's talks of 1950-51 and 1953-58 are published in English translation in Collected Works of the Mother—Centenary Edition (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram), Vols. 4-9. The translations have been slightly revised for the present book.
8 Talk of 29 April 1961.
9 Talk of 7 February 1952.
10 See Catherine Fehrer, “New Light on the Académie Julian and its Founder” (Gazette des Beaux-Arts, May-June 1984), p. 212.
11 It was replaced by the Ecole Superieure d'Arts Graphiques in the same location. The archives of the Académie Julian were destroyed in the last war. Some account books survive, but they contain only the names of male students.
12 Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff (Paris: Ed. Mazarine, 1980), p. 314. Quoted by Fehrer, op. cit., p. 207. The Académie Julian was also the best art school available to most of the foreign students who flocked to Paris and could not pass the intentionally exclusionary entrance examinations at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. See Fehrer, op. cit., p. 211.
13 Gabrielle Réval in L'Académie Julian (Paris, Bibl. Nat., J050038), Oct. 1903. Quoted by Fehrer, op. cit., p. 212.
14 Fehrer, op. cit., pp. 209-10, 213-14.
15 Ibid., p. 212.
16 Mother India, Jan. 1983, p. 22. From the catalogues of the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, we know that the Mother exhibited a still life (“nature morte”) in the Salon of 1904. The acceptance of her paintings by the Salon was itself an honour, but the catalogues and reviews do not suggest that she won any prizes. From what is known of the Mother's art career, the competitions at the Académie Julian are the most likely occasion for her to have won the prize to which she referred in connection with Plate 11. The still life exhibited at the Salon was most likely a different painting which has been lost.
17 Pournaprema, Une Drôle de Petite Fille (Editions Auropress, 1982), p. 17 (translated from the French).
18 Fehrer, op. cit., p. 210.
19 Shirley Fox, An Art Student's Reminiscences of Paris in the Eighties (London: Mills & Boon, 1909), p. 39. On p. 52 of this book, we learn that around 1880, Julian himself was still visiting his studios regularly, but only on Monday mornings to make his own sketch of the “pose” for the week.
20 Fehrer, op. cit., p. 213. This was the usual system in French art studios.
21 K. D. Sethna, “The Mother—Some General Truths and Personal Facts”, Mother India, Feb. 1958, p. 4. Note that the Mother probably joined the studio when she was fifteen, not sixteen as stated here. This incident may have happened when she was sixteen. It is not certain what is meant by calling the older woman “Head of the Studio”. In the version related by Pournaprema, this woman was simply a rich lady who thought herself very important and was in favour with the proprietor.
22 Talk of 29 April 1961. The talks of 30 June 1954 and 3 July 1963, as well as this one, refer to an incident that occurred while the Mother was painting in St. Mark's (which is mentioned by name only in the last talk). We learn from the talks of 30 June 1962 and 15 July 1967 that the Mother visited Venice when she was fifteen. But the references to painting in St. Mark's say nothing about her age. Her trip to Italy at the age of fifteen was not her only one. Pournaprema (Une Drôle de Petite Fille, p. 20) reproduces a photograph of the Mother in Venice in 1901.
23 Talk of 28 July 1929.
24 Reminiscences of Mira Ismalun, as noted down by Matteo Alfassa in Lausanne in 1906.
25 Talk of 29 April 1961.
26 E. Bénézit, Dictionnaire critique et documentaire des peintres, sculpteurs, dessinateurs et graveurs, Tome 7 (Paris: Librairie Grund, 1976), p. 547. Bénézit also has an entry for “Alfassa” which first appeared in the 1911 edition, but this merely repeats the partly incorrect information found in the catalogue of the International “Blanc et Noir” Exhibition of 1892: “Alfassa (Mme Matteo), peintre de la deuxieme moitié du XIXe siècle, née à Alexandrie (Egypte) (Ec. Fr. [Ecole Fran¬çaise]). Elève de Mlle Bricka, elle exposa en 1892 à l'Exposition Internationale de Blanc et Noir.”
27 Sri Aurobindo Circle 34 (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Society, 1978), p. 64.
28 This site has recently been located by Sri Dinesh of the Académie Science de l'Ambiance Consciente. The solitary spire of the village church is the main clue to the identification. A photograph taken by Sri Dinesh from approximately the spot at which the Mother may have painted, shows the distinctive spire rising above trees which have grown up in the meantime.
29 This has also been located by Sri Dinesh, perhaps with less certainty than the landscape at Tavers. A bed which appears identical to the one in the painting can still be seen in a room of the Chateau de Beaugency, positioned somewhat similarly in relation to the window.
30 Mother India, Jan. 1983, p. 22.
31 Mother India, Jan. 1983, p. 22.
32 Talk of 28 July 1962.
33 Questions and Answers 1930-31, Collected Works of the Mother, Vol. 3 (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1977), pp. 137-38.
34 “Et plus d'une femme peintre est excellemment portraitiste: témoin l'Image dans la glace, de Mlle Breslau, l'incisif portrait du peintre Jules Adler par Mlle Delasalle, et les intérieurs silencieux ou les tendres intimites que Mmes Mirra Alfassa, Germaine Druon, Beatrice How,... nous proposent....” Raymond Bouyer, “Les Salons de 1905: La Peinture”, Revue de L'Art Ancien et Moderne, 10 May 1905, p. 335.
35 Talk of 28 July 1929.
36 Talk of 25 July 1962.
37 Matisse also studied for some time at the Académie Julian.
38 Talk of 9 April 1951.
39 Talk of 28 October 1953. In the course of another discussion of modern art, on 1 June 1955, the Mother spoke of “a sincere creative spirit behind, which is trying to manifest, which, for the moment, does not manifest, but is strong enough to destroy the past.”
40 Talk of 28 July 1962.
41 Talk of 28 July 1962.
42 Talk of 25 July 1962.
43 See Sri Aurobindo: Archives and Research 13 (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1989), p. 113.
44 On different occasions, the Mother gave the age at which she encountered Théon's teaching as being anywhere from twenty-one to twenty-five. But she must have been at least twenty-three, according to the following reasoning: The Mother learned of Théon from Thémanlys. Thémanlys knew of Théon as a result of coming across an issue of the Revue Cosmique in a bookstore (according to Sujata Nahar, Mother's Chronicles—Book Three: Mirra the Occultist, p. 16). He subsequently wrote to Théon and subscribed to the Revue. The Revue Cosmique was published from January 1901 to December 1908. Therefore, 1901 would appear to be the earliest possible date for the Mother to have learned of Théon's teaching from Thémanlys.
45 Talk of 4 February 1961.
46 Sujata Nahar, Mother's Chronicles—Book Three, p. 16.
47 Ibid., p. 23. The Mother may, of course, have stayed with Thémanlys at other times also.
48 Talk of 23 June 1954.
49 Talk of 28 July 1929.
50 Talk of 5 November 1961.
51 Talk of 14 April 1951.
52 “Impressions of Japan”, Collected Works of the Mother, Vol. 2 (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1978), p. 148.
53 Talk of 9 June 1954.
54 Talk of 12 April 1951.
55 Talk of 28 July 1929.
56 “Impressions of Japan”, p. 149.
57 Talk of 12 April 1951.
58 “Three Prose Poems” by V. K. Gokak, Sri Aurobindo Mandir Annual 17 (Calcutta: Sri Aurobindo Pathamandir, 1958), p. 169. Gokak, along with K. R. S. Iyengar, met Mr. and Mrs. Okhawa and Madame Kobayashi in Kyoto in September 1957. His “Three Prose Poems” are highly imaginative interpretations of his impressions of these people and by no means represent their actual words. However, bare factual statements like the one quoted here may be assumed to be authentic in substance.
59 V. K. Gokak states in his “Interviews in Japan”: “The Mother had come to Kyoto in 1917 and left in 1919.” (Loving Homage [Calcutta: Sri Aurobindo Pathamandir, 1958] p. 234.) However, the Mother herself makes it clear in a talk of 22 July 1953 that she was living in Tokyo in January 1919 when there was a terrible epidemic.
60 K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar, On the Mother: The Chronicle of a Manifestation and a Ministry (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, 1978), pp. 176-77. See also V. K. Gokak, “Interviews in Japan”, pp. 238-39.
61 The Japan Gazette (Yokohama), 12 June 1916, p. 5, col. 2.
62 Glimpses of the Mother's Life (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1978), vol. 1, p. 206.
63 Paul Richard does seem to have adopted the title “Rishi” for himself. This is attested by a letter to him, in 1920 after his return to Pondicherry, from the Irish poet James Cousins. Cousins addresses Richard, “Dear Rishi”.
64 Talk of 12 April 1951.
65 Talk of 12 May 1951.
66 From a taped interview with Sanjiban.
67 Meditations on Savitri, Vols. 1-4 (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, 1962-66). A few of the Mother's sketches for the paintings are reproduced at the front of Vols. 2, 3 and 4.
68 K. D. Sethna, “The Mother—Some General Truths and Personal Facts”, Mother India, Feb. 1958, p. 8.