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The Sacred Art of Tibet

 

 The study of Tibetan art has begun to develop rapidly in recent years, becoming one of the most vital areas for research in the Asian art field. With the disastrously unfortunate events in Tibet over the last thirty years, the treasures of Tibetan culture have regrettably been all too often irretrievably lost, but some works have survived and are becoming avail­able for the study of many phases of Tibetan art, including the difficult early periods from the seventh to fourteenth century. Over half of the objects in this exhibition (eighty-two paintings, seventy-two sculp­tures, one manuscript cover, one wood block, three tapestries and one sand mandala, lent from over twenty museums and private collections in the Soviet Union, Sweden, France, England, Canada and the United States) are shown for the first time in a major exhibition. They represent most periods and many regional variations of Tibetan art from the ninth to nineteenth century.

The primary focus of this exhibition is the presenta­tion of Tibetan art in terms of its religious content and its aesthetic qualities in order to elucidate the equally profound and beautiful nature of the art and its unique place within Tibetan culture. While seeking to unfold these masterpieces of Tibetan art for the understanding and appreciation of the general public, the exhibition also offers new materials and docu­mentation which contribute substantially to the clar­ification of religious, iconographical, chronological and regional aspects of the art as well as to the subject of the complex sources underlying various styles.

The art is presented in the form of a mandala, a sacred space through which one moves towards the core of the enlightened realm. In the first of three main parts, the viewer enters into the temporal­ historical world of the Buddha of our epoch and the various followers, teachers and protectors of his teaching. The next part introduces the realm of Buddhist practice as encountered in Tibetan Buddh­ism and as represented by the lamas and practice deities of the four main Buddhist orders of Tibet . In the last part appear the perfected realms of the celestial bodhisattvas, Buddhas and Pure Land Para­dises, which also include our own world as repre­sented by Tibet . Each subsection of the three main parts presents a single iconographic theme, within which the art is generally arranged according to a chronological or liturgical order.

In the brief overview presented here, examples introduce some of the major topics addressed by the exhibition and its book. These include eastern Tibe­tan styles from the second half of the sixteenth to the eighteenth century; the special problems of the arhats (worthy ones); the genre of the black tangka (painted image); works of the early period of the Second Transmission in the eleventh to twelfth century in western Tibet and the central regions of Tibet (0 and Tsang); a group of Khara Khoto works (shown for the first time in the United States); new materials from the late fourteenth to early fifteenth century; the architecture-landscape type of paintings; and the art of the international Tibetan style in the seventeenth to nineteenth century.

 

PART I

TIBETAN SACRED HISTORY

The first main part introduces the viewer to historical figures of Buddhism, most of whom are from India , the homeland of Buddhism. For the Tibetans, history itself is intimately interwoven with Buddhism since the time of the Buddha of our period, Shaky­amuni (circa 563-483 BCE). He, as well as Maitreya, the Future Buddha, is presented in the first sequence, followed in subsequent sections by arhats, bodhisatt­vas, great philosophers and great adepts, and dharma kings.

Shakyamuni Buddha: Life and Lives focuses on Shakyamuni at his moment of enlightenment, with the arhats, and during his parinirvana (final nirvana), as well as on events of his life or former lives (jata­kas). There are also several examples of the Future Buddha, Maitreya, including a huge tapestry made for the long life of the Seventh Dalai Lama (mid eighteenth century) from the Mr and Mrs John Gilmore Ford Collection. In general, the eleven works of this section, which range in date from the eleventh to nineteenth century, introduce the broad outlines of Tibetan art and create a splendid and uplifting atmosphere for the opening sequence of the exhibi­tion's mandala concept.

One of the earliest sculptures in the exhibition is the statue of Shakyamuni in the Zimmerman Family Collection. This superb image, probably dating to around the second half of the eleventh century and one of the finest examples in early Tibetan art from the period of the Second Transmis­sion of Buddhism, shows Shakyamuni at the moment of his enlightenment in the bhumisparsha (earth wit­ness) gesture. The tense curves of the drapery and smoothly shaped, muscular body attest to stylistic antecedents largely in the Pala styles of India , but contain a vitality and spirit indicative of a fresh and vital interpretation. The energy in the form, simplicity of the line, and bold fashioning of the facial features are consonant with some styles in Tibetan art from the second half of the eleventh century. For example, the newly published evidence by R. Vitali of wall­paintings plausibly dating to circa 1081-1093 at Drathang in the central regions of Tibet reveals considerable stylistic similarity, particularly in the Buddha figures.

Though this sculpture probably comes from west­ern Tibet (it has a strong resemblance to a statue published by Tucci from Luk in western Tibet : its similar­ities with styles in the central regions indicates possible interrelationships or similar stylistic antece­dents for the art of these regions even in the early part of the period of the Second Transmission. This is a complex period with a number of different schools or styles which are just beginning to be perceived and understood in regard to their subtleties and interrela­tionships. Certainly, however, this is one of the most important sculptural remains for the study of this formative early period in Tibetan Buddhism and its art.

Another especially significant work in this section is the tangka in the British   Museum showing scenes from the Buddha's former lives An inscription in Chinese stating the date of the Wan Li (Wanli, 1573-1620) regnal period appears on the bottom of the painting. Although the circumstances of this inscription are not known, it is a stylistically acceptable date for the painting. It is a rare early example of the jataka theme in tangka form (jatakas are known from at least the eleventh century in Tibetan wall-paintings) and a valuable datable evi­dence for the period around 1600.

From the Tibetan inscriptions on the painting, it can be ascertained to be the third in a series of jataka paintings, of which this one depicts sequences 21 through 30. These illustrate the stories as written in Aryasura's Garland 0] Life Stories (jatakamala), prob­ably dating to the first to third century CE, the most popular text in Tibet of the jataka tales. Beginning in the upper right corner the ten scenes (each depicting several episodes) unfold in a clockwise direction around the central Buddha. They include stories of his human, bird and animal lives. In sequence they are: 21) Shuddhabodhi, 22) Mahahamsa, 23) Maha­bodhi, 24) Great Ape, 25) Sharabha Deer, 26) Ruru Deer, 27) Monkey King, 28) Kshantivada, 29) Brahma Deity, and 30) White Elephant Life Stories. The Buddha-to-be can be identified in each scene by the presence of a red halo.

The elements of landscape are of special interest in this painting. Although it lacks a systematically unified or single point perspective in the composition, there is a generally cohesive merging of one scene into another, utilising imaginative combinations of conical mountain peaks, clusters of dense clouds, and rhyth­mically outlined hills and rocky cliffs. Architectural elements and lively figures interact like pulses of bright colour over the surfaces, adding homogeneous, unifying elements to the scheme. This is quite different from the touches of landscape known in earlier works. Other examples in the exhibition reveal diverse approaches to landscape settings during the late sixteenth to early seventeenth century, such as the use of a single view . By the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century, as seen in the superb set of Milarepa paintings in Stockholm , landscape elements are developed, heightened and conceptualised to a point of lifting the painting into the realm of the perfected ideal, unlike the compara­tive naturalism of this British Museum jataka of circa 1600.

Some elements of the British   Museum tangka, such as the style of the Buddha figure and the lotus pedestal as well as the quality of the wavy brush strokes in the landscape depiction, are features which relate to elements of Chinese painting. Although little is yet known about the eastern Tibetan schools and many of the monasteries and wall-paintings have been destroyed in that region, Tibetan texts note the development of the Karma Gadri schools of eastern Tibet from the second half of the sixteenth century. They are said to have flourished in the seventeenth and eighteenth century and to have been influenced by the painting styles of China . Although it is still difficult to be definite about the art of eastern Tibet , it may be that the British Museumjataka can be linked to that region. A wall-painting probably of the nineteenth century in the deserted Gelukpa temple at Dawu in Kham in eastern Tibet photographed by M. Henss in 1980  seems to show developed features of this style. A number of other works in the exhibit also possibly relate to the eastern Tibetan traditions. Most make prominent use of landscape in their composi­tions and depict mostly themes of the jatakas, arhats, mahasiddhas (great adepts), bodhisattvas and Kagyupa lamas sculptures and paintings (including a k'o-ssu, kesi, silk tapestry) in this section are examples of the popular female and male bodhisattvas, some among the earliest works in the exhibition, dating from the ninth to thirteenth century. The variety of types and sizes, some monumental, creates the distinct impression of a typical temple altar room in this section.

Two of the most prominent bodhisattvas in Tibet are Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri. Respectively, they personify compassion and wisdom, representing the qualities of enlightenment and the theme of this exhibition. These two particular sculptures illustrate some aspects of the wide range of dates, styles and regions represented by the art in this exhibition: the Avalokiteshvara is from around the second half of the eleventh century from western Tibet, and the Manjushri is from a special group of images produced in China and sent as gifts to prominent Tibetan lamas from the Chinese emperor during the early part of the Yung Lo (Yongle, 1403-1425) period.

The alert and wiry figure of Avalokiteshvara, with his haunting, sharp and large silver inlay eyes and bright copper lips, creates the startling and potent impression often seen in the early western Tibetan images. Western Tibet , including the areas of Ladakh, Spiti, Zanskar (all now in India ), Ngari and Guge, was the scene of vital activity in the late tenth and eleventh century during the resurgence ofBuddh­ism known as the Second Transmission. This followed the hiatus of about one hundred years after the persecution of Buddhism in Tibet by Lang Darma in the mid ninth century, which ended the Period of the Religious Kings ( century). Much attention has been afforded the revival of Buddhism in western Tibet under Yeshe Od, Rinchen Sangpo and Atisha (after 1042), partly because of the survival of splendid wall-paintings and sculptures, such as those from the temples ofTabo, Tholing and Alchi. Though the western Tibetan style is probably largely Kash­miri in derivation, we are just learning of more complex currents coming from Pala Indian, Nepalese and Himachal Pradesh and possibly Central Asian regions as well. A number of eleventh to twelfth century sculptures from western Tibet are in the exhibition, including two exceptional figures from the Cleveland Museum of Art which date to the eleventh century.

In marked contrast the gilt bronze four armed Manjushri from the State Hermitage in Leningrad . The Hermitage is the single largest lender to the exhibition, sending over thirty works, most never seen before outside the Soviet Union . This fine statue is in near perfect condition, missing only the arrow from one of its right hands. The others hold the double edged sword of discri­mination, the book of the Wisdom Sutras and a bow, the implements of the Tikshna-Manjushri (W.E. Clark, Two Lamaistic Pantheons, New York ,). Man­jushri has the form of a youth to show the capabilities of wisdom even in a youth and, as repeatedly shown in the sutras, to pose difficult questions to the Buddhas.

This sculpture, once part of the large collection Arhats are major enlightened figures in Individual Vehicle Buddhism (the early Buddhism, frequently called Hinayana-a term now considered inappropri­ate). In Universal Vehicle Buddhism (Mahayana) they became carriers of the Buddha's message in the world until the coming of the Future Buddha, Maitreya. The tradition of the arhats in Tibet , discussed by G. Tucci in considerable detail (Tibetan Painted Scrolls, Rome, 1949, pages 556-563), stems from both Indian and Chinese sources. Liturgically, the Tibetan tradition seems to follow primarily that introduced through Atisha (died 1054) or one revised by Sakya Kunga Rinchen (Tucci, op. cit., page 560). Examples of both of these liturgical traditions, the former having Angaja as the first arhat, the latter Rahula, appear in this exhibition.

Tibetan records mention Indian and Chinese as well as Tibetan styles of arhat depiction in Tibetan art. While the Indian stylistic sources are no longer traceable, the Chinese ones offer interesting compara­ble materials with Tibetan arhats, particularly those which seem to be from the central regions of Tibet during the fourteenth to fifteenth century and from eastern Tibet from at least the sixteenth century and later. On the other hand, remains from western Tibet of the Guge dynasty's "renaissance period" (circa fifteenth to mid seventeenth century, termed "renaiss­ance" to distinguish it from the early period of artistic activity of the Guge dynasty during the tenth to twelfth century) reveal important and interesting examples of complete sets of arhats which appear to be in the Tibetan stylistic tradition. Several examples of the latter appear in tangkas in this exhibition, including an example of the rare seventeen arhats depiction (usually depictions are of sixteen or eighteen figures) in a circa mid fifteenth century Guge painting from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Other examples from the exhibit show not only important paintings of the later developments, especially in eastern Tibetan styles from the sixteenth to early eighteenth century, but also three early examples probably from the central regions: the well known circa mid fourteenth century arhat in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the arhat Vanavasin in the Ellsworth Collection, and the Hvashang from the circa early fifteenth century British Museum set obtained from Shigatse.

The blue eyed, smoky haired arhat can most plausibly be identified as Vanavasin. Even though two other arhats also generally hold the fly-whisk, the unusual pose of his right hand probably relates closest to that associated with Vanavasin. It is not a customary gesture, but may be an early rendering of the tarjani mudra, the usual gesture for Vanavasin, or a form preceding the strict usage of that gesture. Several paintings in the exhibition from the fifteenth century show not only differing forms for the right hand gesture of Vanavasin, providing very interesting evidence for the study of the evolving iconography of this arhat, but important evidence for the early renderings of the other arhats as well.

This portrayal of Vanavasin partakes of the monumental style of fourteenth century arhat depic­tion as also seen in the Los Angeles   County   Museum example. Both reveal characteristics of Y uan dynasty (1279-1368) paintings, though the Los Angeles   County   Museum arhat shows a stronger connection, being close to Chinese styles associable with the famous early Yuan painter Yen Hui (Yan Hui). Despite the Chinese related features, such as the bizarre characterisation of the faces (from the Kuan Hsiu, Guan Xiu, tradition of arhats from the late ninth to early tenth century but carried on into the Yuan period) and the flowing silken robes (a type frequently associated with the famous Sung-Song, 960-1279-painter Li Kung-lin, Li Gonglin, and professional painting currents of the Southern Sung and Yuan periods), these arhats have a clearly Tibetan interpretation: the vivid colour, the direct power of engagement of the central figure with the viewer, and the strong two-dimensionality of the setting.

Later renderings of the arhats from the seventeenth to eighteenth century in the eastern Tibetan schools reveal harmonious interrelationships within a more unified, though often fantastic, three-dimensional spatial landscape, generally of blue-green rocks and hills. Certainly the arhat theme emerges as one of the major vehicles for developments in portrait-like char­acter studies and landscape depiction in Tibetan art. The predominance of landscape settings for the paintings in this section creates an earthy yet delight­fully bright aspect to this part of the exhibition.

Bodhisattvas are the figures par excellence of Universal Vehicle Buddhism. Certain bodhisattvas may be known for special traits and functions, but all are singularly motivated by utmost compassion and the wish for enlightenment for all beings. The sixteen gathered in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by the Russian Prince Esper Ukhtomsky (1861-1921) during his travels to China, Mongolia, present-day Buryat A.S.S.R. and Central Asia, is one of seven in the Hermitage inscribed with the Yung Lo date, two of which are in this exhibition (the other is a "gold" yab:J'um-father-mother-Raktayamari). It partakes of the Nepalese-Tibetan stylistic tradition while also having clear Chinese stylistic elements, such as the gentle face with outlined features, fluid draperies, and emphasis on the curvilinear beauty of line. However, it seems possible that these Chinese Yung Lo sculptures may have had some influential effects on the styles of sculpture and painting being executed in the central regions of Tibet around the second or third decade of the fifteenth century, such as at the Kumbum in Gyantse in Tsang.

Such cross-currents in artistic styles are a major factor in all phases of Tibetan art, creating elements of intriguing complexity. Certainly the art of China played a major role as did that of India , including Kashmir , and Nepal in the formation of Tibetan art during its history. The consequential roles of Central Asian art have yet to be understood, although it appears it will also be a major ingredient at certain times. Despite these in-coming elements, which are natural considering the strategic location of Tibet in the heart of Asia, Tibetans utilised them in a way that created a powerful, unique art of their own that in turn became significantly influential in the arts of all the surrounding areas. The important impact of Tibetan art on that of Nepal , India , Central Asia , China , Mongolia and other countries is just beginning to be apprehended in any exacting way and is certainly a major task for the future in this field.

Great Philosophers and Great Adepts is the section of the exhibition presenting some representative examples of mahapanditas (famous Buddhist philo­sophers) and mahasiddhas. The philosophers are those such as Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Asanga, Vasu­bandhu and others, mainly of India , who sharpened and explicated the Buddhist teachings and practices. The lively character of the figures portrayed in the art creates an invigorating, intriguing and slightly fantas­tic atmosphere in this section.

Chandrakirti, the famous sixth century philo­sopher, is shown in a spirited sculpture from the Hermitage collection. Animated by the debate posture, this bronze image has a great sense of naturalism. The face is painted in cold gold paste and pigments, a technique frequently encountered in Tibetan art and its close followers. This sculpture, a rare example of this figure and pose, is probably a Chinese image in the Tibetan tradition (it has Chinese character markings on the inside, but on the exterior it has an inscription in Tibetan of the name for Chandrakirti). Images of this kind, in other words, those made in China with iconographic and stylistic sources predominantly from Tibetan Buddhism and its arts, are termed Tibeto-Chinese in this exhibition and its accompanying book. This follows the similar pattern of Graeco-Roman in Western art history, acknowledging the dominant source of the work in the first term of the hyphenated designation. The term Sino- Tibetan in this context then refers to Tibetan works whose iconographic and stylistic features are predominantly rooted in Chinese Buddhism and its art, such as seen mainly in arhat depictions.

Mahasiddhas are among the most engaging figures in Tibetan art and are probably portrayed with an intensity, wildness, humour and beauty unmatched in any other tradition of Buddhist art. The extraordinary events of their biographies reflect their Tantric practice of achieving Buddhahood within the ordinary world and in their ordinary bodies, which they transform to function on a subtle plane as a Buddha.

They are the ideal adepts of the Messianic Vehicle of Buddhism (the Tantrayana or Vajrayana). In art they are often portrayed in sets of paintings or sculptures, as with many iconographic themes in Tibetan art. It depicts two mahasiddhas, each identified by inscription. In the upper half is Shavaripa, the slayer of antelope before he was converted by Avalo­kiteshvara, and in the lower half is Dharikapa, who was a king but later became the servant of a famous Indian dancer. She is probably the loosely robed figure behind Dharikapa, who is seated on an unusual cot-like structure garbed in elaborate robes.

This tangka is an important new evidence for study of the developments in naturalism in Tibetan art in the latter half of the sixteenth century. The fairly llllified, single viewpoint of the landscape setting, the refined linear style, and the realistic modelling techni­ques reveal a highly sensitive approach to naturalistic depiction. These seem to be at least partly based upon elements observable in mid and late Ming painting of the sixteenth century. The selectivity of a few well defined elements of landscape, such as the bamboo Buddha land. Here they include examples of the religious kings of Tibet , the mythical kings of Sham­bhala, and the great protectors, such as Kubera and Vaishravana. There is a strongly warrior-like charac­ter to the representations in this section.

The Vaishravana riding the blue snow lion in the Ellsworth Collection is a rare and quite early surviving tangka of this popular protector deity of wealth who holds the jewel spouting mongoose and wears the armour of a general. He is surrounded by eight demon lords on horseback, demon armies, the eight lucky symbols, and the seven auspicious sym­bols of the world ruler (chakravartin)-the minister, queen, general, wheel, elephant, horse and wish granting jewel-all of which are scattered in and around the clouds and figures on the two-dimensional plane.

The strong yet delightful stylisation of the figures relates this work to the paintings of around the first half of the fifteenth century. Although this painting is likely to be from the central regions of Tibet, probably Tsang, the crisp style, especially of the various tiny objects, is surprisingly close to portrayals of scattered objects in some of the wall-paintings from the "Mandala Temple" (called by Tucci the Demchog Mandala Chapel) at Tsaparang executed under the Guge dynasty of western Tibet (J. Aschoff, Tsapar­ang-Konigsstadt in Westtibet, Munich, 1989). The Mandala   Temple is considered to be among the earliest works executed during the early phase of the revival of the Guge dynasty from around the second quarter to the second half of the fifteenth century. While this correspondence lends some confirmation to the dating of this Vaishravana tangka, the question of the extent of the interrela­tionships between the arts ofthe central regions and of Guge in western Tibet at this time is still a subject needing more detailed study and clusters of fantastic rocks, and the delicacy of the execution particularly echo compositional and stylis­tic techniques seen in paintings of the Wu School and related works from the second half of the sixteenth century in China. The figure style seems largely related to that of the famous Buddhist figure painters of mid and late Ming, such as Ting Yun-p'eng (Ding Yunpeng, 1547-1638) (Siren, Chinese Painting, 1958, Volume VI, plates 309, 310).

Although it is not a certain criterion, the strong relation with developments in China would tend to suggest a provenance for this exquisite work in the eastern areas of Tibet . Interestingly, however, a portion of a wall-painting showing the Defeat of Mara photographed by M. Henss at Tashi Lhunpo near Shigatse in Tsang in the central regions of Tibet has a remarkably similar figure style as seen in the Ford tangka. This suggests a dating for this stunning wall-painting of around the late sixteenth century, but it also opens up the intriguing question of possible relationships among Tashi Lhunpo, the Chinese and the eastern Tibetan schools of painting, a subject of which these works offer some glimpse, but which awaits further evidence for clarification.

 

 


 
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