In the Realm of the Buddha — An exhibition on Tibetan buddhist art
Wednesday 9 June 2010, by
The exhibition, which first opened last year at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, traces the evolution of the Encampment style in Tibetan thangkas (literally, "flat paintings"). It begins with Indian-influenced precursors, then chronicles a revolution by artists in the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism who incorporated the open landscapes, fluid brushstrokes and blue-green palette of Chinese paintings. Central to the tale is Situ Panchen, an influential 18th-century lama, artist and scholar.
Throughout, overhead spotlights bring out the colors and details of each thangka, while wall texts and labels provide historical information, point out stylistic shifts and relate the paintings to Situ’s monastic leadership.
The first public showing of "The Tibetan Shrine from the Alice S. Kandell Collection," by contrast, provides no such narrative. The minute you step into the small gallery, you are surrounded on three sides by some 200-plus objects, ranging from thangkas to bronze statues to ritual conch shells, bowls and small portable altars. Displayed on rising tiers of painted furniture and tucked inside niches, they fill every square inch with color and gilt, at once mesmerizing and soothing.
While every object in the "Situ Panchen" show stands alone, the pieces from the Kandell Collection work together to create the textured, glittering world of a shrine, that liminal space through which Tibetan Buddhists access the sacred and through which the sacred enters their world. The light rises from below, the way oil lamps might illuminate the statues, drawing your eye upward to the peaceful faces of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Their arrangement complies with liturgical rules, and the objects themselves span multiple centuries, just as the shrines of wealthy families in Lhassa (the origin of most of these pieces) would. The Art of the Buddha
But there are also significant differences between this and the real thing. Tibetan Buddhists dress their statues; with one exception, the figures here appear unclothed, the better to show off their workmanship. Similarly, Tibetan Buddhists keep their thangkas covered when they are not using them in a ritual or meditation; here, nothing hampers our view of the silk-mounted paintings. More unconventional still, curator Debra Diamond has placed in full view sexually charged imagery normally hidden from all but those initiated in tantric practices.
Ms. Diamond likens the result to a period room and speaks about the intense "aesthetic" experience of the shrine. This is in tune with the attitude of the collector, Dr. Kandell, a psychiatrist who is quick to say she is not a Buddhist and not even terribly religious. She fell in love with Himalayan artwork in Sikkim, once an independent kingdom bordering Tibet, during visits to a college friend who had married the prince.
After collecting piecemeal, Dr. Kandell met Philip Rudko, a Russian Orthodox monk in Brooklyn. A conservator of Russian icons and Tibetan Buddhist art, Mr. Rudko had over some 40 years bought pieces from Tibetan families in exile, promising to keep the pieces together and not sell them to dealers. Along the way, he studied Tibetan Buddhist liturgy and ritual and created an ever-expanding shrine.
When a mutual friend brought Dr. Kandell to Mr. Rudko’s by then rather crowded apartment in 1994, a lasting partnership was born. She bought the shrine and has since, in consultation with Mr. Rudko, added to her collection, choosing pieces for their beauty and their completeness—every statue sits on its original pedestal and sports its original aureole.
While that completeness fuels the sense of authenticity, Mr. Rudko points out a false note: Unlike traditional shrines, this one contains pieces from different schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
This is the sort of information that would ordinarily appear on a label—as would the explanation that the central Buddha is from Mongolia, that three figures to the right of the altar date from the 12th century, and that most of the statues date from the 18th and 19th centuries. The catalog discusses this and much more, but the show itself focuses on the effects rather than the facts of art.
This approach delights some visitors but, judging from overheard remarks, disconcerts others who view this as a sacred space in a publicly funded secular museum. The problem is that contemporary Western definitions do not always apply to traditions in which art is inextricable from religious beliefs and practices. This is the case with Tibetan art, and the Kandell "Shrine" show meets this challenge by striking a balance between evoking a sacred context and creating a secular exhibition.
But what of the monks praying before the shrine at the show’s opening or performing the religious act of creating a sand mandala? While some might deem the ceremonies inappropriate, others give the museum high marks for consulting with the Tibetan community when showing its sacred art. Certainly nobody can accuse the Sackler of favoring one faith over another. Over the years it has hosted the Indian ritual painting of a kolam, the Zoroastrian celebration of Nowuz, and the performance of sacred Christian and Jewish music.
In an age where religious rituals double as tourist attractions—whether Holy Week in Spain or Durga Puja in India—drawing strict lines between what is secular, cultural, aesthetic and religious risks doing damage to the appreciation and understanding of many forms of art. Intended or not, the coupling of the "Situ Panchen" and the Kandell "Shrine" exhibitions may prove a fruitful first step in thinking through the role of sacred art in what has become another kind of borderland space—that corner of the public square we call "the art museum."