Tibetan Art: The Earthly and the Sublime

Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

Tibet is not a large country, but in the course of a thousand years, some 6,000 Buddhist monasteries are said to have arisen there. Today, the majority of those are gone.

The recent history of Tibet has been tumultuous and tragic. In 1950, China invaded the Himalayan feudal state. Nine years later, Tenzin Gyatso, the 24-year-old Dalai Lama, 14th in a line of succession that began half a millennium ago, fled south to India and began a life of exile that still continues.

A decade after that, the reign of terror incongruously called the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution swept through the mountain province. Rampaging Chinese Red Guards smashed countless monuments, obliterated whole monasteries and destroyed untold numbers of Tibetan paintings, sculptures and ritual objects.

None of this chaos and sorrow is visible in the handsomely installed galleries of the Albuquerque Museum, where the lovely exhibition "Tibet: Tradition and Change" is attracting large crowds of interested visitors. The show, which was organized by retired Los Angeles County Museum of Art senior curator Pratapaditya Pal and will not travel, has been such a popular success here that it has been extended for an additional four months (through May 24).

In the galleries, peace and harmony reign. It's easy to get lost in the exquisite, hypnotic patterns and richly saturated colors of the 700-year-old "Mandala of Vajrakumara Vajrakila," which is a kind of earthly landing pad for a descent from the heavens of a magnificent deity. Or to marvel at the distinctive personality etched into the early 19th century painted face of an Indian teacher of Buddhism, a personality so pronounced that it might well be an individual portrait.

True, you might release an involuntary shudder in an encounter with an exquisite bronze bust of a serene Bodhisattva, guessing that its sadly damaged condition might be a legacy of the Cultural Revolution. But damage isn't uncommon for any sculpture that, like this one, dates as far back as the 12th century; and, besides, who wouldn't shudder in the face of a bronze so poised, so meticulously refined (even in spite of the damage) as to offer at least a glancing hope for the possibility of your own transcendence?

Still, invisible or not, an aura of tragedy permeates the show, at least in spirit. It quietly exerts itself in two subtle ways.

One is that of the 111 assorted thanka paintings, mandalas and gold and bronze sculptures that have been borrowed from 39 public and private collections in Europe, Canada and the United States, none are Sino-Tibetan in character. Clearly, Pal wants to make a point through curatorial selection.

"Although Tibetan art does borrow certain aesthetic elements from China," Pal writes in the informative catalog accompanying the show, "I have scrupulously avoided including objects made in China or those that are often characterized as Sino-Tibetan or Tibeto-Chinese."

In other words: There are no Tibetan works included that were made to satisfy Chinese tastes. Although no culture is ever static, being scrupulous about identifying Tibetan culture as a distinct entity with a unique history asserts a potent political position--appropriately, as Tibet remains occupied against its will by China.

The other pressing fact follows from the first, and it concerns demographics. New Mexico is home to a large population of Tibetan emigres. The art in this show is their cultural legacy. Through attrition, future generations will inevitably lose the distinct culture the exhibition proposes to articulate. As time goes by, their ancestral religious objects will steadily take on a different cast.

For outsiders and novices, the nuances distinguishing Tibetan Buddhist art can be difficult to decipher. The intricacies of any religion are always manifest in the art produced for its celebration. Add the powerful aesthetic traditions of China to the north and India to the south, which had an inescapable influence on Tibetan art, and the complexity deepens.

The show is helpfully divided into four sections. Each corresponds with a distinct aspect of Tibetan art.

First comes "The Realm of Mortals." Paintings and sculptures depict episodes in the life of Buddha Sakyamuni or represent various monks, mystics, gurus and adepts.

Among the most beautiful is a 19th century painting of the descent of Buddha Sakyamuni from the heavens, attributed to the celebrated artist Phurbu Tshering. Within the complex image are multiple subsidiary scenes of prayer and communion in grottoes and temples; but it's the central action--Buddha descending a staircase, surrounded by monks and celestials floating on swirling clouds of jade and violet--that creates a startling sense of monumental pageantry much larger than the painting's rather diminutive size (it's only 20 inches high and half as wide).

Many of the works in this section are highly individuated portraits, either taken from life or from historical descriptions of actual people. Whether the jowly face and heavy-set body of the disciple Marpa, the bony and emaciated torso of the ascetic Milarepa or the idiosyncratic features of an unidentified Indian master, these are portraits within which any observer can see his own humanity reflected.

From the rigors of a spiritual struggle on Earth, the story moves on to heavenly spheres. In "The Mythic and Divine Realms," the difference is dramatic.

Compared to the first section, whose already ornate offerings couldn't exactly be described as restrained or spare, the second is a veritable riot of elaboration and decor--of gilding, intricate headdresses, fantastic aureoles and bodily adornment. A serpent deity crowned with a chorus line of snakes, the pile of nine golden heads of the god Rahula, a luxuriously brocaded figure representing the "king of the gods"--through seemingly impossible flights of eye-popping decoration, divinity is honored while also made enticing.

Rituals in any religion are designed to provide mediation between the realm of mortals and the realm of divinities. The third section, "The Interactive Realm," displays a variety of objects used in Tibetan Buddhist rituals, including reliquaries, ceremonial daggers, bells, symbolic thunderbolts, portable shrines and prayer wheels. The most riveting is certainly the most exotic--a ritual apron carved from human bone with images of deities, dancers and auspicious symbols. (A sign is posted to warn those for whom viewing human remains is forbidden for religious reasons, and the apron is thoughtfully laid out in a case that can be easily avoided.)

The final section is in one sense closely related to the third. Mandalas, whether in the form of plaques, reliefs or, most commonly, painted scrolls, are sometimes described as cosmic diagrams. The nine included at the end of the exhibition, including one of the oldest Tibetan examples known (it dates from about 1225), range from the simple and elegant to the mind-bendingly elaborate.

These circular designs, intricately inscribed with concentric geometric forms, symbols and images of deities, convey a powerful sense of all-encompassing wholeness and totality. It's like seeing the universe in a drop of pond water.

Still, it's with another thought in mind that mandalas take on their most captivating aura here. Sometimes called "mansions for the gods," these are dwelling places in which the fragile, enduring intricacies of all-too-human spiritual desires reside. So mandalas are places of refuge. For an exhibition of art made in imperiled Tibet, they provide a poignant climax.

* "Tibet: Tradition and Change," Albuquerque Museum, 2000 Mountain Road N.W., Albuquerque. Through May 24. (505) 243-7255.

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