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Identifying the sources of Tibetan Buddhist painting has been the object of much scholarship in recent years, a pursuit that has often been frustrated by the scarcity of materials. While almost nothing except a few Dunhuang paintings in Tibetan style remains from the period of the First Conversion in the eighth century, about 500 works have survived from the years between the eleventh-twelfth century chidar, or Second Conversion under the guidance of the Indian sage Atisha, and Tsongkhapa’s founding of the Gelugpa order in the early fifteenth century. This number represents only a sample of an artistic inventory largely lost during the Cultural Revolution, when unknown quantities of wall paintings, along with the monasteries that contained them, and huge collections of portable works were destroyed, confiscated, spirited away, or sold on the international market for reasons both idealistic and mercenary.
Sacred Visions: Early Paintings from Central Tibet is the catalogue of an exhibition staged by the Metropolitan Museum and subsequently shown at the Rietberg Museum, Zurich. The exhibition presented fifty-five paintings, many of them brought to the West during the years after the Cultural Revolution. Together they amount to more than ten percent of what has survived from the Second Conversion and its aftermath. The selection is noteworthy for several reasons, not the least of which is the quality of the paintings, most of them from private collections. But beyond Sacred Visions’ sensual delights, curators and catalogue authors Steven M. Kossak and Jane Casey Singer have also notably shifted their focus away from the thematic organization of such theatrical blockbusters as Robert Thurman’s and Marylin Rhie’s 1991 exhibition Wisdom and Compassion, which was planned to reflect the performative structure of a mandala (and which spawned a plethora of mandala-based offspring), to a chronological survey detailing how Tibetan artists gradually learned to capture the visionary experiences of tantric Buddhism in paint. If Wisdom and Compassion was designed to do nothing less than shift the consciousness of the viewer, Sacred Visions is much more earthbound, but no less provocative. One of its apparent, if not explicitly stated, goals is to move Tibet out of the realm of Orientalist emotionalism and into the arena of scholarly discourse.
This is no easy feat because of the debates now raging about how, or even if, Western art historians should approach the sacred arts of Asia (see, e.g., Bernard Faure, “The Buddhist Icon and the Modern Gaze,” Critical Inquiry, Spring 1998). By concentrating on a small body of works from the circumscribed area of Central Tibet, all produced from the eleventh through the fifteenth centuries, Kossak and Singer have sidestepped some major pitfalls, among them the essentialist reduction of Tibet to a timeless, homogeneous unity and the confusion of Tibetan Buddhism’s utopian teleology with the unfolding of Tibetan history. But, by foregrounding a formalist analysis of painting style against a background of iconography and patronage, the authors have also brought a conservative, Western art-historical eye to a body of material that begs to be viewed in the context of local and even personal practice.
The inclusion of an informative essay by the Courtauld Institute’s Robert Bruce-Gardner, one of the few art conservators working with Tibetan thangkas, also shifts the emphasis of the catalogue away from the sacred visions its title advertises and toward more practical issues of painting itself—iconometry, underdrawing, pigments, and glazes. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does underscore the rift that inevitably exists between the materiality of the icon and its charismatic “aura.”
A means of bridging this gap is hazarded in Singer’s thoroughly researched entries, when she discusses the contexts within which certain works were used. Among these, a series of portraits of Kagyu masters (cat. 17-19) vividly evokes the reverence with which Buddhist masters were remembered and the significance of lineage-building in the transmission of tantric practices. Singer also places a number of other paintings in a more precise ritual context, among them the images of a favorite deity of new initiates, Vajravarahi, the Diamond Sow (cat. 20-21), and the tiny, card-like tsakali, evocation pictures uncovered for initiates to see only in a deep meditative state (cat. 54). These intriguing asides allow the reader to begin to imagine a visionary continuum captured but not confined by painting.
Singer also provides insights into the origins of some of the most famous icons of the period, notably the Green Tara in the Ford Collection (cat. 3). When Bruce-Gardner undertook conservation work on the piece in 1995, he found a note behind its modern cloth backing reading “The Reting God[dess]” and identifying the Tara as the “personal meditational image of Chason Dru o.” The inscription also documents tangentially the movement of the Reting Goddess from Reting monastery, founded in 1057 by Dromton, Atisha’s main disciple, into the hands of two late twelfth century lamas, providing evidence for the practice of passing sacred images from master to disciple, their power heightened by “association with a revered teacher.” Singer also reviews the argument for the Indian origin of the Tara, “essentially one of aesthetics,” fleshing it out circumstantially by recalling that Atisha himself commissioned paintings from the Vikramashila monastery in eastern India even after he was living in Central Tibet, and establishing his connection with Reting, where his remains were eventually brought after his death in 1054.
The question of what is Tibetan and what is Indian or Newari/Nepalese reappears repeatedly as an important theme. Kossak presents the exquisite thirteenth-century Green Tara in the Cleveland Museum of Art as a work that “embodies but also transcends the most salient characteristics of Nepalese style.” Because of its “originality,” Kossak is tempted to attribute the Tara to the Nepalese prodigy Aniko, who was called to Khubilai’s court in Dadu (Beijing) and was appointed supervisor in chief of all classes of artisans of the Imperial Workshop. Aniko is also credited by Anning Jing as the painter of the portraits of Khubilai Khan and his wife Chabi, now in the Palace Museum, Taiwan (see Anning Jing, “The Portraits of Khubilai Khan and Chabi by Anige, A Nepali Artist at the Yuan Court,” Artibus Asiae 54, nos. 1-2, 1994: 40-89). Kossak’s attribution is, he admits, more hopeful than Jing’s, however. Lacking any written evidence, he can only cite the fact that in 1306 Yuan court artists were sent to Shalu monastery to paint a series of murals, which, like the Tara, synthesize Indian and Nepalese styles.
The desire to attribute masterworks to specific painters is difficult to resist, particularly in the fifteenth century, when so many Tibetan masters began to sign their work. An informative inscription allows Singer to identify the patron of a thangka depicting the elephant-headed Ganapati (cat.49) as Peljor Sangpo, a political appointee at Shigatse during the late fourteenth through early fifteenth centuries and one of the chief patrons of Tsongkhapa’s disciple, Gedun Drup (1391-1447), posthumously named the First Dalai Lama. Speculating on this connection, she leads the reader to the greatest painter of the period, Menla Dondrub (fl. 1450s-1470s), legendary founder of the Menri School and close associate of the First Dalai Lama. This attribution, while unverifiable, is plausible, because textual sources (if not any surviving works) record that Menla Dondrub was instrumental in bringing together Indian, Chinese, Nepalese, and Tibetan styles into the graceful synthesis of original vision and historical sources the Ganapati embodies.
Intended for an audience of educated museum visitors, Sacred Visions does not claim to be a theoretical work. However, like an increasing number of exhibition catalogues, it deserves a long shelf life in part because it does not promote a specific theoretical or missionizing agenda. Moreover, its gorgeous production values and a high standard of accessible scholarship make it a lasting resource. Tibetan terms are simplified to approximate their spoken forms, so the text is not riddled with the unpronounceable, if accurate transcriptions of Classical Tibetan that make reading or remembering anything about Tibet so difficult for the amateur. A glossary citing full transcriptions would have been useful, however). References are mostly to sources in English, rather than to primary texts. Finally, Kossak and Singer do not question the permissibility of discussing early Tibetan painting without first apologizing for an explicitly art-historical perspective. This may be a dangerous position to assume these days outside the curatorial world, but its benefit is to reveal Tibetan painting as part of real, lived human experience, born out of a complex interweaving of several distinct traditions, rather than as a glamorized, but ultimately alien other.
University of California, Berkeley