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Media Preview: Thursday, October 16, 9 a.m., Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Many of the world’s finest examples of Himalayan art go on view Oct. 18 at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in an exhibition surveying the remarkable range of sacred objects produced in this vast mountain region. “Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure”—based on an exhibition first seen at the Art Institute of Chicago—features 163 Buddhist, Hindu and Bon paintings and sculptures created between the 7th and the 19th centuries. Focusing on aesthetic excellence, the exhibition invites visitors to experience an artistic trek through this fascinating region, in which religions and cultures intermingled in unique ways. The exhibit is on view through Jan. 11, 2004.
Works on view were created in an astonishingly large variety of media, scale and color, ranging from a tiny, rare and exquisite ivory of the fasting Buddha to a life-size portrait of a Nepalese king as a multiarmed, cosmic deity. Other objects on view include intricately detailed manuscript illuminations on palm leaf, paper and wood, and brightly colored thangkas (cloth paintings) depicting mandalas, deities and teachers. Benign and terrifying stone, wood and bronze images of deities—many embellished with gemstones, gilding and paint—are also on view.
“We are pleased to be presenting these remarkable works, which highlight the creative spirit of generations of anonymous artists in this austere region,” says Julian Raby, director of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Extending for 1,800 miles, the harsh Himalayan terrain is interspersed by cultural oases found in the valleys of India and Nepal, as well as on the Trans-Himalayan Tibetan plateau. Merchants, monks and artists traveled between these centers of civilization in Nepal, Kashmir and Tibet for almost two millennia, bringing with them the intellectual, spiritual and material culture of neighboring India, China and Central Asia. Local artists transformed and developed those beliefs and aesthetic ideals to create the unique and richly varied art of the Himalayas.
The exhibition is divided into three broad cultural regions of Nepal; Kashmir and the Western Himalayas; and Central Tibet.
Located on trade routes, the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal forms a cultural bridge between the Sanskrit culture of the Indian subcontinent to its south, and the Tibetan culture to its north. For the last 2,000 years, Buddhism and Hinduism have co-existed so harmoniously in Nepal that their style and much of the iconography—featuring, sculptures of bronze, stone, wood and terra cotta as well as illustrated texts and thangkas—are at times virtually indistinguishable.
A composite of Hindu and Buddhist attributes is apparent in the multiarmed 11th -century figure of the Buddhist god Chakrasamvara (object number ELS2003.7.31 featured in the Malla period room described below). Locked in a sexual embrace with his spouse, Chakrasamvara has a third eye, like the Hindu deity Shiva. The sculpture demonstrates Nepalese artists’ preference for slim, graceful figures with broad, youthful faces and gentle expressions, elongated well-formed limbs, wide, sloping shoulders and smooth contours. The Nepalese love for intricate detail is apparent in both the lively, richly colored illuminations of religious texts, and the monumental paintings on view, which at times interweave aspects of sacred, secular and royal culture (see object ELS2003.7.46).
A room showing art from the Malla period (1200–1769) displays works that reflect Buddhist and Hindu esoteric (or tantric) traditions. On view are sculptural figures of deities (ELS2003.7.31 and 34) and revered “mahasiddhas” (humans whose rigorous practice of yoga, meditation and ritual led to superhuman powers and enlightenment) (ELS2003.7.29).
KASHMIR AND THE WESTERN HIMALAYAS
This region is located on trade routes connecting Central Asia, China and Afghanistan with India. Kashmiri artists synthesized aesthetic traditions from surrounding areas to create a powerful and influential regional idiom. Kashmir was renowned between the 7th and 13th centuries as a center for both Buddhist and Hindu learning. Kashmiri material culture, however, was largely unrecognized in the West before the dispersal during the 1950s of surviving Kashmiri treasures from the Tibetan monasteries in which they survived. Kashmiri sculptures from the Karkota dynasty (626–855/856) were primarily fashioned in stone, gold, silver and brass. Stone sculptures featured characteristically stocky bodies with firm frontal stances, while Kashmiri bronzes are fluidly modeled with rippling garments, intricately engraved patterns of luxurious textiles, and silver-colored eyes beneath arching brows (ELS2003.7.68). The exhibition includes one of the finest ivory panels produced in the Asian world (ELS2003.7.69). Two figures, known as “Vaikuntha,” represent a Kashmiri conception of the Hindu god Vishnu (ELS2003.7.60).
Western Tibetan artistic expression-though heavily influenced by Kashmiri art -was remarkably diverse. Figures like the 11th century figure of the benevolent Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (ELS2003.7.85)—featuring inlaid tin eyes with a silvery cast, lips and nipples of pure copper, traces of gilding and red and black-designed clothing—are distinguished by their color and intricate surface patterns.
Esoteric Buddhism flourished here, fostering manifestations of the Buddha in a wide variety of media and forms-many adorned with jewel-like colors, gilded surfaces and precious stones. Brightly colored thangkas were also produced. Portraits of llamas (ELS2003.7.143), mahasiddhas-including Virupa, whose powers included the ability to arrest time (ELS2003.7.156) and masters of Bon (ELS2003.7.135) are evidence of the persistent visual exaltation of human teachers that is unique (within Himalayan art) to Tibet. In Tibetan Buddhism, great monastic teachers were thought to be incarnations of bodhisattvas-enlightened beings dedicated to reducing the suffering of humans. Their portraits were revered.
Esoteric Buddhism also fostered images of ferocious deities, and gods and goddesses in sexual embrace. Works of particular note include one of the earliest Tibeto-Newar bronzes to depict a wrathful deity (ELS2003.7.9), as well as a colorful and intricately detailed 16th-century Kalachakra (wheel of time) mandala modeled on the cosmic order (ELS2003.7. 168). Kalachakra mandalas, representing a synthesis of the highest yogic teachings, are frequently created in sand in the West.
“MONASTIC LIBRARY” ROOM
Tibetan monasteries housed large libraries of Buddhist scriptures, related teachings, and commentaries. The exhibition concludes with a library room featuring an outstanding selection of 12th- to 17th-century Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts. Notable works on view include a cover from a manuscript of the sacred Prajnaparamita text (ELS2003.7.122) and a painting on silk attributed to the 10th Karmapa (1604–1674), who was renowned for his individual style (ELS2003.7.177). Mystical diagrams from the nearly 200-page Manuscript of Tsog dag Rituals (ELS2003.7.178) are among the many other treasures on view.
A video-graphic overview of Himalayan art narrated by curator Pratapaditya Pal is on view in a room where examples of the different production stages of bronzes and thangkas are also on view. An almost 12-foot-high 20th-century iconometric drawing of the bodhisattva Maitreya (ELS1998.1) from the Sackler collection-especially added for this venue-is also on view.
An illustrated 308-page catalog by Pratapaditya Pal, curator emeritus of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., accompanies the exhibition and is available for purchase online or from the gallery book shop (hardcover $65, softcover $39.95).
“Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure” was organized by the Art Institute of Chicago. Major sponsorship support for this exhibition has been provided by Exelon, Proud Parent of ComEd.
This exhibition is made possible by the generous support of the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, The Christensen Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts, and The W.L.S. Spencer Foundation.
Presentation of the exhibition at the Sackler is supported in part by the Else Sackler Public Affairs Endowment, the Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, Ann and Gilbert Kinney, and the Director’s Discretionary Fund established by Peggy and Richard M. Danziger.
The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call 202.357.2700 or TTY 202.357.1729, or visit the galleries’ Web site at asia.si.edu.