Rare British Museum Treasure—The Cyrus Cylinder—makes its first visit to the U.S. and is at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum through September 22, 2103. Talk this Sunday
At just under 9 inches long and shaped like a barrel, the 2,500 year-old Cyrus Cylinder is a relatively small baked-clay artifact that is one of the British Museum’s greatest treasures. It’s severely cracked and missing bits and pieces, but this humble object bears an account, in Babylonian cuneiform, by Cyrus, the King of Persia of his conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C. The Cylinder, commonly referred to as the “the first bill of human rights,” is able to stand with the Rosetta Stone and the Magna Carta as one of the great icons of civilization and human rights. Its inscription, in remarkably vivid Babylonian cuneiform, looks like a series of scrawls and scratches to the untrained eye but encouraged freedom of worship throughout the Persian Empire, which stretched from present-day Egypt to India in the day of King Cyrus. Long been hailed as an international symbol of tolerance and justice, the Cylinder traveled to Tehran’s National Museum of Iran in 2010 where it was seen firsthand by about half a million people but it has never before been on view in the United States. It is now on display at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum as part of The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning through September 22, 2013.
The exhibition also includes 16 other rare ancient Persian objects in the British Museum’s collection which provide a context for understanding the Cylinder’s cultural and historical significance. Included are a solid gold armlet, in the form of a winged griffin-like mythical creature, and the seal of Darius I, showing the Persian king in his chariot hunting lions. If you visit the exhibition, there are a number of talks (described below) by esteemed Persian scholars on the Cylinder and its context which will maximize your experience at the Asian.
Dating to 539 B.C., the Cyrus Cylinder was uncovered in 1879 at Babylon (in modern Iraq) during a British Museum excavation. The original function of the Cylinder was as a foundation deposit—an object buried under an important building to sanctify it. The Cylinder was buried beneath the inner city wall of Esagila, the Temple of Marduk, Babylon’s protector God, during the extensive rebuilding program undertaken by Cyrus the Great after he captured the city in 539 B.C. While the Cylinder itself was never intended to be seen or used again, the its text was probably a proclamation that was widely distributed.
The Cylinder is vital for understanding how Cyrus presented himself and how the Achaemenid dynasty would be carried on. In his defeat of Babylon’s rulers, Nabonidus and his son, Belshazzar, Cyrus proclaimed his continuation of the Neo-Assyrian empire over the muddled Neo-Babylonian empire. The Babylonian empire reached its zenith the great Nebuchadnezzar, but fell into a state of chaos under his immediate successor, Nabonidus, who after ruling for only three years, went to the oasis of Tayma and devoted himself to the worship of the moon god Sin. He declared his son Belshazzar co-regent and left him in charge of Babylon’s defense and, in a story chronicled in the Bible’s book of Daniel, Cyrus was able to enter the city, conquer Belshazzar and assume rule, thus greatly impacting the cultural legacy of the Near East.
The Cylinder’s inscription chronicles how Cyrus, aided by the god Marduk, gained victory without a struggle; restored shrines dedicated to various gods; and allowed captive peoples to return to their homelands. The text does not mention specific religious groups, but it is thought that the Jews were among the people who had been forcibly brought to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar II (the previous ruler of Babylon) and then allowed by Cyrus to return home. The Bible chronicles that the Jews returned from Babylon at this time and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. Cyrus is revered in the Hebrew Bible because of the qualities of tolerance and respect documented in the Cylinder’s proclamation. Such enlightened acts were rare in antiquity.
The Cyrus Cylinder is an object of world heritage, produced for a Persian king in Iraq and seen and studied for more than 130 years in the British Museum. Today, according to John Curtis, Keeper of Special Middle East Projects at the British Museum, there are just a handful of experts who are actually fluent in ancient Babylonian cuneiform and able to read the Cylinder. “The Cyrus Cylinder and associated objects represent a new beginning for the Ancient Near East,” said Curtis. “The Persian period, commencing in 550 BC, was not just a change of dynasty but a time of change in the ancient world.”
The values of freedom from captivity and freedom of religious practice proclaimed by Cyrus the Great are enduring ideas underlying ethical governance that have made the Cylinder a universal icon. Today, a copy of the Cylinder is on display in the United Nations building in New York City. The Cylinder appears on postage stamps issued by the Islamic Republic of Iran, and it was seen firsthand by about half a million people at the 2010-2011 exhibition in Tehran.
Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum, said, “The San Francisco Bay Area is home to both the signing of the United Nations Charter and the birth of the Free Speech Movement, major pillars supporting human rights and civil liberties. The Asian Art Museum is proud to partner with the British Museum and our U.S. museum partners to bring the Cyrus Cylinder to San Francisco. This important object provides not only a foundation for understanding the ancient world, but also a touchstone for continued efforts to strive for common human freedoms.”
Sunday, September 8, 2013, 2 PM—Dr. David Stronach—New Light on the Cyrus Cylinder—British archaeologist, David Stronach, Professor Emeritus of Near East Studies at UC Berkeley, speaks about new discoveries related to the Cyrus Cylinder. Stronach, recognized as a pioneer of archaeology in Iran, graduated from Cambridge in 1957, and was made director of the newly founded British Institute of Persian Studies in Tehran in 1961, holding that post for some 20 years. During that time, he excavated at Pasargadae (1961-1963) and Nush-i Jan (1967-1968). He is a leading expert on Pasargadae, the capital city of Cyrus, and the gardens and monuments of Cyrus and will talk about the Oxus treasure.
[ARThound’s previous (2011) coverage of Dr. Stronach “Ancient Iran from the Air:” acclaimed archaeologist David Stronach presents Georg Gerster’s forthcoming book on Iran, at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor this Saturday]
Sunday September 22, 2013 at 2 PM—Dr. Jennifer Rose— From Samarkand to San Francisco. Dr. Jennifer Rose, professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University, provides an introduction to the Zoroastrian religion, one of the world’s oldest surviving belief systems. From its origins in Bronze Age Central Asia to its evolution across three powerful Iranian empires, and its expansion to India, Europe and North America, Zoroastrianism has had a profound impact on surrounding cultures and religions. Advance ticket purchase recommended.
Details: The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning is at the Asian Art Museum through September 22, 2013. The Asian Art Museum is located at 200 Larkin Street (at Civic Center Plaza), San Francisco. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended evening hours every Thursday until 9 p.m. Admission (Cyrus Cylinder exhibition is included in general admission): $12 Adults; $8 seniors, students; $8 youth 13-17 and free to 12 and under. On weekends, admission is $2 more. Parking: The Asian Art Museum does not have a parking facility, but it is served by the following parking facilities—all within walking distance of the museum: Civic Center Plaza Garage is the closest and most reasonably priced and has 840 spaces. From Van Ness, turn left on McAllister. Entrance is on McAllister, between Polk and Larkin Streets. Info: www.asianart.org.
America’s Cup on Display at Asian Art Museum Thursday, June 27, 2013, along with “In the Moment,” a Peek into Larry Ellison’s Rarely Seen Japanese Art Collection
The most coveted prize in competitive sailing and the oldest trophy in international sports, The America’s Cup, is on display at the Asian Art Museum though 9 p.m. Thursday, June 27, 2013. The display is part of the opening activities for In the Moment: Japanese Art from the Larry Ellison Collection, the museum’s special exhibition from the rarely seen trove of Larry Ellison, Oracle CEO and owner of ORACLE TEAM USA, defender of the 34th America’s Cup.
Made by the Crown Jeweler Robert Garrard from sterling silver in 1848, it became known as the America’s Cup when the owners of America donated it in 1857 as a “perpetual challenger trophy to promote friendly competition amongst nations.” Originally just over 20 in. tall, it was extended in the 1950s and again in the 1990s to allow further engraving of racing results. It now stands approximately 3 ft. tall. Without a doubt, it is one of the most difficult trophies to win and in the more than 150 years since the first race off England, only four nations have been victorious. For some perspective on its history, consider that there had been nine contests for the America’s Cup before the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896. The America’s Cup was first contested in 1851—when it was known as the One Hundred Pound Cup—when the yacht America, from the New York Yacht Club, beat 15 British yachts in a race around the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England.
You can see the coveted cup at the Asian, along with rare treasures from Ellison’s stunning collection of Japanese art—64 artworks spanning 1,100 years. Included in the exhibition, which opens today, are significant works by noted artists of the Momoyama (1573–1615) and Edo (1615–1868) periods, along with other important examples of religious art, lacquer, woodwork, and metalwork. Highlights include a 13th–14th century wooden sculpture of Shotoku Taishi; six-panel folding screens dating to the 17th century by Kano Sansetsu; and 18th century paintings by acclaimed masters Maruyama Ōkyo and Ito Jakuchu. The collection reflects Ellison’s great love of nature and of animals, particularly cats. The exhibition catalogue cover features one of Ellison’s favorite cats, a tiger, in a hanging scroll by Maruyama Ōkyo (1733-1795), Edo Period. This sitting tiger is imbued with personality and a marvelous sense of detail. In the Lee Gallery, just adjacent to the education room where The America’s Cup is displayed, are “Two Puppies at Play”—two delightful, one-of-a-kind 13th century Kamakura period (1185-1333) pups, one atop the other, rolling in play, made of lacquer on wood with crystal inlay.
We’ve come to expect a creative use of technology from the Asian and this show does not disappoint. The Lee Gallery has varying light levels so that viewers can see how painted folding screens and hanging scrolls appeared under fluctuating light conditions before the advent of electricity. A dramatic pair of 17th century folding screens attributed to Hasegawa Togaku depict undulating waves and huge rocks masterfully rendered in ink with a generous application of gold leaf. Benches have been set up in the gallery so that visitors can sit at the same height as the screens, roughly the way a person seated on straw would view them in a Japanese home. A three minute cycle of changing light, adjusted to mimic the passing of a day, illuminates how the gold-leaf softens and modulates, altering the entire mood of the coastal scenery as the day passes.
Public access to this collection has been extremely limited but the AAM made great strides when its former director, Dr. Emily Sano, became Ellison’s private art consultant just after retiring her post at the Asian in 2007. Many of the rare works on display are pieces that Ellison actually lives with and has on rotating display in his palatial Japanese-style home in Woodside which is surrounded by a traditional seasonal garden. Stay-tuned to ARThound for a full review of the show.
Larry Ellison is the fifth wealthiest person on the planet. His June, 2103 net worth is $34.9 billion. Notoriously tough in business, he’s been sailing since he was a boy and spends lavishly on what he calls the best team sport on the planet. Of course, in this “winner take all” race, first place is all the matters and we acknowledge that, for years now, the America’s Cup has been more about sailboat design than sport. Ellison famously brought team BMW Oracle, the challenger in the 2010, 33rd America’s Cup, together to race aboard USA-17, the most technologically advanced sailboat ever built. In fact, the catamaran was less of a boat and more of a wind-responsive high-tech machine which moved just above the water. USA-17’s crew was skippered by Australian James “Jimmy” Spithill, the youngest to ever helm an America’s boat, along with a team of expert sailors from all over the world. All of them were united by a single purpose: to win the America’s Cup and bring it back to America.
As victor in the 2010, Ellison earned the right to set the rules for this year’s regatta. He brought the race to San Francisco, a decision most Bay Area residents applaud. Continuing to use the extremely costly 72-foot-long catamarans that fly above the water has been a more controversial call. So far, only four teams have entered the race due to prohibitive costs and Ellison’s AC72 has been plagued with problems. While we all know that money doesn’t necessarily equal merit, it’s a historical fact that investing on the frontiers of technology has spin-offs we’ll all enjoy later. There are few people who could have leveraged nascent digital technology as profitably as Ellison has—he’s earned the right to spend his money as he see fit. His Japanese art collection is nothing short of spectacular.
For an excellent overview on the 2010 race, The Wind Gods (2103), a new documentary film, airs this week on KRCB and is produced by Skydance Productions, a company run by Ellison’s son, David Ellison.
Details: The America’s Cup trophy is on display from June 26 until 9 p.m. Thursday, June 27, 2013. In the Moment: Japanese Art from the Larry Ellison Collection runs June 28-Septmeber 2013. The Asian Art Museum is located at 200 Larkin Street (at Civic Center Plaza), San Francisco. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: $20 Adults; $16 seniors, students; $8 youth 13-17 and free to 12 and under. On weekends, admission is $2 more. Parking: The Asian Art Museum does not have a parking facility, but it is served by the following parking facilities—all within walking distance of the museum: Civic Center Plaza Garage is the closest and most reasonably priced has 840 spaces. From Van Ness, turn left on McAllister. Entrance is on McAllister, between Polk and Larkin Streets. Info: www.asianart.org.
Marching On—Terra Cotta Warriors exhibition at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum closes Monday, May 27, 2013
Of course, ten Terra Cotta figures—eight warriors and two horses—are the stars of the Asian Art Museum’s breathtaking exhibition, China’s Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor’s Legacy, which closes on Memorial, Monday, May 27, 2013. All ten—the maximum allowable number to travel outside of China at any time—were hand-picked by the AAM’s director Jay Xu, who negotiated to get the finest for the unforgettable exhibition kicking off the Asian’s 10th year in its present Civic Center location. Some of these warriors are so rare, they have never before travelled out of China but Xu, a Princeton-educated scholar of early Chinese art and archaeology (MA and PhD), has been cultivating relations there for decades. He and his team at the Asian have put together an unforgettable show, utilizing the latest technologies to showcase these ancient figures as well as over 100 artifacts, many of which have never been displayed in the U.S. before.
First unearthed in Central China in 1974 by farmers searching for well water, these remarkable figures are representatives of the army amassed by China’s First Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BCE) some 2,200 years ago to guard him in the afterworld. Though Qin Shi Huang lived to be just 49, he is a pivotal figure in Chinese history—responsible for unifying all of China under one powerful leader and creating a legacy of a centralized bureaucratic state that was carried on to successive dynasties over two millennia. Born Zhao Zheng, he became the king of the western State of Qin at age 13. Obsessed with the concept of immortality, he began to make plans for his immense burial complex at a young age while greatly expanding his power base in real terms. By defeating or allying with the seven independent warring principalities that had battled among themselves for generations, he ended China’s brutal Warring States period (475-221 B.C.) and creating a vast kingdom. He then declared himself First Emperor and undertook gigantic projects such as building and unifying sections of the Great Wall of China, building roads throughout China, standardizing Chinese writing, bureaucracy, weights, measurements and currency and building a capital in Xian. It is near Xian, that he built his massive mausoleum guarded by the Terra Cotta warriors. At 250,000 sq. ft., it’s the length of four football fields, and includes a replica of the imperial palace with stables, offices, an armory, an amusement park, a zoo, and an aviary filled with elegant bronze replicas of waterfowl.
At the Asian, the warriors are presented without glass barricades and at eye level in the Osher Gallery and viewers can examine them from multiple viewing angles. What a treat to marvel at their distinct personalities, different uniforms, hairstyles and facial expressions in such an accessible and beautifully-lit environment, which is much more intimate than that in China. The burial complex in China is so vast that visitors are restricted to gazing down upon it from several yards distance, preventing a close-up experience. The few warriors that are available for closer inspection are behind glass. At the Asian, with no barriers, all the rich details emerge and comparisons can be made between the finest examples of warriors of several ranks. Of course, the museum has gone all out to make this as dramatic as possible. The Osher Gallery is darkened and the ten figures are dramatically lit and arranged on two low-level platforms. On the wall behind them a slide-show displays huge images from the vast excavation pit in China creating the impression that you are there amongst the legions of figures who were buried in battle formation. Other displays provide information on the on-going excavations in China, and on how the armor and weapons were used.
One of the figures on display, an armored kneeling archer, retains traces of his original green pigment. He is part of a crossbowman battle formation of both standing and kneeling archers but is the only one found so far with green pigment on his clothing and his face. There are 2 theories—one is that it is camouflage and the other is that he is a necromancer, a person who can divine the outcome of a battle. He is wearing a light coat with outside armor, and is kneeling on his right leg and bending his left leg. He has very functional square-toed shoes with actual tread on the sole of his shoe for traction.
Another, a very rare standing general, one of nine unearthed from the tomb so far, is larger than all the other warriors and his garb reflects his rank. This is the first time he has left China. He wears a uniform adorned with fluid looking ribbons, an indication of his high status. His cap would have had tail feathers from a pheasant, known the bravest bird around. He seems poised for action and his hands once rested on a sword, now missing. All the warriors have elaborate hair-dos but the general sports a moustache and muttonchops, an indication of authority.
The two horses, a chariot horse and a cavalry horse, both standing at about 13 or 14 hands in height, have slightly different expressions on their faces imbuing them with a sense of personality. The horse played an important role in the mythology of early China. Closely associated with the dragon, both were thought capable of flight and of carrying their rider to the home of the immortals. Throughout its history, China’s very survival relied on its equestrian prowess and these muscular horses, with flared nostrils and perked ears are on alert. Separate display cases are devoted to intricate horse fittings, some of these in solid gold.
The entire first floor of the museum is dedicated to the exhibit which also includes 110 other recovered items which explore the themes of Immortality, Innovation, Archaeology and Unification. Particularly stunning are several life size bronze water birds discovered in 2001 from a pit thought to represent a royal park or sacred water garden. All have a rich green patina that has built up over the centuries and the swan and crane are so realistic, they seem capable of bursting into flight at any moment. Were these elegant creatures buried with Qin Shihuang because he loved them in life and wanted them by his side for all eternity?
The custom of producing sculptures as burial objects to substitute for human sacrifices began in the Shang and Zhou periods and flourished in the Qin (221-206 BC), Han and post-Han dynasties, all the way to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The belief was that objects used during one’s life on earth would continue to be used in the afterlife. Now, 40 plus years after its original discovery, excavation is still quite active with new finds being announced on a regular basis. Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb has yet to be opened but, according to Jay Xu, there are no current plans to do that.
We’ve come to rely on excellent scholarship from the Asian, but this exhibition, presented in partnership with the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Shaanxi Provincial Cultural Relics Bureau, the Shaanxi Cultural Promotions and the People’s Republic of China, presents the 8th wonder of the ancient world as it’s never been seen before.
Best times to visit: weekday afternoons or Thursday evenings after 5 p.m. when it costs just $10. Worse time—weekend. The Asian Art Museum is located at 200 Larkin Street (at Civic Center Plaza), San Francisco. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: $20 Adults; $16 seniors, students; $8 youth 13-17 and free to 12 and under. On weekends, admission is $2 more. Parking: The Asian Art Museum does not have a parking facility, but it is served by the following parking facilities—all within walking distance of the museum: Civic Center Plaza Garage is the closest and most reasonably priced has 840 spaces. From Van Ness, turn left on McAllister. Entrance is on McAllister, between Polk and Larkin Streets. Info: www.asianart.org.
Wine Country Museums: “Napa Valley Collects” focuses on Napa Valley’s elite art collectors, at the Napa Valley Museum through May 26, 2013
Margrit Mondavi, Jan Shrem, Francis and Eleanor Coppola, Norman and Norah Stone, Donald Hess, Ronald and Anita Wornick, Peter and Kirsten Bedford—you’ve heard their names and likely attended some Bay Area cultural event they’ve bankrolled. “Napa Valley Collects,” at the Napa Valley Museum in Yountville, through next Sunday, May 26th 2013, offers a unique chance to see the artworks they live. This important exhibition features 65 exquisite and quite diverse artworks representing 53 artists from 30 Napa Valley collectors, many of them well-known patrons of the arts and some who are just starting their collecting journey. Fifty-six of these artworks, including pieces from Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Alexander Rodchenko, Helen Frankenthaler, Wayne Thiebaud, Joan Brown, Matthew Barney, Stephen DeStabler, and Peter Voulkos are installed in private homes, so this is the public’s only chance to view them. Several years in gestation, the exhibition is guest curated by Ann Trinca, of Napa, and is presented in partnership with Arts Council Napa Valley and Visit Napa Valley. Sadly, there is no catalogue but grab a guide off the counter and you’ll get some useful background information on the collectors and artworks represented. Below, is a photo gallery that includes some of the collectors and artworks in the exhibition.
Best times to visit: mornings on weekends or weekdays to avoid wine country traffic jams. Worse times: weekend afternoons and evenings—extreme traffic coming from St. Helena and around Sonoma.
To read ARThound’s previous coverage of “Napa Valley Collects,” click here.
Details: Situated mid-valley in the historic town of Yountville, between St. Helena and Napa, Napa Valley Museum is located at 55 Presidents Circle in Yountville next to the Napa Valley Performing Arts Center at Lincoln Theater. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday from 10am-4pm. Admission: $5; $3.50 seniors; $2.50 youth under 17. Info: www.NapaValleyMuseum.org.
“Out of Character,” the Asian Art Museum’s thoughtful exploration of Chinese calligraphy as art and writing closes on January 13, 2012; you can see it for free this Sunday
Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy, an exhibition of collector and Yahoo founder Jerry Yang’s calligraphy collection and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, is a show that goes right to heart of Chinese culture and artistic practice. The exhibition of roughly 40 significant works from Yang’s collection of roughly 250 pieces of calligraphy represents the first major exhibition of Chinese calligraphy in the U.S. since 1999. Curated by Dr. Michael Knight, the museum’s senior curator of Chinese art, and Dr. Joseph Chang, senior research fellow at the museum’s research Institute for Asian Art, the exhibition fills three full galleries and moves through six centuries including 15 featured works which are shown in their entirety. As the title suggests, the emphasis is on decoding the mysteries and conventions behind calligraphy and its purpose and mastery. The ancient practice has always been intriguing to Western audiences but has remained mysterious. Importantly, this exhibition provides exciting and compelling evidence of calligraphy’s rich contribution to Chinese culture, something that has not been explored comprehensively and accessibly for Western audiences. These works are on display for just two more weekends in San Francisco before the exhibition moves on to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it will be on display in 2014.
The four major formats of Chinese calligraphy— albums, handscrolls, hanging scrolls and fans—are covered amply. Many works are on exhibition for the first time and visitors have the rare chance to see such masterpieces as the earliest dated calligraphy outside China by Dong Qichang (1555-1636). Also on display is “Lotus Sutra,” a late 13th-to-early-14th century handscroll by the esteemed calligrapher and painter Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322). Mengfu’s calligraphy was so influential that his standard script was chosen as the model for books printed by the early Ming court. This scroll raises a number of interesting questions. Executed in small standard script (xiaokaishu), with a total of more than 10,000 characters, the handscroll is 10 7/8 inches high and a whopping 180 ½ inches long. A testament to the absolute control, concentration, and endurance of the calligrapher, it is displayed and lit beautifully in a long rectangular glass cabinet in the exhibition’s fist gallery.
Mengfu’s work becomes all the more impressive when we consider that calligraphers as a general rule did not re-do or erase their work. Each character, even hundreds in succession resulted from an energetic burst, something almost unimaginable in our era, where most of us have become so keyboard dependent that the act of handwriting has become laborious, resulting in almost illegible scrawls. Megfu’s scroll is one of what were originally seven scrolls presenting the text of the Lotus Sutra. Why did the calligrapher choose to reproduce one of the most influential texts in Chinese Buddhism? Was it an exercise in devotion? contemplation? Who was it intended for? Such are the mysteries surrounding this ancient art.
While calligraphy is aptly described as poetry in motion, it is much more than attractive writing. Throughout Chinese history it has been a judge of character and intelligence. A good calligrapher was associated with scholarship (so highly esteemed in Chinese culture), sensibility, discipline and good taste. The study of important works of the past is a fundamental element of Chinese calligraphy. Rote immersion and repetition are key in the early learning phases while mastery, never fully attained, is a lifelong practice. Curator Dr. Michael Knight related the story of the famous calligrapher Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) who apparently sat for an important annual examination and was ranked third by his master due his characters. This prompted him to copy out the Thousand Character Classic ten times every day for a total of 10,000 characters daily. The effort was not in vain as Wen emerged among the very best calligraphers of the Ming dynasty.
One of the dramatic aspects of this exhibition is the extent to which the curators went to give it a modern sensibility. In the second gallery, devoted to 15 featured works that exemplify importance and visual impact, an entire curved wall has been used to display all 85 pages of a single album. Each page is displayed separately and eloquently, forming a dynamic wall of letters with a crisp and contemporary graphic appeal. It’s almost impossible to stand before this and not be dazzled by the power of the ink and these dancing letters.
Many of the calligraphers represented have not only produced aesthetically beautiful and impressive scripts, the content itself is often eloquent poetry, well-known masterpieces from the past or those composed by the calligrapher, some of whom were famous as poets. There are many wall boards with moving translations such as Huang Daozhou’s (1585-1646) poem dedicated to Wen Zhenmeng, which captures a timeless sense of longing—
It’s not that I am not satisfied pounding other people’s grain; I just can’t stop pitying the unraveled weft. My far-reaching aspirations sink with the white clouds; my person, at leisure, draws close to birds that soar. I’ve stolen my bit of shade, and feel my life secure; Just based on this, I smell a solitary fragrance. Who really remembers the time of metal-shift. Message all empty—I pray to old Heaven above. (Huang Daozhou, 明朝 黃道周 行草詩軸 絹本, Poems dedicated to Wen Zhenmeng in semicursive/cursive script, hanging scroll; ink on silk)
While a large portion of the exhibition is devoted to exploring the complex set of conventions and rules of calligraphy, it also attempts to show linkages with contemporary art, something that intrigued Abstract Expressionists, who essentially created adaptations of the calligraphic gesture. A number of modern works borrowed from SFMOMA by artists Mark Tobay, Franz Kline and Brice Marden are displayed. And while this is a small section, it successfully links calligraphy as a highly expressive form of writing form with abstraction as the expression of the self through brush and ink.
Finally, the show closes with a bow to the contemporary—acclaimed Chinese artist and 1999 MacArthur Fellow, Xu Bing’s “The Character of Characters,” a 20 minute animated response to calligraphy’s long-standing traditions. The film runs continuously in wide-screen, black and white format on three horizontal monitors in the museum’s expansive North Court. Xu Bing’s creative process itself speaks to the discipline so essential in calligraphy. Xu Bing, worked daily for well over a month with13 dedicated assistants—racking up over 5,000 man hours—and roughly 50 drafts and more than 1,000 hand drawn sketches before he was satisfied with the result.
I had the pleasure of sitting next to Jay Hu, AAM’s director, during the annual press luncheon following Out of Character’s opening. He related that, as a child, he too was made to sit and practice calligraphy and had little interest pursuing it. As an adult though, particularly when he is feeling tense, immersing himself in calligraphy is a “stress-buster” and he now finds it “quite enjoyable.” “Calligraphy has been remote and mysterious to many people,” said Hu. “This is an art, a practice, that encompasses all of Chinese culture and it’s time to decode it.”
Docent tours for Out of Character: 45 minute walk-through, 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily, free with museum admission. Meet at information desk, ground floor.
This Sunday: The Asian offers free yoga! How do we use works of art to connect with ourselves and others? Explore this idea as you move with yogi Lorna Reed as she leads a group session in meditation and a Hatha flow practice, using artworks in the museum collection to understand the historical and cultural significance of yoga throughout Asia. Each session will delve into healthy practices that balance energy, align your body, and help you relax. Each class ends with a standing meditation in the galleries. (Part of the Target First Free Sunday Program, Sunday, January 6, 2013, 2-3 p.m., check at information desk for location)
Details: Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy closes Sunday January 13, 2013. The Asian Art Museum is located at 200 Larkin Street (at Civic Center Plaza), San Francisco. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: $8-$12, free first Sunday of each month. Parking: The Asian Art Museum does not have a parking facility, but it is served by the following parking facilities—all within walking distance of the museum: Civic Center Plaza Garage is the closest and most reasonably priced has 840 spaces. From Van Ness, turn left on McAllister. Entrance is on McAllister, between Polk and Larkin Streets. Info: begin_of_the_skype_highlighting www.asianart.org.
Filmmaker Michael Wiese talks about his new Bali doc “Talking with Spirits,” screening at Asian Art Museum this Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Filmmaker Michael Wiese visited Bali in the 1970’s and was led to a remote village by a Balinese salesman. As he participated in elaborate ceremonies, he realized he did not really see the world as the Balinese saw it. Now, 40 years later and many visits between, his new documentary, Talking with Spirits, shows sequences that make us question everything we know about the nature of reality, consciousness, and the very sources of creativity and inspiration. Wiese’s film will be screening this Tuesday, at 2 p.m., at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco as part of their programming for Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance which runs through September 11, 2011. This weekend, I interviewed Michael Wiese who was at the Albuquerque Film Festival, where his film had its West Coast premiere.
Talking with Sprits is billed as a documentary, which is a fairly broad category these days. What is it exactly?
Michael Wiese: When I think of documentaries, I think most are intellectual ─ you know, a narrator talking over experiences ─ which this is not. This film guides you and lets you have your own experience. The unseen world by its very nature is very is hard to capture. I am making a film about things that cannot be filmed.
What is the emphasis of the film? From the trailer it appears to delve into trance and possession. Is this a story of communication between a medium and a single person or a community experience?
Michael Wiese: Trance can be very much a community experience. What impressed me when I was there in my 20s was the Balinese connection to the divine. Bali is a culture where people spend 50 percent of their time in temple ceremonies communicating with the gods. In the film, they are in direct communication with the gods. The film explores a man healing somebody as his hands are being guided by a god. Another man is a farmer and he channels Hanuman, one of the Hindu Gods. This is the way it is in Bali—trance is just a way to delve into other states of consciousness. It’s very hard to talk about this because it is so far out of our range of expression and that’s why, instead of writing a book, I made the film. I am capturing what’s happening on the outside, and had to use other techniques to give an impression of what’s going on internally.
It’s also a very personal journey as part of my quest for a cure for Parkinson’s, which I have, which has taken me into a lot of healing modalities, non-Western as well as Western, to find whatever works.
Is this new footage then, or is there some footage from the 1970’s?
Michael Wiese: There’s an introductory clip in the beginning with some archival footage from that first encounter in 1970—maybe 8 min– to bring in the gravity of time, the set and setting, and show what Bali was like when I was a young man, in my early twenties. At that time, we just shot the surface. We did not know what was going on. Stuff was happening but we did not grasp the depth of it or the methods of entry into the unseen worlds. Had we even understood what we were seeing, I doubt that we would have gotten permission to film it. We simply weren’t mature enough or ready to see it.
Is the footage all from the same village?
Michael Wiese: No, we’ve been going back there for the past 40 years. The film was made in many villages in Bali and takes place across the whole island. We have a long-term relationship with a lot of people in Pengosaken village in particular though this village is not at all the focal point.
There have been so many films made on Bali that address trance state, so what’s the unique underlying message in yours?
Michael Wiese: I am not an anthropologist or an expert from a university but I am encouraging people to participate. As a filmmaker you shouldn’t stand back and point the camera in some direction and think that will bring deep understanding of what’s going on. I think one needs to be courageous and jump in the fray, especially when we don’t understand. If a filmmaker can do this and take the audience along then that’s great. If the audience wants to pursue it further in some remote place in Bali, or Tibet, then that’s fine. The wisdom cultures of the world are opening up to the West more and more because it’s vital that the Western world get in touch with the sacred side of things and restore and nurture our home planet. I think that ancient cultures realize this and are reaching outside; whereas, in the past, these teachings have been secret. They are stepping up the game and people will meet this seriously or superficially but, at last, it’s being addressed.
How do you feel about the issue of filmmakers who go to relatively untainted cultures and make films and popularize that area, put it on the map, and thereby accelerate the destruction of the cultures and traditions they are filming? Is there a balance you try to preserve in the face of the blatant spiritual tourism that results from films like “Eat, Pray, Love” (2010)?
Michael Wiese: That is a very real concern for me. I’ve certainly made films where that has come up. Dolphin Adventures (2009) is a film about communication with dolphins. After I made that, people discovered these dolphins and then figured out where they were and went and exploited those dolphins and so I am very sensitive to those issues. On the other hand, people are going to do what they are going to do. As a filmmaker, if you bring awareness that these sacred practices are a sensitive thing and can generate some reverance and respect so that people can approach this with a sense of reverence, this is good. The films I am making now are very niche-oriented and are probably for people already on spiritual quests. I am less concerned with what’s going to happen. The Balinese will open up, or not, depending on the situation and the Balinese understand how superficial a film like “Eat, Pray, Love” is. Ketut Liyer, the actual shaman, or balian, depicted in that film is a friend of mine. Today he does the same palm reading on every divorcee who shows up by the busload at his doorstep and he is laughing all the way to the bank. He’s not being treated seriously and is not treating them seriously. Actually, false shamans in Bali using his name have risen to pick up the business he cannot handle!
What’s the breakthrough moment mentioned in the trailer?
Michael Wiese: There were many. The whole film is a breakthrough. I needed to be in the film because if I am filming something like trance, I need to participate to integrate it within myself. When shamanic musician Alberto Roman and I were invited to enter the sacred space, we did. His trance was much more powerful than mine but I did have an experience of my consciousness being dramatically shifted. If you look at it from the outside, it looks like a bunch of people thrashing about─ and that doesn’t accurately convey the inner experience. The film, I hope, delivers an inner experience.
Bali just kept opening up like a lotus flower. I was very grateful when She (Bali) would offer more and more and this has only deepened over time. I felt that the Balinese had figured out what it means to be human as they know how to bring harmony into so many dimensions of their lives. We have a lot to learn from them.
Who’s in the film with you?
Michael Wiese: Larry Reed is not in the film but shared the experience of that first trip in 1970. He is one of the very few Americans to be trained in wayang kulit, Balinese shadow puppetry, and he performs all over world and has been doing this for years. He has been giving some shadow puppet performances at the Asian Art Museum during the Bali exhibition. (click here to read about shadow puppet events associated with the exhibition “Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance” at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, through September 11, 2011)
What challenges did you face in making this film?
Michael Wiese: None.
No one has ever said that to me before.
Michael Wiese: When you are in the zone and you are aligned with a purpose and everybody participates in supporting that purpose it’s easy. The last three films I’ve made have been easy in that regard. They are only difficult when you are pushing an agenda. When you come with innocence and ask to be shown, you are not ‘making’ the film; you are part of its co-creation with others and other energies. It’s more the case that I happened to be witness to this and was given this material and the responsibility of shepherding it into the world.
How is this transforming you?
Michael Wiese: Taking the film out into the world is a chore but I have been transformed in considerable ways on a daily basis. Today, we got up at 4:40 a.m. and a Mexican curandera (traditional healer using a Mestizo or syncretic system of healing) came by and took us out into the desert to welcome the sun and held a traditional ceremony for us. That came about because I showed my film about shamanism, The Shaman and Ayahuasca, here in Albuquerque last year. That film was shot in the Amazon and Peru and delves into the healing and vision ceremonies (using ayahuasca, a psychoactive healing brew using vines and leaves) of Don José Campos and Pablo Amaringo, a painter and former shaman. I could give you several more examples of things, big and small, occurring over years. Spirituality has always been a part of my work too but I’ve taken a stronger stand in creating more work in that genre. I’ve dipped in and out of making consciousness films, human potential, and spiritual films my whole career. Divine Arts, our new company is about drawing a circle in the sand and saying let’s call it what it is and create spiritual films and books.
Tell me about your company DIVINE ARTS.
I have a company (Michael Wiese Productions (MWP.com), that publishes film books—how to write films, screenplays, all of that—and over the past thirty years, have become the leading publisher in that field of “how to.” Now, years later, we see a real need for “why to” books, about what filmmakers can do with these tools in the field of conscious media. About a year and half ago, my wife and I decided to start DIVINE ARTS, a spiritual book line—arts, culture, spirit. We’ve published about 5 or 6 books in our first year.
Having explored Balinese and South American spiritual practices, is there another region that holds a particular interest for you?
Tibet and Buddhism have always interested me. A few years ago I made the film The Sacred Sites of the Dali Lamas (2007) and, this October, a companion book will come out from DIVINE ARTS. I am interested in all spiritual practices which move the practitioner to the same cosmic awareness, recognizing that these practices they may be expressed differently in different cultures. I draw inspiration through my experiences and relationships with people in these different spiritual cultures. It is a very rich, magnificent and abundant world we live in.
Talking with Spirits, directed and produced by Michael Wiese (90 min, 2011) screens at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, on Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 2 p.m. There will be a Q&A session with Michael Wiese after the screening.
Details: The Asian Art Museum is located 200 Larkin Street, at Civic Center in San Francisco. Hours: Tuesday- Wednesday and Friday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., closed Mondays. http://www.asianart.org/ or (415) 581-3500. Tickets: $12.00 Adult General Admission. $5.00 surcharge for “Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance” which ends September 11, 2011. Parking: Civic Center Garage is just steps away from the museum entrance.
Final Days: “Beyond Golden Clouds: Five Centuries of Japanese Screens,” Asian Art Museum through Sunday, January 16, 2011
Japanese folding screens have captured the imagination of the West since the 16th century when Europeans had their first glimpse of this expressive art form which combines functionality with painting, calligraphy, poetics and design. Artists have realized their most expansive visions by working across their large flat surfaces with rare mineral pigments and precious gold and silver. Beyond Golden Clouds: Five Centuries of Japanese Screens , at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum presents forty-one rarely seen large scale Japanese screens dating from the 1500s through the present and closes this Sunday, January 16, 2011. The exhibition celebrates the evolution of the folding screen, or byōbu (“wind wall”), from pre-modern to contemporary times, highlighting its distinctive position in Japanese culture as both a functional and expressive art form. Initially created for the aristocracy and noble elite and later accessible to commoners, the art form has retained its special currency. The rare screens on display are considered the masterpieces of the esteemed collections of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Saint Louis Art Museum who each contributed roughly half of the screens on display. Unlike exhibitions of screens in the past, Beyond Golden Clouds includes a range of works from 16th century ink paintings to late 20th century installation works. The phrase “Beyond Golden Clouds” describes one of the most popular motifs in classical screens, while also expressing the departure from conventional compositions and techniques in the past century.
Details: The Asian Art Museum is located 200 Larkin Street, at Civic Center in San Francisco. January hours: Tuesday- Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Mondays. http://www.asianart.org/ or (415) 581-3500. Tickets: There is a $5.00 surcharge to the General Admission price to see “Beyond Golden Clouds.”
“Emerald Cities”at the Asian Art Museum– the dazzling Burmese and Siamese Treasures of Heiress and Philathropist Doris Duke find a new home
The Asian Art Musuem’s marvelous show “Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam and Burma, 1775-1950,” is now in its final three weeks—it ends January 10, 2010– and if you haven’t seen it yet, it is well worth a special visit. The show includes a dazzling array of some 140 remarkable artworks—rare sculptures, illustrated manuscripts, ornately carved 19th century furniture, gilded offering vessels, silk costumes, shadow puppets, and the finest collection of 19th century Thai paintings outside of Asia—most of which were collected by the legendary heiress Doris Duke and acquired by the Asian Art Museum in 2002 in one lucky swoop. It has taken the museum five years and a whopping 6,000 hours in conservation and restoration efforts to ready these objects for display.
A billion dollar fortune built on tobacco and energy
The story behind the Doris Duke collection is as fascinating as the art itself and points to a bygone era— when outrageous industrial wealth enabled travel to exotic lands where artifacts could be had for a song. The story began in 1925, when 12 year old Doris Duke inherited an $80 million dollar estate (about $860 million in 2005 dollars) from her father James Buchanan Duke, the tobacco and hydropower magnate. Buchanan made the bulk of his great fortune by acquiring a license in 1885 to use the first automated cigarette making machine and by 1890, he supplied 40% of the American cigarette market (then known as pre-rolled tobacco). He consolidated control of his four major competitors under one corporate entity, the American Tobacco Company, and monopolized the American cigarette market. In the 1890’s, he made a separate fortune in hydropower by supplying electricity to more than 300 cotton mills and establishing a power grid to supply power to parts of North and South Carolina.
Doris Duke: the richest girl in the world
Upon his death in 1925, $40 million of his estate (over $430 million in 2005 dollars) went to The Duke Endowment, a permanent trust fund that endowed several universities including Trinity University (later renamed Duke University), and hospitals and churches in North Carolina. The remainder went to his only child, Doris, in the form of an immediate bequest of $80 million and lump sum payments totalling another $100 million dispersed on birthdays (over $1 billion in 2005 dollars). Doris literally became the richest girl in the world. She spent her early childhood at of Duke Farms , her father’s 2,700 estate in Hillsborough Township, New Jersey and her teen years in a Manhattan apartment. It wasn’t all a bed of roses, while she lacked for nothing in the material realm, her unparalleled wealth made her a constant target for self-serving individuals. At age 14, she took her mother, Nonoline Duke, to court and successfully blocked the sale of Duke Farms and became solely responsible for the stewardship of her vast fortune.
A Passion for Southeast Asian Art Emerges
As Doris Duke came of age she, she used her great wealth to pursue a variety of interests including extensive world travel that profoundly impacted the philanthropic interests she would later pursue, one of which was art. She spoke nine languages, worked in a canteen for soldiers in Egypt during WWII, and even did a stint as a foreign correspondent. She married twice and it was on her first honeymoon in 1930 with the dashing James H.R. Cromwell, son of Palm Beach doyenne Eva Stotesbury, that she embarked on a trip to India, Thailand, Indonesia and other Asian locales and started to amass a sizeable collection of important Islamic and Southeast Asian art. She collected her artworks before the UNESCO convention, so there were basically no restrictions on purchases of sacred or rare objects. Duke’s passion for Southeast Asian art was not widely publicized and that is probably because she was collecting in areas where there was little knowledge. While back in the States, she continued collecting through an agent she employed in Bangkok. According to Asian Art Museum curator Forrest McGill, the juicy details of her purchases remain a mystery. She tended to buy several objects at a time and the sales receipts that have been saved do not give a breakdown of any prices paid for individual items.
Before being distributed, Doris Duke’s collection of Southeast Asian art included more than 400 museum-quality objects and 1,800 other items most of which had been in storage at Duke Farms. Her intention was to create a Southeast Asian cultural theme park in Honolulu. She even bought some very beautiful farm buildings in Southeast Asia, had them dismantled, and was going to send those to Honolulu, where they would be situated amongst gardens. She couldn’t find the land she wanted in Hawaii and so she sent everything to her New Jersey estate instead and planned to design a Southeast Asian museum and gardens there. All those buildings sat dismantled in the enormous indoor tennis court for years, awaiting plans that did not materialize. Some of the buildings and artifacts were given to a Tampa garden and were going to be erected there.
Doris Duke died in 1993, at 80, of a stroke. While living, she had proven to be a substanial and often progressive philanthropist, giving over $500 million to organizations supporting the arts, the environment, medical research, child abuse prevention and historic preservation. In her final will, Duke left virtually all of her fortune (estimated to be in the billions) to charitable foundations, including the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation which she endowed with financial assets totaling approximately $1.3 billion. She bequeathed her Irish-born butler Bernard Lafferty with $5 million and appointed him co-executor of her estate. A number of lawsuits were filed against the will. Her life was the focus of a 2007 HBO docu-drama “Bernard and Doris” starring Susan Sarandon as Duke and Raplh Fines as her butler Lafferty.
The Asian Art Museum entered the scene about 1998, when its then board chairman Johnson S. “Jack” Bogart was working with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in New York to see if they would fund a portion of the museum’s re-do. “Jack became aware that there was a collection that Doris Duke had put together and asked me about it,” said curator Forrest McGill, “In a classic bone-headed mistake I said ‘I never heard of it, so it must not be that important.’ Was I ever wrong. I will never make that mistake again.”
Bogart insisted that McGill have a look any way, so he visited Duke Farms, just outside of Princeton, New Jersey, and was astounded. “I walked into her coach barn, which was literally as big as a train station, and it was like going into an amazing vault of a museum with thousands of 18th and 19th century artworks–sculptures, furniture, paintings, vessels, manuscripts– and I just wasn’t prepared. She had some of the things more or less on display, but some of them were stored in an indoor tennis court and others were in a gigantic indoor shooting gallery inside her house. The Duke people were not aware of the rarity of this artwork. We started to make the case that the collection was much more important than they thought it was.”
A lucky coin toss
After years of negotiation, around 2002, the foundation decided to let The Asian Art Museum and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, which has a very important Asian art collection, have first choice of the objects. “We agreed to work out the division of the artworks ourselves and to gave the Duke Foundation a reconciled list,” explained McGill. “We had a coin toss and we won and got first pick and we went back and forth down the list in that way. We ended up with 167 objects and they got 150 objects and the leftovers were distributed to about 20 other museums in Great Britain and the US.” (Duke Foundation gift to the Walters Art Museum , Duke Foundation gift to the Asian Art Museum)
McGill estimates that roughly 75 percent of the objects have some kind religious orientation, either direct or indirect. They would have been commissioned by wealthy and aristocratic families for use in their homes or palaces or to donate to the monasteries.
The objects were then in storage for several decades in the 1940’s and 50’s and early 60’s. “Everything was dirty and many pieces needed restoration,” said McGill. In several cases, materials that survived in the tropical climate Southeast Asia decayed in the new climate. “We spent the last five years and about 7,000 hours consolidating, stabilizing, preserving, and repairing the artworks,” said McGill. “Some of the fragile Thai paintings on fabric were beyond repair.”
The exhibition is divided geographically into three sections— Central Burma, followed by Eastern Burma and Northern Thailand which, despite different borders, have the Shan people in common and share many cultural similarities, and it ends with a large gallery devoted to Central Thailand. The exhibition title “Emerald Cities” does not refer to any actual emeralds on display but is meant to be poetic. The most important Buddha image in Bangkok is the Emerald Buddha and Bangkok’s formal name is “the City of the Emerald Buddha.” The three 19th century capitals of Burma, all have their formal names based on gems, though none are emerald.
The Burma segment opens with objects that had a religious use and continues with luxury goods. Several ornate offering vessels, offering containers and stands are on display. These were purchased by aristocratic families, often filled with food and given as donations to the temples at monasteries to make merit and maintain their high standing. These vessels are metal with ornate mirrored glass in-lay or glass reproductions of precious gems on the outside. They open in the middle and are lined with bamboo which is completely coated with lacquer. Not much is known about the glass on these objects or on any of the artworks in the collection, except that glass was highly desirable and was used even on royal objects, in lieu of real gems.
“You can imagine for a culture that did not have or know glass what a delight it must have been to see English chandeliers and other types of European luxury glassware,” explained McGill. “We don’t actually know where did the fragments they used came from. Some of it may have been European glass and some of it may have come from India. Eventually, because they liked glass so much and there was a heavy demand for it, the Burmese and the Thai brought in European advisors and set up glass manufacturing factories in Burma and Thailand.
The show presents many more questions. “We do not know the name of a single maker, a single workshop or artist, and not a single object has a date inscribed on it” explained McGill. Wall plaques are as descriptive as they can be but frequently give dates of creation ranging up to 125 years, not the level of precision most hope for. “Some of these objects were made the same way decade after decade after decade and it’s just impossible to date them more accurately,” said McGill.
A highlight of the Burmese section is “Scenes from the Burmese version of the epic of Rama,” a rare, sequined, nearly six-meter-long textile hanging that portrays the scenes of the legend of Rama. Although it’s purpose is unknown, it is possible that this narrative textile may have been a backdrop for puppet performances. The royal costumes depicted in this artwork are echoed throughout the exhibition, through actual costumes and those that appear in artworks and on puppets.
Those with an interest in furniture will be enthralled with a stunning Burmese couch, or day-bed, with ball and claw legs, made of ornately lacquered and gilded wood that has been inlaid with glass rods and mirrored glass and it has an emerald green velvet cushion. In old photographs, Burmese and Shan aristocrats sit, Buddha images recline and deceased monks are laid out. The Asian’s couch was missing its original cushion, so a new emerald green velvet one was made in 2008 inspired by a similar couch in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. This lovely couch did not come directly from Burma to Doris Duke. Instead, she bought it from an interior designer who already had it in New York. This was discovered by accident when one of the Asian’s conservators was looking at an interior design magazine and saw a photograph of this very couch in the living room of a designer’s posh 5th Avenue apt in the 1930’s. “When we saw photograph and started comparing all the nicks and so forth, we determined that this was the very couch that we had obtained from Doris Duke,” said McGill. “We have been trying to track down the exact connection yet between the decorator and Doris Duke but haven’t yet succeeded.”
Northern Thailand and Shan State, Burma
The second segment of show features the religious art and luxury goods Northern Thailand and the Shan state, Burma. A large black and red wooden chest, gilded with lacquer would have been used in the temple for storing monk’s robes and manuscripts. This is a rare and important chest which was a likely donation to the temple. It is adorned on all sides with drawings telling stories and includes scenes of the Buddha enthroned, Phra Malai and Indra at the Chulamani Stupa, and guardians. Several examples of ceremonial standards are displayed next to the chest, illustrating actual objects that are depicted in the scenes on the chest so we can better imagine how these standards were put to use as royal regalia in official processions and ceremonies. The number of standards showed the rank of the royal family member.
The third segment emphasizes Central Thailand, particularly the royal capital of Bangkok, and accounts for more than two-third of the artworks in the exhibition. A rare late 18th century stucco image of Buddha is situated alongside numerous Buddha statues in the opening of this gallery. This stucco head is fascinating for what it represents–in an effort to make the Buddha images uniform and to consolidate his rule, the first monarch of the new kingdom of Siam essentially did a Buddha recall–in the 1790’s, Buddhas from all parts of Thailand were brought to Bangkok where they were covered with layers of stucco and gilded, so they were all the same. In the 1950’s, when this style had gone out of fashion, the stucco was removed and presumably discarded. This stucco image is only one of two that are known to have survived.
One of Doris Duke’s greatest accomplishments was that she collected Thai painting at a time when nobody else was interested. The Asian Art Museum now has more 19th century Thai paintings than have ever been seen in Thailand, or any place else. “These are rare, fragile and the finest to be had, ” explained McGill. “Some are on wood, but most are painted on cotton fabric and most survived only in very shaky condition.” Those painted on fabric have a very long vertical format because the imported Indian cloth they were painted on came in this length. When a donor gave their valuable cloth to a temple for being made into painting, the piece of fabric was kept intact and was painted over by the Thai artisans.
Thai paintings are almost exclusively works intended to be conducive to contemplation whose themes were drawn from well-known religious writings. “The Buddha Overcomes the Demon Mara and his Forces, and the Earth Goddess Creates a Flood,” an early 19th century mural on panel, is probably the largest and most impressive Thai painting outside of Thailand (3.33 feet x 13.33 feet). While it has sustained damage and undergone minimally-invasive restoration, it depicts a spectacular cosmic struggle that is marvelously executed in a rare palette dominated by blue, bluish gray and brick tones. It depicts the central episode in Buddha’s life–he is in meditation and is challenged by a demon, Mara, whose forces come in from the right on elephants. Allegorically, this is Buddha battling his own negative impulses that he must overcome to achieve enlightenment. As he is attacked from the right side, he calls on the earth goddess in the middle to bear witness to his many lifetimes of spiritual preparation for Buddhahood. The earth goddess wrings out her wet hair and creates a flood that washes away the demons or the negative impulses in the young prince’s psyche. On the left side, the flood is visible and the demon is no longer attacking but now has his hands folded in reverence. He is thus transformed by his own intellectual and spiritual efforts from a young prince into a Buddha.
Along the gallery wall is a very rare group of 13 paintings that form a complete set for the recitation of the story of the Buddha’s previous immediate life before which he became a Buddha. The Story of Prince Vessantara is still recited annually in Thailand at a ceremony. Each family in the village sponsored the recitation of one of the 13 chapters by paying for the painting that went with each of the 13 chapters. Once a set of paintings was used in a recitation, it may have not been used again and generally there were no special provisions to preserve a full set. This set survived in fair condition but the inscriptions along the bottom edges have deteriorated and are only partially visible.
Some may find it surprising while Southeast Asia had plentiful and relatively inexpensive gold, the majority of these ceremonial treasures were not made of gold or even precious metals but were fabricated from smelted metal that was elaborately gilded, lacquered or inlaid in very sophisticated patterns with materials like mother of pearl or colored glass.
Only one of the objects exhibited is solid gold, a lovely small bowl (roughly 3 x 5 inches) adorned with three alternating motifs—garudas (a mythical eagles with human attributes), stylized foliage and a celestial being with the hand gesture of adoration. The bowl was presented as a wedding gift in 1921 from Rama VI to the daughter of Hamilton King, a US diplomat to Siam. Originally, it would have most likely been filled with religious objects or offerings. The gold’s unusual reddish hue, which the Siamese preferred, was analyzed by conservators at the Asian Art Museum and they could find no chemical explanation for it.
Most beguiling and graceful are two mythical 19th century carved wooden sculptures of bird-men of Siam. Once exquisitely detailed, only bits of lacquer, gilding, and mirrored glass in-lay remain. There is evidence that some damaged parts were carefully replaced. The lower part of the bodies are similar to a bird’s—the feet are elaborately carved– and the weight is shifted forward with wings and ornate tail that would enable them to fly between the heavenly and earthly realms. Their hands are pressed together in prayer and the torso and head are human. In Buddhist legend, these mythical creatures inhabit the Eden-like Himavanta Forest. Historically, such statues played an integral role in royal ceremonies such as coronations and some served as reliquaries. Starting from the reign of Rama V onwards (1868-1910), these statues were placed high up on posts and along the main boulevards of Bangkok. Presently, one has a prominent place on the main road from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport.
The exhibition closes by showcasing three delightful and very well-preserved Thai shadow puppets made of reticulated and ornately painted cowhide. The shadow puppet theatre, “Nang Yai” in Thai, is an ancient form of storytelling and entertainment still practiced all over Asia. These puppets were used to enact scenes from the epic of Rama, known in Thai as Rammakian. Opaque figures, normally made of stretched cowhide and rattan, are held against an illuminated backdrop to create the illusion of moving images and the performance is accompanied by a combination of songs and chants. The screen is lit from behind revealing not only the shadow of the puppet but also the shadow of performer behind it. Unlike Indonesian puppets which have moving parts, these Thai puppets are singular and rigid. On display is a single character roaming puppet of the monkey hero Hanuman and an action or fighting puppet which depicts two famous characters—Ravana and Hanuman–charging into battle on a mythical chariot.
While there are some very rare pieces in the collection, McGill is not concerned about any lawsuits to return artworks back to their countries of origin. “In the 1930’s and 40’s, it was an open market and virtually everything was for sale,” explained McGill. “Things are much different now. None of these works came from archaeological contexts—they were not in the ground. They are not fragments of buildings, they are separate portable objects. We’ve never had a claim and directors and curators from the museums in Cambodia and Thailand have been here multiple times and we have given them photos and documentation of everything we have in an effort to be open.”
review–“Lords of the Samurai” dog-chasing, tea totling, elite warrior poets, Asian Art Museum, June 12- September 20, 2009
For more than 800 years the Samurai helped lay the foundation of Japanese culture and that legacy is explored in “Lords of the Samurai,” the Asian Art Museum’s stunning summer exhibition of over 160 rare objects from the collection of the Hosokawa family, one of Japan’s most elite warrior clans. The exhibition, in its final three weeks (ends September 20) includes priceless armor, several breathtaking swords and other weaponry, paintings, lacquer ware, ceramics, costumes and other rare objects from Tokyo’s renowned Eisei-Bunko Museum and in the Hosokawa family’s former home, Kumamoto Castle on Kyushu island, Japan. The objects reveal that the samurai and their daimyo (hereditary feudal) lords of pre-modern Japan were much more than just skillful military strategists and fighters; they were also artists and patrons of art and culture in its highest form. The show is organized by the Asian Art Museum and the Eisei-Bunko Hosokawa collection, Tokyo. This is the first time the Hosokawa’s precious collection of weaponry and artifacts have been shown in the United States and the Asian Art Museum is the sole venue for this exceptional show. Due to the light sensitive nature of roughly 50 of the initial artworks on display, the show is now on its second rotation and new artworks have replaced those that were rotated out.
Samurai—from loyal followers to fierce and principled elite warriors
The term “samurai” comes from the Japanese word saburau, meaning “to serve,” and was first used in A.D. 702 to describe mid-to-low-ranking court administrators and, later, armed imperial guards. Their title, mostly metaphorical, referred to their loyalty to the emperor. By the 10th century, when provincial governors began offering heavy rewards for military service, the samurai as we know them came into being. By the end of the 12th century, samurai became synonymous with the term “bushi” and were closely associated with the middle and upper echelons of the warrior class. The term “Samurai” held strong aristocratic overtones and brought great prestige to the samurai’s lineage—so much so that warriors would recite their ancestry on the battlefield. The distinguished lineage of the Hosokawa clan, which can be traced back seven centuries, trumps that of the imperial family whose history extends back only a few hundred years.
Hosokawa Clan, weilding power for centuries
The Hosokawa clan descended from Emperor Seiwa (850-88) and a branch of the Minamoto clan, via the Ashikaga clan. It wielded significant power over the course of the Muromachi (1336-1467), Sengoku (1467-1600), and Edo periods, and over the centuries moved from Shikoku, to Kinai, and then to Kyūshū. The first generation of lord of the Hosokawa clan, Hosokawa Yūsai (1534-1610), came of age in the “envisioned age” of Seven Samurai and fought valiantly in eight major battles. The samurai’s role in life was to follow a code of conduct called the Bushidō or “Way of the Warrior” and to follow the Way of Poetry. Poetry was studied and used among the samurai as vehicle of exchange and cohesion. Yūsai was the third person in history to have been taught the entire 15th century Kokin denju tradition, an orally transmitted commentary on the first Imperial anthology of Japanese waka poetry (kokin wakashū). As the sole possessor of this vital key to waka tradition, Yūsai was entwined with Japanese culture. Yūsai is renowned because the emperor intervened in one of Yūsai’s long battles to save him proving that Kokin denju was more important than military victory. The literary ethos of this great warrior-gentleman, who also mastered cultural, artistic and spiritual pursuits, has carried on through the ages.
The samurai maintained their elite status into the mid-1800s when Western influences started to take hold. The question of how and when Japan’s modernization occurred is still debated but after Japan opened its port to foreigners in 1854, it went on to modernize its military forces and did away with many of the samurai’s special rights. Following the abolition of the feudal class in 1871, the Hosokawa clan and its branches were made part of the Kazoku, the Meiji era’s new nobility. They were given the hereditary title of Marquis (kōshaku); the title became obsolete in 1947. The present head of the main family line, Morihiro Hosokawa, former Prime Minister of Japan, is a descendant of the Hosokawa of Kumamoto.
Armor—object and symbol
Lawrence Ellison, Oracle founder/mogul, who in the 1980’s liked to call himself “the Silicon Samurai”–has been a passionate collector of Samurai antiquities, including an extensive armor collection. He frequently remarked that he treasured Samurai armor for its beauty and strength and because “it encapsulates the fundamentals of Japanese character. As comprehensively as any people on earth, the Japanese know that while we are predators, we are also constantly trying to capture our humanity through a code of ethics and a sense of honor. (Forbes 156, n.7 (September 25, 1995).
The show opens with a 19th century reproduction of the Ōyoroi armor worn by Hosokawa Yoriari, founder of the Hosokawa clan, in the battle of Kyoto in 1358. This reproduction is basically a synthesis, containing parts that are historically accurate as well as parts that have been reinvented. The exhibition also includes five other full sets of armor of different styles that span several eras, up until the end of the shogunate in the mid-1800’s. Painstakingly handcrafted by leading artisans of the day, it is hard to imagine these ever being bloodied in combat. In fact, most of the suits on display in the exhibition have not seen actual battle, nor have most of the battle trappings, but some objects, even ornately lacquered stirrups, do show moderate signs of wear.
Ōyoroi armor (big armor) is the most formal armor and was used from the late Heian period (794-1185) to the Kamakura period (1185-1333) in one-on-one mounted combat. The suit weighed about 60 pounds and consisted of a helmet (kabuto), cuirass (dō), tassets (kusuzuri which are overlaced with lames) to protect the hips and shoulder guards (sode). It had great aesthetic value and is called “shikisei no yoroi,” the right ceremonial armor. Because a warrior’s armor became his funeral attire if he was defeated, a great deal of attention was paid to decorative details and ornamentation and it was very costly and time-consuming to produce. An early 10th century legal compendium discussed in Karl Friday’s Samurai, Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan indicates that the production of Ōyoroi required between 192 and 265 days, depending on the season and length of day. Modern-day craftsmen normally require ten months to two years of full-time labor to construct Ōyoroi replicas. It has been documented that this reproduction, begun in 1824, took five years to complete. This stunning suit of armor, with its combination of white cord lacing with diagonal accents of multicolored lacing in the shoulder guards and tassets, was popular in Yoriari’s time for its exquisite refinement.
Swords—deadly and stunning
It has been said that the samurai’s sword was his soul. The legendary katana, or curved sword, invented a millennium ago, remains a marvel of aesthetic beauty and skillful engineering. The katana embodies the perfect melding of form and function. While most bladed weapons were designed to either pierce or slash, the katana’s two different types of steel gave it optimum qualities for both, making it a highly versatile weapon in battle. Human bone-cutting qualities were tested and refined during actual executions. Delivered with the proper single blow by a trained warrior, the very finest swords were able to slice but through as many as five human bodies at once. (“Secrets of the Samurai Sword,” NOVA, an exceptional tv program airing in Sept., goes into the history of samurai swordmaking and visits contemporary Japanese metalworkers as they craft a sword from scratch using ancient techniques. ) The exhibition includes several highest quality examples of ceremonial long blade, long blade and short blade swords that were either used directly or collected by the Hosokawa clan as evidence of their family status.
A supreme 13th century ceremonial long blade, crafted by Moriie, has been designated an Important Cultural Property. Moriie (active from 1249 to 1256) was from Hatada, which was near Osafune, the greatest sword-making center in the Bizen region. This area is currently known as the southeast Okayama prefecture. In addition to the superb workmanship on its surface steel and edge, this tachi sword (designed for cavalry combat) exhibits Moriie’s hallmark temper lines– irregular clove-shape (chōji midare) lines alternating with tadpole (kawazugo) lines. The sword would have been sheathed with the blade edge pointing downward and slung from a waist belt.
Equally valuable were the sword’s guards and mountings which were often embellished lavishly, elevating them to works of art. The sword guard balanced the blade and hilt and protected one’s hands from slipping onto the blade while using it. The imperial sword guard mounting pictured here was made in late Edo period.
Its scabbard is decorated in the makie lacquer technique, with nine-planet Hosokawa family crests in gold on a sprinkled pear skin (nashiji) background; variants of the family’s cherry blossom crest adorn the hilt. Other works include exquisite fans, costumes, helmets, saddles and stirrups.
The Osher Gallery contains the workmanship of Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) the greatest Samurai swordsman of his day, perhaps of all time and a renowned painter. Musashi was sword instructor to the Hosokawa family and founded the Niten Ichi-ryū School of swordsmanship “the school of the strategy of two heavens as one” that uses the long and short swords together. In 1645, he wrote his great book Gorin no shô (A Book of Five Rings), a martial arts strategy manual, that is in the exhibition as a set of five scrolls. The original of the book was lost but his trusted disciple made a copy and it has remained with the Hosokawa family. During the 1980’s, Musashi’s popularity stateside soared as American businessmen, eager to penetrate the Japanese mind, consumed his Book of Five Rings. Can adroitness with a sword carry over to brushwork? Not to be missed are Musashi’s stunning folding set of two six-paneled folding screens “Wild Geese and Reeds” designated “Important Cultural Property.” In the left screen, gracefully-rendered light-featured geese rest beneath a tree and in the right screen, dark-featured geese rest and feed. Throughout the work, he achieves economy in brushwork while conveying energy and movement.
Dog-Chasing: a sport for mounted Samurai
Of the many antiquities in the Hosokawa family collection, dog lovers, archers and equestrians will be fascinated by a late 17th century Edo period six-panel folding screen depicting inuoumono (dog-chasing)– a samurai archery drill that originated in the Kamakura period during the reign of Emperor Gohorikawa (r. 1222-32) and evolved into a very popular spectator sport. The dogs were not harmed: the goal was to shoot the running dogs with heavily padded arrows, a task that challenged the samurais’ skill as horsemen and archers. The event typically took place in the center of an open riding ground where two concentric rings were formed with ropes. The warriors were divided into teams, and the teams waited outside the larger circle until the dogs were released from the smaller circle by a dog-handler. Each archer the same number of padded arrows; skill and accuracy were judged according to the length of the chase and the location of a hit. Closely codified rules governed the size of the field and the number of dogs and archers participating.
Only when a dog passed over a rope was it a target and then, the only shots that counted were torso shots; shots to the head or limbs drew penalty points. This screen is typical of early 17th century folding screen compositions of the sport which emphasized mounted archers around the concentric ropes, watching or chasing a dog. The brilliant colors and detailed action figures are set against a gold leaf background. Today, only about a dozen of these folding-screen compositions are known to exist and most date to the 17th century. Interestingly, as genre painting took hold, artists’ compositions of inuoumono changed somewhat, with increased emphasis on the spectators in attendance–their clothing, gestures, so forth.
An Adopted Son becomes a Samurai
Other scrolls in the show range from albums of flower paintings to portraits of Hosokawa daimyos. An exquisite hanging silk scroll portrait of Hosokawa Sumimoto (1489-1520) by Kano Motonobo has been designated “Important Cultural Property.” Hosokawa Sumimoto, distant ancestor of the Hosokawa lineage was a warrior who experienced continual conflict and was engaged in war most of his life. He was adopted into the line of Hosokawa shogunal deputies and into a family that already had an adopted son from the powerful Kujō family. The Warring States period (late 15th and 16th centuries) was an extremely brutal time when warriors were consumed by ambition, suspicion and jealously and many members of distinguished warrior families turned against their own family members in a grab for power. The two adoptees quarreled over succession to the Hosekawa line and Sumimoto’s brother was killed by one of Sumimoto’s supporters. An attempt was made on Sumimoto’s life but he fled Kyoto to the Ōmi province and remained there until his position as head of one branch of the Hosokawa clan was secured. His victory was short and he was unseated in 1508 and failed in subsequent attempts to regain his power. He died disappointed and alone. The portrait depicts him at age 19 mounted on his grand horse, wearing haramaki armor, a helmet with a horn like crest, his sword mounting is slung at his left side. He carries his halberd blade up, a whip in his right hand and his reins in his left hand. A short sword is tucked in his belt. An inscription in fine calligraphy by Keijo Shūrin of the Nanzenji temple in Kyoto dates the portrait to 1507. A portion of the inscription reads—“Hosokawa Sumimoto, a great archer and horseman, is far above other humans. He is also versed in waka and appreciates the moon and the wind….Outside the citadel he takes bows and arrows; in meditation and reading of sacred books he protects Buddhism…”
Samurai Tea Practitioners—Ritual with Awesome Cups
It might be easy to dismiss this humble raku tea bowl, but this 16th century object, called “Otogaze,” bears the designation “Important Cultural Object” and is attributed to Japan’s most famous potter, Raku Chōjirō, and as such bears rock-star status. The bowl takes its poetic name from the jovial female deity Otafuku, also called Otogaze, and it’s thought that the bowl’s volumptuous shape inspired the name. In early raku wares like this, the raw clay was coated with a lead glaze and then fired in a small-scale kiln.
The Hosokawa family’s meticulous records of art objects and tea utensils mention this bowl by name and indicate that it was beloved by Hosokawa Sansai (1563-1646). Sansai was one of the family’s most important tea practitioners and one of seven disciples of Sen Rikyu (1522-1591), the tea master who perfected the Way of Tea (chanoyu). Rikyu composed a poem which is still quoted “Though many people drink tea, if you do not know the Way of Tea, tea will drink you up.” Without any spiritual training, you think you are drinking tea but actually tea drinks you up. The age-old tradition of chanoyu has been maintained throughout many generations of the Hosokawa family and is observed today. Former prime minister Hosokawa Morihiro (born 1938), the eighteenth generation head of the Hosokawa family, is a celebrated tea practitioner and an acclaimed ceramist and calligrapher. A number of his tea bowls and implements for the Japanese tea ceremony, no doubt inspired by ancient ones are included in the show.
The show concludes with a series of works relating to Zen Buddhism whose emphasis on obtaining inner autonomy and self-awareness by learning to control the body through the mind and the mind through the body appealed to the highly-disciplined samurai warriors.
Ticket prices for the exhibition show include a $5 surcharge over regular museum admission. A fully illustrated catalog of the exhibition published by the Asian Art Museum is available at the museum store, $30 softcover, $45 hardcover.
The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, February 10 – May 20, 2009
It is not easy to write confidently about a distant culture’s art when it is not understood by the Western world and you are a complete stranger to it. That is the precise situation that a number of journalists and critics faced (myself included) when confronting the stunning Bhutan show, “The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan,” which brought over 100 of Bhutan’s sacred ritual objects to a Western audience for the first time. Even for those with a background in art of Himalayan region, it is difficult to discern differences between these rare Bhutanese artifacts and those from neighboring Nepal or Tibet. After traveling for two years, this ambitious and groundbreaking exhibition closes next Wednesday, May 10, at The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, it final venue.
A precious culture perched on the fragile edge of the Himalayas, Bhutan is a land that has long cultivated fantasies of Shangri-la. Bhutan is called “Drukyul” or the Land of the Thunder Dragon by speakers of Dzongkha, its obscure language. With limited roads, almost no tourist facilities, monasteries at remote altitudes, and restrictions on trekking its breathtaking mountains, Bhutan’s inaccessibly has made it all the more appealing. The country is well known for its vigorous efforts to preserve its Buddhist heritage and traditional culture, which remain vibrant today. “The Dragon’s Gift” is organized by the Honolulu Academy of Arts and the government of Bhutan and introduces us to the only existing Vajrayana, (“Tantric” or “Esoteric”) Buddhist kingdom in the world and its sacred art which has remained virtually unknown both within and outside the country.
Bhutan is unique among its neighbors and among many small countries in that it has never been colonized, conquered or invaded, so its rich culture and its treasures are intact, creating an exciting opportunity for new scholarship. Bhutan’s Drukpa lineage, introduced in the 15th Century, is the dominant Buddhist school, the state religion, and the subject of most of the 100 plus national treasures on display. The show includes intricate and colorful thangka paintings, sculptures, textiles, stone and metal carvings and more – all sacred ritual objects selected by the curators and the Bhutanese government from among Bhutan’s over 2,000 active temples, monasteries and dzongs (fortress monasteries). “In the eyes of the Bhutanese, these objects are not ‘art’ in the conventional sense, but are sacred images, supporting Buddhist practices,” explained Terese Tse Bartholomew, curator emeritus of Himalayan art at the Asian Art Museum and guest curator of “The Dragon’s Gift.” Even in the temples in Bhutan, these sacred works are rarely seen. Perhaps one object at a time might be brought out for ritual use.
The objects have been escorted on their journey by several monks who bless them twice daily in the museum with a morning purification ritual and evening prayer. A Bhutanese Buddhist altar has also been constructed in the museum’s foyer, honoring the country’s spiritual traditions. The ritual movements and interactions between the monks, the altar, and the sacred objects reinforce the spiritual vitality of these objects. Also documented, and playing throughout the galleries in video, are the colorful cham, ancient ritual dance forms that are integral today to Bhutanese Buddhist practice.
Bhutanese art has two main characteristics: it is religious and it is anonymous. Strict iconographical conventions are observed as well. For someone whose knowledge of Buddhism is sparse, these visually enticing artworks may be intellectually frustrating because we cannot easily enter the story. But even for those with knowledge of the region’s art, this is new territory. Looking at a thangka, or scroll painting executed on fabric is exhilarating but we are hungry for deeper understanding. In general, almost all representation is a dramatization of the Buddha’s teachings about the path to liberation and constant struggles to overcome the delusions that lead to samsara, the cycle of reincarnation or rebirth.
The deities, their subtle attributes, and who they keep company with in the core composition differ from Tibetan or Nepalese forms although they look similar to the untrained eye. The exhibition catalogue itself represents a substantial pioneering endeavor: the scholarship in the area of Bhutanese art history is so thin that the catalog authors lacked phonetic conventions for art terminology. For some time to come then, the art of this distant culture will remain somewhat mysterious because the essential keys provided by their own language keeps it impenetrable.
Among the numerous sculptures on view, the oldest artwork in the show dates from the seventh or eighth century. The image of the seated goddess called Kongtesedemo, a protector of Buddhism, is made from cast copper alloy with cold gold. The rare image dates from the very founding of Bhutan’s two earliest temples and is from the collection of the National Museum of Bhutan, Paro, which is the only lending institution in the exhibition that is a museum. All other artworks come from active temples and monasteries.
Padmasambhava, lovingly known as Guru Rinpoche (“Precious Teacher”) in Bhutan and elsewhere, is credited with introducing Vajrayana Buddhism to Bhutan and a section of the exhibition is devoted entirely to depictions of him and illustrated stories of his life. Most spiritual figures in Vajrayana Buddhism have benign and wrathful counterparts. This intense and vibrant 19th century thangka depicts Padmasambhava as the wrathful red deity, the Guru Dragpo Marchen. The wrathful depiction gave visual form to the spiritual act of eliminating demonic influence form the consciousness and the external physical surroundings. His lower body assumes the form of a ritual dagger, symbolizing his power to quell anger, desire and ignorance. He holds a scorpion in one hand and a ritual thunderbolt in the other. He wears a garland of severed heads and is draped with tiger and elephant skins and is engulfed in an aurora of vibrant stylized flames. A register of figures fill the cloudy sky and all are performing ritual acts—composing a ritual text, carrying an alms bowl, carrying a thunderbolt, holding a strong of prayer beads. Below the central deity Guru Dragpo Marchen are two scenes enclosed in rainbows that form a narrative. On the right Padmasambhava is giving instruction to two demon-servants. On the left, the same two demons are seen delivering these texts to the great Drupka Kagyu master Pema Karpo. The texts that are being delivered are instructions on how to visualize the phurba from of Dragpo, which is a practice that Pemo Karpo popularized and is the theme of this vivid thangka.
I have visited the exhibition three times now, and each time my eyes take in this feast of rare artworks, I leave with no doubt that Bhutan is a country that I will one day visit.