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.