Remnants of Tibetan Splendor at The Newark Museum
Tibetan Buddhist art is like no other art. It burns with a sharp, nervy incandescence, like a fire generously stoked but tightly contained. The most comprehensive gathering of such material in the West belongs to the Newark Museum. And recently, with the museum celebrating its 90th birthday, an unparalleled amount of that work was on view. Tibetan Buddhist art is like no other art. It burns with a sharp, nervy incandescence, like a fire generously stoked but tightly contained. The most comprehensive gathering of such material in the West belongs to the Newark Museum. And recently, with the museum celebrating its 90th birthday, an unparalleled amount of that work was on view.
How did Tibet come to New Jersey? By chance. In 1910, the year after the museum opened, one of its founding trustees, Edward N. Crane, was on a ship bound for the United States from Japan. Among his fellow passengers was a medical missionary named Albert L. Shelton, returning from a six-year stint in China and eastern Tibet. Crane learned of—maybe even saw—the trove of Tibetan art objects, sacred and secular, that Shelton was carrying in trunks and crates back to America: liturgical vessels, religious paintings, ceremonial robes, jewelry, weapons and carpets, some received as gifts, others salvaged from a country beset by local wars and invasion.
Crane quickly proposed that the exotic material make its Western debut at the Newark Museum the following year. The exhibition turned out to be a blockbuster, pulling a crowd of nearly 18,000 people within a few months. When Crane died suddenly just after it closed, his family bought the material from Shelton and donated it to the museum.
Newark has assiduously added to this core collection ever since and has been hugely fortunate in the specialists who have overseen its expansion and care. The present curator of Asian art, Valrae Reynolds, has been with the museum for nearly 30 years, and she is the organizer of this splendid exhibition, “From the Sacred Realm: Treasures of Tibetan Art in the Collection of the Newark Museum.”
The show is in two parts. One is a temporary display of mostly secular materials in the first-floor special exhibition galleries, including a full-size embroidered tent too large to be shown ordinarily. Religious art fills the refurbished permanent Tibetan galleries upstairs, which incorporate a Buddhist altar consecrated by the Dalai Lama in 1990.
Buddhism was the igniting spark for most of the art on view, and its history in the Tibetan kingdom is explored in the show’s introductory section. Legend has it that a seventh-century ruler was converted to the faith by two of his wives, one Nepalese, the other Chinese. Certainly the religion, which originated in India, took on a distinctive character in Tibet, a blend of exacting intellectualism and straight-from-the-gut emotion.
Monasteries sprang up; one sees a fanciful vision of the very first of them, Samye, in a 19th-century cloth painting or thangka. Monks transcribed and preserved sacred texts, and artists brought visual pizazz to minutely detailed cosmic systems, as in a painting titled “Wheel of Existence,” where the stages of earthly life are conceived as slices of a big, flat pie being nibbled away by a voracious demon.
Always central to the religion were the holy men called lamas. Some, like the near-mythical Atisha (A.D. 982-1054), came from India: he is seen as a gilded copper statuette wearing a pointed Tibetan cap with aviator-style flaps. Eventually, Tibet produced its own religious figures who also became the country’s temporal leaders.
This tradition of religious leadership has lent Tibet a rosy Shangri-La glow in the West, though the society was on certain counts an unenlightened one: a feudal hierarchy controlled by a powerful ruling class. When the Chinese Communists invaded in 1959 on the pretext of dismantling a repressive elitist system, their stated intentions, though not their imperialist motives, made some sense.
Since then, China has relentlessly ground Tibet’s material culture, as well as a large segment of its population, into dust. But at Newark one can still get a sense of its original splendor. And in the secular items documenting various strata of society ï¿½ nomadic farmers and traders, urban officials and the aristocracy—cosmopolitan flair prevails.
A nomadic woman’s layered ensemble made in Labrang in the rural northeast around 1930, for example, includes a silk robe lined with sheepskin, a headdress studded with glinting Chinese coins and a pair of smart Russian leather boots. A New Year costume belonging to a male government official in the capital city, Lhasa, consists of a blouse, sash, shawl and ruffled skirt incorporating fabrics from India, Japan, and France.
Other accouterments of daily life are equally lavish. Jewelry comes in all shapes and sizes; even a brass milk pail hook for a woman’s belt is a chunky, turquoise-studded tour de force. Furniture is lean and portable but intensely ornamented.
Certain luxury items have religious functions: a hand-held prayer wheel of chased silver encrusted with rubies and a small arched, boxlike shrine meant to be strapped to the body; made of sheets of embossed silver and packed with amulets and relics, it insured that the wearer was in constant intimate contact with the divine.
The third-floor galleries will remain pretty much as they are now for the next year or so. The altar is the focus, with its vivid vermilion and yellow walls (painted by the contemporary artist Phuntsok Dorjthe), and its surrounding complement of ritual utensils and paintings, including two matching images of the belligerent protective deity Mahakala, one flame red, the other midnight blue.
Portraits of saints and holy men hang next door. One of them is the 14th-century sage Tsongkhapa, who founded the Gelugpa order of Buddhism. He is depicted larger than life-size, in an appliqued collage of folded and pleated swatches of goldish silk here and there stuffed with cotton batting so that certain features—the nose and hands—swell out softly like flesh.
Ecclesiastical garments made of similarly refined materials are also on view: a monastic regent’s cape, made in 1875, of imperial yellow Chinese silk embroidered with peacock feather threads is a stellar attraction. Old and fragile as it is, it looks dry-cleaner fresh, attesting to the reverential T.L.C. traditionally awarded in Tibet to items with prestigious associations. In fact, when it comes to religious art, the value of an object often derives less from its physical form than from its history: where it has resided, what ceremonies it has been involved in, who has seen it or handled it. In many cases, though, it would be difficult to separate spiritual content from aesthetic form.
An icon of Yamantaka Vajrabhairava, Conqueror of Death, has surely been the object of rapt attention since it was cast centuries ago. A magnificent, flame-shaped silver Wheel of the Law, with low-relief rays shaped like linked diamonds, has long since crushed the base it rests on. The object’s charisma is enhanced by its having been the centerpiece of Shelton’s pioneering horde. Did he pull the piece, one day, from a steamer trunk, dazzling Edward Crane and convincing him, in the esthetic equivalent of instant conversion, that an exhibition of Tibetan art in Newark would fly?
There is no way of knowing. But there is also no question that Tibetan art is still flying high at the Newark Museum nine decades later, sending out its lambent, penetrating rays from a magnetic source just minutes away from Manhattan.
“From the Sacred Realm: Treasures of Tibetan Art in the Collection of the Newark Museum” is at the Newark Museum, 49 Washington Street, Newark, (973) 596-6550, For more information visit www.newarkmuseum.org. Catalog available. The special exhibit is part of the museum’s permanent collection. This article is copyright © 1999 by the New York Times Co. Reprinted by permission.
Holland Cotter reviews art exhibitions for the New York Times