- The Washington Times - Friday, October 24, 2003

The newly opened exhibit “Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure” at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is an eye-popping visual journey through the hybrid, fantastic religious art that flourished for 1,200 years on “the roof of the world” — as the Himalayas, including 29,035-foot-tall Mount Everest, are called.

Kalidasa (circa A.D. 400) , the greatest of India’s poets, characterized the Himalayas as “‘a stairway to Heaven,’” writes organizing exhibit curator Pratapaditya Pal in the informative, lavishly illustrated catalog.

The mainly Buddhist and Hindu religious icons made by anonymous artists in this 163-object exhibit might be thought of as the “stairs” that lead to Kalidasa’s “heaven,” the highest level of spiritual experience, what Buddhists call “enlightenment.” The yearning expressed here to connect with the gods and attain the ecstasy of enlightenment gives the exhibit a beauty and intensity rarely matched.

The Himalayan art of this exhibit is a hybrid of Indian and Tibetan civilizations — with additional influences from China and what was then Persia that penetrated via the Central Asian Silk Road.

Three of the handsomest Buddhist bodhisattva images in the show are presented in the first gallery. Arranged in a superlarge case, they are from the three expansive cultural zones into which Debra Diamond, curator for South and Southeast Asian art at the Freer and Sackler galleries, organized the exhibit: the areas that are now Nepal, Kashmir and Tibet.

Bodhisattvas are among the most moving and unselfish of Buddhist holy men, for they delay their own enlightenment to help others achieve it. The “Bodhisattva Manjusri” (“Manjusri” means “one with a sweet appearance”) is a suavely modeled 12th-century gilded bronze from Nepal. It exudes the youthful, smooth and restrained sensuality of the Nepalese style. Just a few incised lines indicate the lower drapery, or “dhoti.” Stylized lotus blossoms decorate the arms and the elaborate necklace that encircles his neck. The torso swells ever so slightly, and the facial expression is sweet and gentle.

These bodhisattvas reflect the differing iconographic and aesthetic interpretations that traveled with pilgrims and traders through the regions. The richly decorated 11th-century “Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara,” for example, represents the Kashmiri aesthetic. As the bodhisattva of compassion, he offers one hand in the gesture of giving while the other holds a lotus in full bloom.

These Avalokiteshvara decorations are more elaborate and naturalistic than those from Nepal. For example, the long flower garland — similar to the Hawaiian lei — descends from the right shoulder and down the legs and then curves upward to the right shoulder. Ribboned garlands fall from the crown.

The incised circular and “flying clouds” patterns on the dhoti may have come originally from Persia and China. Certainly the “wet drapery” of the dhoti, in which the cloth clings to the hips and legs, echoes those of the earlier, fourth-fifth century B.C. “Colossal Buddhas” of Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Unfortunately, they were destroyed recently by the Taliban, and stylistic details such as their drapery are preserved only on smaller sculptures, such as some of those displayed in this show.

The circa-1400 “Eleven-Headed Avalokiteshvara” from Tibet expresses what Miss Diamond calls “the aesthetic of gleam and polish.” This bodhisattva is made of a dark, subdued gilded bronze decorated with semiprecious stones. This multi-headed-and-armed, tall and slender figure reflects the elaboration of Tibetan iconography by the time Buddhism reached there.

Progress through the galleries reveals the astonishing variety of mediums, colors and sizes of works in the exhibit. Two objects in the Nepalese galleries, which are color-coded blue, are the curving, sensuous gilt bronze “Goddess Tara” and the painting-on-cotton “Pilgrimage to Gosainkund.” The “Tara” shares the sweetness and relative simplicity of the Nepalese bodhisattva in the first gallery, but she emits a greater sexuality with her swaying hips, beads draped over her bosom, curving facial features and bejeweled crown.

A graceful “Goddess Uma” of shimmering copper alloy decorated with gilding and semiprecious stones, and a ramrod-straight “Sun God Surya (?)”, also of copper, show how Nepalese artists created impressive worship images with this reddish metal.

Miss Diamond chose two very different Buddhas for the Kashmir section. One, a complicated cast bronze “Buddha and Bodhisattvas” relates stylistically to the intricate richness of the “Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara” in the first gallery. The classic, simplified “Preaching Buddha” is similar iconographically to the wet drapery of this image as well. Finally, the red-tinted, painted “Hevajhra Mandala” from Tibet in a later gallery shows the same multiplication of symbols as the “Eleven-Headed Avalokiteshvara” of the first room.

Don’t be fazed by the many foreign names and concepts that crop up in this magnificent exhibit of Himalayan art. You don’t need to know the names because each individual piece displays a beauty that is universal.

WHAT: “Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure”

WHERE: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through Jan. 11

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/357-2700

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