Category Archives: Lectures & Presentations

Impressive Collections, Inspiring Speakers

As I’ve previously mentioned here and through my Twitter account, this past weekend the Philadelphia Museum of Art presented the Third Annual Anne d’Harnoncourt Symposium: Exhibiting India’s Art in the 21st Century (Sept. 30 – Oct. 2, 2011), a three-day event focusing on, as the title suggests, South Asian and Himalayan collections and the work that goes into presenting their contents to a museum audience. While I was only fortunate enough to be present for Saturday’s lecture series, the event began on Friday with an introduction by Director Timothy Rub and the University of Pennsylvania’s W. Norman Brown Professor of South Asia Studies, Michael W. Meister, and a tour of the collections with the Museum’s Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art, Darielle Mason. This evening conveniently coincided with the Museum’s weekly Art After Five event, which I am told was South Asian-themed for the occasion. The Symposium continued with a five-lecture series and a dinner for weekend ticket holders on Saturday, and roundtable working sessions and a closing public talk by Yael Rice, the Museum’s Assistant Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art, on Sunday. Not only an informative intellectual endeavor, Dr. Meister and Dr. Mason hoped to use this opportunity to generate and debate new ideas to put into practice during the impending reinterpretation and reinstallation of the Museum’s acclaimed permanent South Asian galleries, which I’m sure will be an exciting and daunting endeavor for all involved.

Returning to this past Saturday, this was far from my first visit to the PMA or its famous South Asian Pillared Temple Hall. I lived in Philly for four years while studying for my undergraduate degree from Temple University and in that time I often visited museums throughout the city – especially on the annual Museum Day, when a poor college student could get in for free. Despite the years that have passed since that time, I instantly found myself feeling at home upon entering the Museum. I’d forgotten how many hours I’d spent there, particularly in the Asian and Medieval European galleries, gazing at the myriad of icons and artifacts of Buddhism, Tantra, and early Christianity (the three areas upon which my early studies in religion had focused on). Climbing the stairs of the Great Hall, I was awash in thoughts of this formative period of my life, and reminded of how this historic building just seems to feel so different from other places, even other museums of similar size and stature, as if infused with the stories of all the items it contains. Seeing the works I’d always loved so much and walking through the fully immersive “rooms” in which it feels as if you’ve stepped into another place and time reinvigorated me, and I was excited to have had the opportunity and incentive to return to a place I’d forgotten had meant so much to me.

Such nostalgia aside, I would find further inspiration from the numerous speakers that afternoon. The morning began with a lecture entitled Expanding the Canon: Garden and Cosmos, where, among other things, I learned about the critically acclaimed exhibition by Debra Diamond, Associate Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Freer Gallery and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. (Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur, Oct. 4, 2008 – Jan. 4, 2009 at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, on tour throughout the world afterwards)  and was enticed by her upcoming exhibit, Yoga: The Art of Transformation, to open in 2013 (http://www.asia.si.edu/research/curatorial/currentResearch.asp). Not knowing much about modern Asian art personally, the following speaker, Sonya Rhie Quintanilla, San Diego Museum of Art’s Curator of Asian Art, introduced me to the amazing work of the Indian artist Nandalal Bose (1882-1966) in her lecture, Framing Modernity in South Asia, and spoke about the interpretation and use of contemporary South Asian art in the museum setting. Quintanilla helped to organize an exhibit of this artist’s work at the PMA in 2008 (Rhythms of India, June 27, 2008 – Sept. 1, 2008). This would segue nicely to later discussions on whether modern Asian art belonged with other Asian works, or beside the works of its contemporary artists from around the world.

"Sati" (1943) by Nandalal Bose

The talk I found to be the most personally motivating of the morning, however, came from the somewhat self-deprecating and quite personable Associate Curator of South Asian and Islamic Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, John Henry Rice. Using examples from his own career both as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and as a curator at the VMFA, his lecture, In the Field and in the Gallery: Clarifying Context through Scholarship and Display, focused on the careful balance a museum professional must strive to maintain between performing his own research in the field and finding ways to display that research and the research of others in an approachable way to a diverse public audience. This has been a very pertinent issue for Dr. Rice, who has tried to take this into account in his recent challenging opportunity to re-design and re-install the South Asian galleries at the VMFA into its new monumental building – an endeavor that from all accounts appears to have been a great success (http://www.vmfa.state.va.us/Collections/SouthAsian/).  

 Following a brief break for lunch and my own whirl-wind tour of the Asian art galleries, most notably including the beautiful Himalayan pieces from The Natacha Rambova Collection of Lamaist Art and the large selection of South Asian stone images, the lectures continued with talks by Katherine Anne Paul, Curator of the Arts of Asia at the Newark Museum, and John E. Cort, Professor of Religion at Denison University and Faculty Consultant for the Denison Museum. Dr. Paul’s presentation, Prisms of Practice: Tibetan Buddhist Altars in Museum Settings, spoke directly to my specific interests and was the original catalyst driving my desire to visit the Symposium in the first place. I was not to be disappointed. Dr. Paul not only gave an account of the history of the consecrated Tibetan Altar at her current institution and the impact it has had on its audience, but compared the purpose of that permanent display to the temporary exhibition of a lay Tibetan altar that she helped to organize as the former Associate Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art several years prior (Conserving a Tibetan Altar, Dec. 9, 2006 – May 27, 2007). Her talk raised questions regarding the display of sacred items, the use of religious ritual as an educational tool, and the impact said use has on museum visitors, both for those  from within the culture on display and for those who might be considered “outsiders.” Ultimately, Dr. Paul argues, installations, or rather those that create them, should strive to present the various perspectives and practices related to these sacred items to the best that their ability and respective institutional missions allow. As something of a reverse, Dr. Cort, the only member of the panel who is not currently a museum professional, acted somewhat as a devil’s advocate, questioning just how far an institution should go in attempting to display the “original context” of a particular religious image lest it become something of a farce (or, in the case of bathing rituals and so forth, at least broach territory few conservators would allow their items to endure). This, again, featured as a prominent topic in the discussion panel to follow.

 At least for me, the Symposium was more than just a success, but rather something of a catalyst assuring me of what steps I’d most like to take in the coming months in regards to further education and a future career as a museum professional. I more than appreciate the work put into this past weekend by all those involved, and I look forward to future events of similar ilk, where hopefully I can devote more of my resources and time. As to the collections themselves, if you have not visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art I urge you to do so, and if you have, I hope you can visit again soon to be reminded of just what a special place it is. For further information on the history and contents of the Museum’s spectacular Indian and Himalayan Art Collection, see the official website: http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/216-423-189.html

Tashi Delek.


Openings, Endings, and Updates for October 2011

Perhaps in accordance with the end of spring and the ushering in of the fall, there are quite a few more endings in October than there are openings. Visit what you can before they are gone, and let me know what you think if you make it out. Despite all the closings, October is also full of a number of special events – including lectures, book signings, and performances – so it should be a busy month indeed if you plan on seeing it all!

 Openings

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: While technically opening in September and not October, I must have missed this exhibit beginning this Wednesday called “Wonder of the Age”: Master Painters of India, 1100-1900 (September 28, 2011 – January 8, 2012). Accompanied by a catalogue co-written by John Guy and Jorrit Britschgi, this major loan exhibition will feature “some 220 works selected according to identifiable hands and named artists…dispel[ling] the notion of anonymity in Indian art.” For more information on this beautiful collection, see: http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2011/wonder-of-the-age–master-painters-of-india-11001900. May I also take this opportunity to note that the new design of the Met’s website is beautifully intuitive and comprehensive – they really did an amazing job!

 Rubin Museum of Art: Mirror of the Buddha: Early Portraits of Tibet (October 21, 2011 – March 5, 2012) opens towards the end of October, presenting portraits of founding masters and important teachers within the Buddhist traditions, primarily in the India-inspired Sharri style of painting. It is the first in a series of exhibitions exploring particular Tibetan painting styles, and according to the official website, “will clarify some of the confusion and correct misidentifications previously posited by Western scholars.” The exhibit is accompanied by a full-color catalog by its curator, David Jackson, who will also hold a special members-only key talk and preview the night before its opening, Thursday, October 20th at 6 pm. For more information on this new and potentially enlightening display, take a look at its official announcement: http://www.rmanyc.org/nav/exhibitions/view/1309.

 Endings

Asia Society Museum: The extraordinary exhibition, The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara, ends Sunday, October 30. If you have not already seen the contents of this much-anticipated collection of early Buddhist artifacts, I urge you to make it out to the Museum before it is gone. A lot of work was put into getting these pieces to America from their home institutions, and it would be a shame to miss out on the opportunity to see them. Be sure to read my brief review of the exhibit and its accompanying lecture by Christian Luczanits if you haven’t already (https://beyondthedisplay.wordpress.com/2011/09/15/buddhas-and-bodhisattvas-from-pakistan-to-new-york/), and for more information, see its official website (http://asiasociety.org/arts/asia-society-museum/current-exhibitions/buddhist-heritage-pakistan-art-gandhara).

 Brooklyn Museum: Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savior (June 24, 2011 – October 2, 2011) ends as soon as next week. Proclaimed as the first major museum exhibit to feature this deity, it is a must-see for anyone interested in Indian art and religious practice (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/vishnu/).

The Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art: The current exhibit, Artist Tashi Dhargyal and the Menris Tradition of Thangka Art, ends on October 9, 2011. Sadly, no further information is provided regarding this display and its contents on the Museum’s official website: http://www.tibetanmuseum.org/calendar.htm.

Newark Museum: While part of the Tibetan Collection Centennial Exhibitions, the small but particularly beautiful display, Pots of Silver and Gold (March 5, 2011 – October 30, 2011), will be removed at the end of October. While not grand enough to make a special trip, if you planned on making a visit to the Newark Museum this coming month, be sure to take a peek! See the first segment of my entry on the Centennial Exhibitions for more information (https://beyondthedisplay.wordpress.com/2011/07/23/celebrating-a-century-part-one/), as well as the official description on their context and fabrication (http://www.newarkmuseum.org/potssilvergold.html).

Rubin Museum of Art: The exhibition Pilgrimage and Faith: Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, having opened in July 1st of this year, will be closing on Monday, October 24, 2011. For more information on this cross-cultural exhibit, see the official website and press release here: http://www.rmanyc.org/nav/exhibitions/view/1061.

 One-Time Events

 American Museum of Natural History: While not at all related to anything particularly pertaining to Asian art, artifacts, or traditions, I had to mention the 16th Annual Halloween Celebration at AMNH, where (for $10 for non-members and $9 for members) children can trick-or-treat in costume, participate in arts and crafts, and carve pumpkins throughout the halls of this inspirational and historic Museum. The event takes place on Halloween itself (October 31, 2011) from 4 pm to 7 pm. For more information, see: http://www.amnh.org/calendar/event/16th-Annual-Halloween-Celebration/

 Rubin Museum of Art: As always, the Rubin Museum of Art is hosting a number of exciting events next month for a variety of audiences (including a number of live musical performances), and I will only mention a small sampling –check out the website’s official calendar for more events than these:

This coming Friday and Saturday evenings the Museum will be featuring Public Rehearsals of The Vimalakirti Sutra with Peter Sellars, Kate Valk, & Michael Schumacher at 7 pm. This work-in-progress is meant to accompany the newly-opened exhibition Once Upon Many Times: Legends and Myth in Himalayan Art (September 16, 2011 – January 30, 2012). Tickets are $25 for non-members, $22.50 for members (http://www.rmanyc.org/events/load/1318).

Additionally, on Wednesday, October 12, author Dana Micucci will be holding a Reading and Signing of her new travel memoir, Sojourns of the Soul: One Woman’s Journey around the World and into Her Truth, at 6 pm (http://www.rma2.org/events/load/1386), followed by the New York Film Premiere of the documentary Light of the Valley: The 15th Renovation of Swayambhu at 7pm (http://www.rmanyc.org/events/load/1359).

The weekend of October 21-23 promises a three-day Traditional Thankga Painting Workshop with Carmen Mensink. Registration is required and all materials are included for $175 for non-members, $150 for members. Sign-up soon if you are interested, as spaces for these workshops often fill up fast (http://www.rmanyc.org/events/load/1393).

The last event I will mention is the one I am most excited to see. Andrew Quintman, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University, will be leading a discussion along with several other professors and professional authors entitled From Urdu Epic and Tibetan Sorcerers to Today: Fantasy in Tibetan and World Literature. Dr. Quintman specializes in the Buddhist traditions of Tibet and the Himalayas, and he currently serves as the Co-Chair of the Tibetan and Himalayan Religions Group of the American Academy of Religion. The event will take place on Wednesday, October 26 at 7 pm and costs $12 for non-members, $10.80 for members. Tickets also include a 6:15 pm tour of Once Upon Many Times: Legends and Myth in Himalayan Art (September 16, 2011 – January 30, 2012) (http://www.rmanyc.org/events/load/1385).

The Tibet House: On Thursday, October 6 at 7 pm, the Tibet House will be hosting a Book Launch and Signing for Yangzom Brauen’s new book, Across Many Mountains: A Tibetan Family’s Epic Journey from Oppression to Freedom. This emotional memoir chronicles the lives of three generations of Tibetan women, covering almost one hundred years of Tibetan history and looks to be a moving and inspirational read. Admission to this event is free for all (http://www.tibethouse.us/programs/view/581693/4).

Tashi Delek!


Buddhas and Bodhisattvas from Pakistan to New York

I’ve never had much experience driving in cities.  I didn’t own my own car when I lived in Philadelphia while studying for my undergraduate degree, and despite being the capital of Florida, Tallahassee, where I went to graduate school, isn’t really a major metropolitan area. I’m certainly not a bad driver – I’ve driven hundreds of miles up and down the east coast with no difficulty and my driving record is nearly spotless – but I feel nervous thinking about driving into unfamiliar places with heavy traffic. I think I get this from my parents – like me, my mother just hasn’t had the experience, while my father has just never liked congestion or cities very much. This being said, when I realized driving into NYC to see Christian Luczanits’ lecture at the Asia Society Museum was far faster and less complicated than taking public transit from my new apartment, I knew this was going to be a somewhat nerve-wracking, albeit enlightening, experience. While Gandharan art is not my usual focus, I was particularly interested in hearing Dr. Luczanits’ presentation not only because I know very little on the subject, but because he is a scholar of Tibetan and Buddhist Studies as well as the current curator of the Rubin Museum of Art. I have often credited the Rubin Museum as my first encounter with Himalayan art and the reason I began to study Buddhism, so anyone or anything related to the institution holds an instant interest for me. A lot of work went into bringing this Exhibition to the United States, so it would be rather ridiculous to let a little fear of the unknown stop me from seeing it. Encouraged by my boyfriend, I set out for what Google Maps plotted as a half an hour drive at four in the afternoon, planning to arrive at the Asia Society Museum by five-thirty, when the Gandharan Buddhist galleries, normally closed on Mondays, would open for event ticket holders. I should have realized, it being September 12 and all, that there would be more than an hour’s worth of congestion going to and from the city, but I hadn’t counted on half the Lincoln Tunnel being closed off to through traffic.  Needless to say, by the time I finally made my way to the Museum it was already after six, and the lecture itself started at six-thirty. Having no time to search for street parking, I found an outrageously priced parking garage (with an incredibly kind attendant at least), and marched myself into the Museum, got my reserved ticket, and was grateful I at least had ten minutes to take a look at the critically acclaimed and much anticipated ancient Pakistani art before Dr. Luczanits spoke on the subject. Regretfully, this means that I do not have a fully comprehensive analysis of the pieces to present to you, but I can say without a doubt that the exhibit is made up of exquisitely detailed pieces accompanied by well-thought out and comprehensive written descriptions. There are, as always, a few pieces that stood out in particular.

The Exhibition: The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara

The Exhibition itself is divided into three sections: Classical Connections, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and Narratives and Architectural Context. In the first section, to quote the accompanying materials, “Gandharan art is exhibited alongside select works from India and the Roman world to highlight the stylistic and iconographic links and distinctions between these cultures.” In a number of examples, Gandharan deities are depicted in dress that is distinctly Eastern or Western in appearance. In other cases, such as the examples of Corinthian-style columns, Classical Western motifs are seamlessly melded with Buddhist imagery, as in the image below.

Figure capital with Seated Buddha, 2nd–3rd century CE, Schist (Lahore Museum)

The second section showcases numerous representations of enlightened beings from within the Buddhist pantheon. The Buddha himself is represented both abstractly, as in the second/third century C.E. schist Footprint of the Buddha, or anthropomorphically, alone or surrounded by an entourage. Images of other bodhisattvas, most prominently Maitreya, also feature in this section. These images drastically differ from those of Shakyamuni Buddha, maintaining intricately-carved long curling locks and distinctly masculine features.

Standing Bodhisattva Maitreya, 3rd–4th century CE, Shist (Lahore Museum)

The stupa features as an important monument and architectural feature throughout the ancient Buddhist world and this is no different in Gandharan art. While Indian stupas were often encircled by a “fence” containing images of the historical Buddha’s past lives as told in the Jataka tales, Gandharan stupas super-imposed narrative images upon the monuments themselves, and typically told the story of Siddhartha Gautama’s life in great detail instead. Examples of these narrative images fill the last section of the exhibit, and once again demonstrate a blending of religious cultures in their portrayal of classic Buddhist scenes.

Having toured the exhibit, spending less time reading about the images as I would have liked, I descended the stairs in time to take a seat for the lecture to follow.

Changing Conceptions: Gandharan Art and Buddhism:

A Lecture with Dr. Christian Luczanits

After a gracious introduction by the Asia Society Museum’s John H. Foster Curator for Traditional Asian Art, Adrian Prosser, Christian Luczanits took the stage to present on the changing conceptions of the Buddha from a mortal man based in history to one of many supramundane beings in Gandharan art and how this movement influenced the development of Mahayana Buddhism throughout Asia. Beginning with an explanation of the discovery of Gandharan Buddhist pieces as late as the eighteenth and nineteenth by British officials in Pakistan, Dr. Luczanits gave an introduction on the history of Buddhism in northern India, what is known about its move west, and the various types of images to be found and preserved in this and similar collections. In addition to familiar images of a reflective or meditative Buddha complete with hair knot, Dr. Luczanits noted three particular images of bodhisattvas, or buddhas-to-be, coming from this region: 1) a turban-wearing Siddhartha Gautama from before his enlightenment, who’s clothing and iconography epitomize the warrior kshatriya caste of India; 2) a long-haired and royally adorned brahmin bodhisattva recognized as the next Buddha to come, Maitreya; and 3) another turban-wearing bodhisattva holding a wreath, believed by some to be Avalokiteshvara.  Without paraphrasing his entire argument, Dr. Luczanits explained how the introduction of buddha-fields and multiple supramundane bodhisattvas and buddhas signified the presence of a shift in doctrinal focus within the religious practices of Gandhara to that which has become commonplace in Mahayana Buddhist teachings in East Asia. While much still remains unknown about the actual cult practices and specific doctrines followed by Buddhists in Gandhara during the first centuries of the Common Era, the presence of innovation and sophistication within the art of the area is impossible to ignore.

Vision of a Buddha’s Paradise, 4th century CE, Schist (Lahore Museum)

Conclusions

Having taught an introductory course on Buddhist history in which the doctrinal evolution of Buddhism played a large part, I was particularly surprised to learn that images of celestial bodhisattvas could be found as far as Pakistan even as early as these beautifully detailed images have been dated. I truly enjoyed listening to Dr. Luczanits’ speak, and it has prompted me to look further into this little-studied area of Buddhist history (as any good lecture should always do).  As to the Exhibition at the Asia Society Museum, which is the first of its kind in the United States in the last fifty years and continues to run until October 30, the selection of artifacts is astonishing. I absolutely recommend you visit before the collection is returned to its home museums abroad.

For more information on this Exhibition, please visit its detailed and informative official website (http://sites.asiasociety.org/gandhara/). You can also purchase the fully-illustrated catalogue for the collection, published through the Asia Society in association with the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik in Bonn, Germany, including essays by Christian Luczanits and Michael Jansen (http://asiastore.org/buddhist-heritage-of-pakistan.html).