Mystic Art Of Tibet

Centuries-Old Buddhist Works, Sacred And Secular, Make Stop At Benton Museum In Storrs


Courant Staff Writer Hartford Courant ,

January 22 2002

Salvatore Scalora isn't guaranteeing anything as elusive as spiritual enlightenment to anyone who comes to view the exquisite array of sacred Buddhist art and ritual objects that jam the William Benton Museum of Art in Storrs.

But the Benton director is a devout believer in using the power and the glory of art as a force for spreading the word of cultural diversity. And he feels fervently that this much celebrated world-touring show, "The Mystical Arts of Tibet," will raise Connecticut's consciousness about the transcendent value of Tibetan Buddhist art, its sheer beauty, complex history and deep-seated, traditional manner, matter and cultural values.

Especially, he says, in light of the more than half-century of physical oppression and cultural genocide that the People's Republic of China has waged on Tibet.

"Since the 1950s, more than 1 million Tibetans have been killed by the Chinese communists. More than 3,000 Buddhist monasteries have been destroyed. There have been atrocities committed against monks and nuns, attacks made on the native language to obliterate the culture. Tibetan Buddhist traditions, including the ancient sacred art practices that we see preserved in this exhibition, have had to be kept alive in exile," Scalora says.

Bearing the imprimatur of the Dalai Lama and including 30 of His Holiness' personal sacred objects, the exhibition features 108 traditional art objects. These include 23, centuries-old watercolor tangka paintings, more than a dozen bronze statues, an altar, prayer beads, a monk's robe worn by the Dalai Lama and numerous ritual objects made of gilded silver and bronze.

Co-sponsored by the nonprofit Richard Gere Foundation, headed by the Hollywood film star, Buddhist and advocate for a free Tibet, the exhibition opens today and runs through March 15 at the Benton Museum on the University of Connecticut campus in Storrs.

Most stunning of all - at least to a Western eye - are the fantastic tangkas, sacred painted scroll works done on cloth and set in a silk or cotton frame that can be hung in a moment's notice.

"If you were up in the mountains of Tibet and had to travel, you could just roll this up, stick it in your backpack," says Scalora, who feels his boyhood Catholic upbringing in his native Sicily heightens his appreciation for the symbol-laden paintings. "When you get to your destination, unfurl it, and there it is. Portable art."

The exhibitionis aimed at a mass audience, including, of course, practicing Buddhists but, more specifically, the uninitiated or curious wanting to learn more about the culture and beliefs of people around the world.

To the uninitiated, the paintings look like dream-like iconic depictions rooted in a dazzling world of the imagination. They're something out of a reverie by a visionary and poet like William Blake, complete even with mysterious tigers burning bright in the night.

It's a cosmos populated with enthroned holy figures, bold, eccentric deities who ride tigers or elephants. There are even marvelous, friendly looking snow lions you'd like to pet.

But there are scary things as well. Oddly enough, the horrific looking creatures in the meditative paintings are there not to terrify us but to protect us from everyday, threatening forces like death. As with these evil, wrathful looking yet beneficent characters, things are not always what they seem. Swords, for example, aren't meant for disemboweling humans. Instead, they are magical swords cosmically forged to slash through ignorance or any one of our legion of common human foibles.

There's drama, high and low, even dark-humored glimpses into existential issues of life, death and re-incarnation. A Dharma Protector - one of those physically repellent "guardian angels" there to protect us - rides on a mule through a sea of flames without even furrowing her deep black brow.

Wall labels - a kind of decoding text or cheat sheet for non-Buddhists - explain the symbols, starting with the familiar lotus, a living emblem of surpassing beauty arising miraculously out of the muck of daily life.

At the heart of the matter, these works, which employ the same iconography and narratives from century to century, are a tool for meditation.

"It's important for the artists to do the works the same way from generation to generation," says Ann Norton, guest curator. Norton, a Buddhist expert and practicing Episcopalian, is chairwoman of the department of art and art history, director of the Asian studies program and associate professor of art history at Providence College.

"It's like a mantra that you say over and over again to get yourself to a higher plane. If you want this a little bit Westernized, there is the `Jesus Prayer.' `Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,' which you can say just endlessly and get yourself into a holy state. It is the same method of worship here in a sense. It is putting your mind in the right place and keeping it there.

"These tangkas aren't merely pretty and painted just to go over your living room couch. They're sacred art, and are meant to help whoever is going to look at them to get closer to the goal of higher wisdom. Of course, in the process, you also want to make them as beautiful as possible," she says.

Unlike the Western tradition since the Renaissance, with its celebration of the artist as genius and individual, Tibetan sacred art is anonymous. In dramatic contrast to the money-and-celebrity obsessed American art-mart world, there are no radical innovators or superstars like Andy Warhol or Jackson Pollock.

In the Middle Ages, Norton says, a similar sort of anonymity was key in Christian art as in the labors of the now forever nameless monks toiling away at glorious illuminations of holy texts.

The trove of art treasures, mostly sacred, make the Benton look like a high-toned boutique super store with its sprawling wall-to-wall goods. In a back gallery, there are recent works by contemporary Tibetan artists who keep the tradition alive while in exile in India or Nepal.

Remarkably, the iconography and style hold rock solid. Look at a tankga from the mid-1600s displayed in the front gallery and then check out the freshly minted ones in back. You see that the continuity lives on. Sacred images, style and stories transmigrate across the centuries in a continual, never broken flow.

Another corner in the Benton - a kind of mini-music department - is stocked with temple music instruments that produce healing or meditative sounds. They are the primordial patriarchs of New Age music. Along with ritual cymbals are the familiar 10-foot-long horn trumpets (dung-chens), whose heavy-footed, fat bass tones are said to resemble the sound of elephants calling.

Next to the long horns are metal thighbone trumpets (kang-lings). Their bony bodies are meant to remind flesh-and-blood players and listeners alike of their own impermanence and certain death.

Spiritual symbolism spills over onto these seemingly most mundane objects from daily life. Even lowly carpets, which, after all, are meant to be stepped on, are lavishly decorated with wondrous dragons that live in clouds and make thunder and lightning. Another rug is graced with butterflies representing the transformations of rebirth and beauty emerging from ugliness.

Landing the exhibition for what will be its final stop has raised Scalora to a near blissful state. If the director has one complaint, it is that he wasn't able to get the Dalai Lama to make an appearance on the UConn campus in conjunction with the show.