Tibetan Buddhist Thangkas
"Thangkas: a Visual Expression of Tibetan Buddhism"
September 4 – September 26, 2015
Martin - McDonald Gallery
Tibetan Thangkas from the Indian Subcontinent and Tibetan Plateau
The creation of a thangka was a long process, usually done by a monk in a monastic setting. It required mastery of a number of techniques and knowledge of esoteric deities and symbols. Tibetan Buddhism was a symbiosis of Mahayana Buddhism, which came from India, and the pre existing animist religion, Bon. Thus, the iconography was unique and complicated. A thangka was painted on a cotton fabric made by the monk who also made the pigments. Often called "stone ground colors", the pigments were made from minerals and organic materials. The deep blues, for instance, were made from lapis lazuli. Important pieces used gold leaf. The creation of the thangka was essentially a meditation which resulted in sacred art that would help others with visualizations and meditations. The subjects of a thangka might include historical figures important to Buddhism, mandalas designed to help the practitioner focus and representations of a favorite teacher or lama.
The pieces in the exhibition span a period from the late 1700's to the mid to late 20th Century. Older pieces include the framed piece of a revered teacher. It is from Kham, an eastern Tibetan province which is now part of China's Sichuan Province. The use of green tones helps to identify the region it came from. A small, framed piece of a frightening deity, Mahakala, is probably from central Tibet. Older pieces are often smaller and might have hung in the prayer room of a monk. The thangka with a delicate silk covering that can be used to shield the image is also from central Tibet. The image is of Tsongkapa, an important figure who brought sacred texts from India for translation. The rest of the exhibition thangkas are more recent, spanning a period from about 1950 to 1970. Some were made in Nepal, others in areas south of Lhasa, in central Tibet, and a few from northern India. After the Chinese invasion and occupation there was a period of profound and catastrophic destruction of temples, historical monuments and sacred objects. Thangkas were hidden by the faithful and many were smuggled to India and Nepal. They were often taken out of the silk brocade to make them more compact and easier to hide. The pieces you see without silk brocade fall into this category. Many of the more recent ones have new brocade that is not concurrent with period the thangka was made. It is difficult to know exactly where many of the recent pieces came from. My sources told me they were usually from Tibet. But they may have been made in Nepal, taken to Tibet and then to India where I found them. The Chinese killed so many monks that I would imagine production of thangkas in Tibet went into a profound decline. The quality of Nepalese thangkas has generally deteriorated in recent decades as they are being made for the tourist market. High quality thangkas are being produced at the Norbulingka Institute, in Dharamsala, India, and I believe there is a production center in the Tibetan area of China's Gansu Province that turns out good quality pieces. Older pieces are difficult to find since they have become popular with collectors. It is still possible to find good quality pieces from the 1960's and 1970's.
In 1971, I was introduced to Tibetan Buddhism in Raja Rao's Oriental Philosophy class at the University of Texas. My interest in Tibetan art began in 1982 as I started traveling in India, Nepal, Tibet and China. I could find many interesting items along the narrow streets of old Kathmandu. In 1986, a month in Tibet allowed me to search local markets, mainly in Lhasa's Barkor section. In the 1990's, Seattle became a good source as Tibetan items would occasionally show up in auctions and estate sales. Between 1993 and 2004, I usually went to Nepal or India once a year and always prowled the antique shops. The last few years I have been back fairly often. My wife, Tess Beauchamp, shares my enthusiasm for all things Tibetan and is quite knowledgeable. Several lovely old thangkas in this exhibit were found by Tess in Dharamsala, India, in 2001.