Published: March 12, 2002
SANTA BARBARA, CALIF. – Through June 2, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art is exhibiting “: Art from India, Nepal and Tibet from the John and Berthe Ford Collection.” The show explores the quest for spiritual bliss and its relationship to earthbound desire in the Hindu and Buddhist art of these regions. The 150 objects in the exhibition focus on through numerous representations of gods, goddesses, and human figures in sculpture, painting, and ritual objects.
Many of the works on view give insight to Indian religious thought that is unfamiliar to the West: that yearning to unite with the divine is as passionate and intense as the desire for physical pleasure in everyday life. This parallel notion of earthbound desire and spiritual devotion is poignantly expressed in the works of art created in Buddhist and Hindu India, Nepal and Tibet. As seen in many of the works in the exhibition, spiritual union with the divine has a sensuous character, and similarly, physical union can be seen as a symbol of ultimate spiritual bliss.
“,” organized by the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Md., marks the first time the private collection has been seen in its entirety. The paintings and sculptures in the exhibition provide a rich overview of 2,000 years of history and illustrate the enduring themes in art from the Indian subcontinent and the Himalayas.
Works on view range from renowned and widely exhibited pieces such as “The Green Tora,” a painting executed in India around 1100 for a Tibetan patron and now considered a cornerstone of Tibetan art, to a never exhibited but extremely precious Eighteenth Century Tibetan ritual box crafted of silver, gold and turquoise.
The exhibition is divided into three sections. One section presents Indian classical sculpture dating from the 3rd Century BC to the Seventeenth Century AD in materials ranging from clay and stone to metal and wood. Another consists of Seventeenth to Nineteenth Century Indian miniature paintings of both religious and secular courtly subjects, especially the worship of the Hindu gods Shiva and Krishna. The third section, which is the largest, presents the Buddhist art of Nepal and Tibet.
The installation of works from Tibet and Nepal includes representation of the Buddha; various Buddhist gods such as the Bodhisattvas; depiction of legendary and historical monks, known as “mystic masters”; and the pantheons of figures found in the mystical assemblages known as mandalas.
One object on display, a Seventeenth Century statue from Tibet representing a Buddhist “mystic master,” is a tour-de-force cast bronze sculpture. Although less than five inches tall, it is one of the most expressive and animated portrayals of a mystic master in Tibetan art.
The artist achieved this effect by placing the hands and feet of the figure in contrapuntal directions for an almost contorted stance, and by paying sensitive, detailed attention to the face. The Indian religious thought that intuited a connection between sensual desire and spiritual serenity was often given life in the form of goddesses, the aesthetics of whom are also seen in portrayals of ordinary women.
A masterly example of the Indian ideal of womanhood, the Ninth Century sandstone sculpture from Central India’s “A Maiden, a Monkey and the Mango Tree,” depicts an idealized voluptuous woman.
The exhibition also illustrates how the idea of the human body as the ideal model for the divine lasted for centuries in the cultures of India and the Himalayas. Early images of Indian gods and mythical figures, such as the exhibition’s Sixth Century sandstone sculpture of “Padmapurusha (The Lotus Man)” also embody perfected forms based on the human body. In works as late as the cast bronze “Shiva and Parvati,” from the Thirteenth Century, artists continue to depict gods with fixed proportions and characteristics attributes.
Such enduring ideals began to change following the spread of Islam, the establishment of the Moghul Empire in the Sixteenth Century, and the arrival of British colonial power in the Eighteenth Century. A late example in the exhibition is the painting on paper of “Krishna and Radha” (circa 1780), which demonstrates a slight change in imagery due to these influences. An ecstatic celebration of the romance between Radha and Krishna, this particularly beautiful illustrated series of the Twelfth Century “Gitagovinda” was likely created in Kongra, India, and bestowed as a wedding gift.
A catalog accompanies the exhibition, published by Philip Wilson Publishers of London. The principal author of the catalogue is Dr Pratapaditya Pal, a consulting curator for the Art Institute of Chicago and the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., and former curator of Indian and Southeast Asian art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State Street, is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 am to 5 pm; Sunday, noon to 5 pm; and Friday 11 am to 8 pm. For information, 805-963-811.
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