Published: February 20, 2001
The Tibetan Collection of The Newark Museum on View at PaineWebber
NEW YORK CITY – A new exhibition featuring rare artifacts and documentary materials illustrating Tibetan society and history will be on view for the first time in New York at the PaineWebber Art Gallery from April 12 to June 22. Drawn from the unrivaled Tibetan collection of The Newark Museum, “” explores the ancient culture of Tibet through artifacts and ornaments of the aristocracy, herders and traders dating back to the Thirteenth Century, as well as a documentary film and photographs from the early 1900s.
This wide-ranging exhibition examines the history of Tibet, exploring how the harsh environment has influenced cultural art forms and daily life. Displaying objects from the lives of the land-owning nobility, villagers and nomadic herders, “” is a record of traditional life in Tibet, made all the more valuable since events of the second half of the Twentieth Century have vastly altered the cultural landscape.
Beginning with an overview of Tibetan geography and history, “” explores the influence of extreme altitudes and barren terrain upon Tibetan economics, religion and artistic expression. Though physically isolated from much of the world by high deserts and mountains, Tibet has always been a commercially active area, crisscrossed by trade routes.
The Tibetan people also have a spiritual connection to the high and rugged land, and early creation myths consider the plateau a sacred, spiritually potent area. The physical land of Tibet – deserts, mountain ranges, lakes and rivers – is powerfully depicted in photographs from the museum’s collection, many taken in the early 1900s by Dr Albert L. Shelton, The Newark Museum’s first source of Tibetan art, on his journeys through Tibet.
“” explores two traditional ways of life and their profound impact upon Tibetan society. The first addresses the lifestyle of the aristocracy, utilizing lavishly decorated daily objects and ceremonial ornaments to illustrate the political power and social standing of the noble families of Tibet.
The second part of the exhibition examines the personal belongings and tools of traders, farmers and herders of eastern and northeastern Tibet. Exploring these two social groups through the details of their daily lives, “” surveys the Tibetan cultural heritage of military and political power, religious devotion and familial survival.
Living in castles atop rock promontories or in ornate travelling tents, the aristocracy derived their wealth from land ownership and their power from membership in the government. A nobleman would often express his rank by riding a fine horse on a saddle of superior craftsmanship. The ornate silver saddle on view dates from the early Nineteenth Century, and was owned by a member of the entourage of the Prince of Batang.
The silver work on the saddle, depicting coiling dragons and celestial musicians in a field of dense foliage, and the dragon-headed arches on the stirrups reflect ancient Chinese and Central Asian decorative forms. The colorful saddle blanket features a brilliant red wool center decorated with silk cording, a velvet border and multi-colored silk fringe.
A noble family’s household possessions reflected the wealth and sophistication of the upper class and included precious metal, porcelain and ivory objects imported from China, India and Nepal, as well as the finest work from craftsmen in Tibet. Tsampa, a staple food made of parched and ground barley, was usually stored in wooden containers, but the elaborately decorated tsampa container on display is unusual in its large size and rich use of metal.
Possibly used for ceremonial occasions, the cylindrical iron body has fine silver wire inlaid to form a swirling vine pattern in eight panels. At the center of each panel is one of the eight Buddhist emblems, and each panel is bordered in a pattern of linked circles. The swirling vine and linked circle patterns were popular on textiles, ceramics and metalwork in the Mongol period (Thirteenth Century), and it is possible that this container dates back to the time of Mongol-Tibetan interaction.
While traveling or during special occasions, portable shrines were carried for devotion and meditation, as well as for spiritual protection. Designed to enclose printed mantras, written texts, small images, relics and other sacred objects, the relic shrine, or ga’u, as often worn like jewelry by Tibetan men and women.
Among the examples on view is the ga’u of a Lhasa noblewoman, which shows the influence of foreign styles through its inclusion of Indian diamonds and rubies, as well as imported Persian turquoises. The necklace holding the ga’u is strung with freshwater pearls, coral and turquoise, as well as distinctive Tibetan dzi beads. Greatly valued for their protective magic and widely traded in the ancient world, dzi beads are polished agate or carnelian stones etched with line and circle designs to mimic natural markings.
Farmers, Traders And Nomads
The second half of “” explores the daily life and customs of the farmers in the river valleys, herders in the high meadows and traders crossing the mountains. The objects of everyday life in the collection show many aspects of a culture closely tied to the earth and of a lifestyle dependent upon the climate. Tibetan nomads maintained a centuries-old rhythm of life, moving with the seasons and driving their herds to grazing lands. Assembled in extended families, traders and herders lived in large, yak-hair tents, secured to the ground by numerous ropes and poles to withstand the fierce winds of the plateau. Tibetan farmers lived in stone or adobe brick houses, which provided shelter for their animals in the lower levels during severe weather. In addition to protecting the herd, the animals’ body warmth helped to heat the upper levels of the home.
Most possessions of Tibetans were made to be easily packed and portable, like the robust wooden teapot on view. The dense burl wood of the body and lid are beautifully paired with bright brass and copper decorations, creating an elegant contrast. Pots such as this were used to serve the “national beverage” of Tibet: a steaming hot black tea, to which salt and butter are added and churned to a frothy soup.
Traditionally, this tea was sipped throughout the day for warmth and sustenance, and helped to battle the bitter cold of a highland nomand camp. On festive occasions, chang, the Tibetan beer of fermented barley would be served in fine containers. The canteen-shaped iron chang jug on display is possibly descended from the flat-sided flasks tied to horse and camel bags while traveling. However, the elegant brass dragon handle and spout, and the inclusion of the eight Buddhist emblems and other auspicious symbols indicate that this piece was designed for celebratory events.
Many objects of everyday life are deeply tied to spirituality and devotion, as Buddhist tenets melded with early beliefs to create a hybrid “popular religion” focusing on protection from evil, disease and misfortune. Prayer wheels, a quintessential Tibetan device, are owned and used by Tibetans of every social rank to send their prayers into the heavens. A hand prayer wheel on display would have been used for the personal prayers of a nomad or farmer, due to its rough homemade quality.
The yak-hide cylinder encloses a paper roll printed with a mantra, and the leather cord decorated with shell bead weights, controls the revolutions of the wheel. By spinning the prayer wheel and chanting the mantra, while maintaining the proper visualization and compassionate mind, a devout Buddhist works to cleanse his/her sins and remove obstacles to enlightenment.
Founded in 1909, The Newark Museum is a museum of art, science and education. Its seven permanent collections are nationally and internationally regarded and actively sought as loan to exhibitions throughout the world.
Admission is free at The Newark Museum at 49 Washington Street. The PaineWebber Art Gallery is in PaineWebber’s Corporate headquarters, 1285 Avenue of the Americas (between 51st and 52nd Streets). Hours are Monday through Friday from 8 am to 6 pm. For information 212/713-2885.
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