Worlds of Transformation: Tibetan Art of Wisdom and Compassion

Detail of Shakyamuni Buddha with Avadana Legend Scenes on view in Worlds of Transformation: Tibetan Art of Wisdom and Compassion

Worlds of Transformation: Tibetan Art of Wisdom and Compassion

January 16, 2000 to March 26, 2000

Tibet’s sacred paintings are a fascinating part of the great flourishing of Asian civilization. Arising from the Buddhist enlightenment movement, this highly sophisticated art seeks not only to delight the viewer, but also to move and inspire the heart and spirit of the human being who seeks a deeper meaning for life and a higher future for humanity.

For the first time, the Kimbell Art Museum presented an exhibition of superb Tibetan icon paintings, a unique record of a civilization that is now becoming more widely known in the West. Worlds of Transformation: Tibetan Art of Wisdom and Compassion was a selection of 60 paintings from the recently assembled collection of Shelley and Donald Rubin, one of the world’s premier holdings of Tibetan art. Numbering nearly 1,000 works, the Rubin collection offers examples that expand current scholarship of known schools and also includes as yet undefined or unfamiliar stylistic variants. The collection features an amazing array of iconography, lineage lama portraits, and unknown examples of special forms based on particular liturgies.

Most Tibetan art is religious in both character and function and is linked to the complex ritual and meditational practices of Vajrayana Buddhism (the Diamond Path), alternately referred to as Tantric or Esoteric Buddhism. Buddhism was introduced into Tibet in the 7th century, and Tibet has remained to the present day a primarily Buddhist country dominated by Lamaism, a form of Esoteric Buddhism in which the lama or teacher has enormous power. This sect emerged as a result of the development of tantras, texts involving ritual and meditational techniques that were used as a means of achieving nirvana (the extinction of all desires, whereby perfected knowledge is attained and the painful cycle of rebirths transcended). In the Vajrayana pantheon, there were numerous buddhas and other deities, some of them terrifying, resulting in a highly elaborated Buddhist cosmology. Painted scrolls, or tangkas, served primarily as sacred icons, acting as intermediaries between humans and divinities. Used in conjunction with rituals, a tangka housed a deity for purposes of worship and communication. Tangkas filled a variety of spiritual, educational, and social needs: they provided the visual focus of a meditation ritual or long-life ceremony of a teacher; portraits of teachers served as historical records of the various orders; and a lavishly executed painting reflected the wealth and social status of its patron, who acquired religious merit by commissioning the work. Monasteries exercised enormous influence over this art and were its chief patrons; tangkas were hung in monasteries or in the shrine area of a private home. Some paintings were reserved for special ceremonies and thus only occasionally viewed.

The extraordinary Tibetan tangkas in this exhibition ranged in date from the mid-13th to the early 20th century and were organized thematically into three sections. The first section was comprised of paintings that illustrate the realms of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (563–483 B.C.), and the many teachers, upholders, and protectors of his teachings (the dharma). The second section represented the practice of Tibetan Buddhism by its four major orders, with their eminent founders and teachers and some of their archetype deities. The third section included various types of mandalas, two-dimensional visual representations of the magical and sacred realm that buddhas and other deities inhabit—an architectural floorplan of the perfected universe of the deity. All of these sumptuously painted and exquisitely detailed works were used as aids in the spiritual process of enlightenment and as a focus of visualization and meditation for the practitioner.

This exhibition of works from the Shelley and Donald Rubin Collection was organized by Tibet House, New York, and curated by Marylin M. Rhie and Robert A. F. Thurman, two leading scholars of Buddhist art and thought. Their ground-breaking catalogue illustrates 200 superb Tibetan paintings, most never before published, explaining the history of the paintings and offering insight into their transformative imagery.

Caption: Shakyamuni Buddha with Avadana Legend Scenes (detail), central regions, Tibet, probably Lhasa, late 19th to early 20th century, tangka; sized pigements on cotton. The Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation Collection