Himalayan Art Resources

Collection: Jongen-Schleiper (Essay)

Jongen-Schleiper (Essay) | Jongen-Schleiper Painting Collection

A Brief Survey of a Large Collection of Paintings
Bonhams, London, May 2017

For those individuals that appreciate or collect Himalayan style art, then the world, the Northern hemisphere at least, should be a pretty fascinating place to live. Every major and many smaller museums have collections of art deemed to be from Tibet, Mongolia, Nepal or some such extraordinary country or region. For every major museum with a significant collection there are probably five or six major private collectors with equally significant holdings, along with many smaller collectors, and innumerable art dealers, some with their own modest or immodest collections. Most museum collections are buried deep in storage. Sometimes sculpture, possibly very good sculpture, is on display, a little like an iceberg hinting at a great mass hidden beneath the surface. Despite the bulk of Himalayan style art not being seen on a regular basis there is still just enough in the major museums to entertain and educate. There are also publications, hundreds and hundreds of publications, theorizing and speculating on the nature, iconography and art history of Himalayan style art. By today’s standards the scholarly or amateur written content for most of those books are politely deemed outdated. However, the images in those early publications, black and white or colour, are a treasure, a vast resource of objects that are rarely seen.

So, despite the museum collections being buried in deep storage there are always the past publications, the art catalogues. When including auction house catalogues, there are thousands of publications each filled with images of painting and sculpture of all manner and type. That is the important point. We do have access to the great wealth of Himalayan style art through museums, private collections, art exhibitions, art auctions and on a daily basis, through publications.

Collecting is not a science. There are no hard and fast rules. Collecting is sometimes said to be based on emotions, aesthetics, appreciation, value or investment, or a little of all. Another important factor is availability. For both museums and private collectors, availability of art is often the key in establishing the character of a collection. In the West, early Himalayan painting and sculpture has often been considered more aesthetically pleasing and of a greater value which hints at a little snobbishness which can also be inherent in the collecting, museum and art world in general. Thankfully the field has moved away from this narrow point of view and recognized the tremendous quality of works that have been created over the centuries right up to the present day. Some scholars argue that some of the finest and most creative Tibetan style paintings can be found between the late 17th century and the mid-19th century in East Tibet.

More often than not, the strength of a collection will fall on the side of either sculpture or painting. Many museum collections are the result of gifts from affluent donors who might also have been collectors. They may also have their own preferences for sculpture or painting.

A popular notion is that collecting sculpture is much easier than collecting paintings. A common remark might be “paintings are so complicated. Sculpture is much easier to understand.” This may be true on a certain level, and it is a basic level of simply recognizing the human or human-like form. A single sculptural figure with one face and two arms placed in recognizable postures is certainly understandable. However, such single objects are completely out of any context. Yes, there may be a basic recognition of form, but there is no understanding of use, purpose of creation and the full scope of the work of art.

Paintings are actually easier to understand because they have greater context. There is more complexity and generally more figures in a composition to work from.

The first rule when trying to understand a Himalayan work of art, sculpture or painting, aesthetics aside, is to determine if the object is a single one-off creation or if it belongs to a set of objects or compositions. The important rule to remember is that half or more of all Himalayan style art is created in sets. With Buddhist art the sets of objects are most often uneven numbered, three, five, seven, fifteen, or more compositions. In a few rare cases the sets will number more than one hundred in total.

With paintings it is far easier to determine single compositions from sets of compositions. The main subject of a composition along with the surrounding figures and narrative will often indicate a set or a single object.

In this particular collection of late Himalayan art painting the majority are of Tibetan origin. At least thirty compositions belong to larger sets. A number of the sets are immediately recognizable by the subject matter such as the Shakyamuni Buddha previous life stories (41 in total), the life story of Je Tsongkapa (15 in total), two sets of the incarnation lineage of the Dalai Lamas of Tibet (13 in total), the incarnation lineage of the Panchen Lamas, the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities of the Guhyagarbha Tantra, two different Mahakala sets, and others. Only two sets are complete. The smallest set has two paintings representing the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities of the Guhyagarbha Tantra (HAR 2205, 2206). This is a common theme in painting for the Nyingma Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

The other complete set is in three compositions depicting the complete incarnation lineage of the Panchen Lamas (HAR 2180, 2181, 2182). The set ends with an image of the 4th (7th) Panchen Lama, Lobzang Tenpai Nyima (1782-1853) dating the set to not later than 1853.

Another set with two compositions titled ‘Ngagwang Zangpo’ (HAR 2203, 2204) has a third composition known in a different European collection. The full set probably had thirteen compositions. This highly unusual subject has a Tibetan Lama as the central figure with scenes of the life story of Shakyamuni Buddha in the background running continuously from one composition to the next. The painting style is identified as Lhatog (Khampa Gar) from Eastern Tibet and belonging to the Drugpa Kagyu Tradition of Buddhism.

There are two sets of paintings depicting the Twenty-one Taras of the Suryagupta Tradition. The first set has two compositions (HAR 2177, 2178) out of the total of seven paintings and the second set has a single painting (HAR 2207) from a set of three compositions. A single painting of Ratnagni Buddha (HAR 2198) belongs to a thirty-five painting set depicting in total all Thirty-five Confession Buddhas.

Although we are looking at a collection of over 65 paintings, we are actually observing a group of paintings that represents in totality, if all of the sets were complete, a body of paintings numbering upwards of between two and three hundred compositions.

Inscriptions on paintings are very important and have various meanings and uses. Probably the most desired reading of an inscription is an artist name, preferably recognized, and the date of creation along with the donor's name and possibly a geographic location. Those types of inscriptions are rare. It is more common to find just the donor's name on the reverse of a painting, or the name of a religious teacher that composed a few auspicious verses of blessing that are written on the reverse of the composition.

There are no standard or specific locations for the placement of inscriptions on paintings. Inscriptions can appear on the front, the back, the brocade mount, and on the top and bottom stick added for weight, and the controlled rolling for storage. There can also be drawn symbols on the back of the paintings such as a stupa, calligraphic design, and hand prints.

In this collection of paintings there are approximately twenty-one compositions that have inscriptions of various types and length. Some are extensive while others are a single short sentence or name. Some inscriptions are simple standard verses of blessing. Some inscriptions such as on the reverse of the Yama Dharmaraja (HAR 2158) have some historical implication with the mention of the hand prints belonging to the 7th Dalai Lama, Kalzang Gyatso (1708-1757). The donor of the painting along with the circumstances for its creation and the monastic affiliation are also mentioned.

There are six paintings in the collection that depict the 'Field for the Accumulation of Merit'. This form of composition in a single painting portrays all of the lineage teachers and deities of importance to a particular religious tradition. All six belong to the Gelug Tradition; however they are in several different styles in arrangement of the figures. In the Gelug tradition there are two types and three styles of Refuge Field composition.

The two types of Refuge Field are for the first Gurupuja where the teacher, in the form of Tsongkapa the founder of the tradition, is depicted at the center, the second type is a similar Refuge Field but with a Shakyamuni Buddha figure at the center instead of Tsongkapa. The three different styles are the Gurupuja style (HAR #2160, 2188, 2189, 2213), Shakyamuni style (HAR #2220) and 'Pabongkha Designed' style (HAR #2190). The latter is an early 20th century re-configuration by the famous Gelug teacher named Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo (1878-1941 [TBRC P230]). Refuge Field paintings are always created as individual compositions and are not known to be painted as sets.

There are different ways to categorize and organize deities. The two most important distinctions, aside from gender, are form and function. Within the system of the Eleven Figurative Forms in Himalayan style art and iconography there are the five types of deities based on general appearance: (7) Peaceful Appearance (Deva, Bodhisattva), (8) Semi-peaceful/Semi-wrathful Appearance (Rishi), (9) Wrathful Appearance (Raksha), (10) Animal Headed/Featured Gods & Deities and (11) Warrior Appearance (Drala).

A further system of Eleven Types of Deities by Appearance are enumerated (which include the five above): (1) Peaceful Appearance, (2) Semi-peaceful/semi-wrathful Appearance, (3) Wrathful Appearance, (4) Animal Featured Appearance, (5) Warrior Appearance, (6) Universal Appearance, (7) Layered Appearance (Deities & Figures), (8) Stacked Appearance, (9) Ithyphallic Appearance, (10) Androgynous & Gender Reversed Appearance, (11) Weird Gods & Fantastical Appearance.

Meditational deities perform the function of an imagined object of meditation for the observer/meditator. The object can be static, or dynamic, and worked into a ritualized series of active meditation visualizations following a traditional set of guidelines. There are a larger number of peaceful appearance deities in this collection with a smaller semi-peaceful assortment and six wrathful appearance deities. The appearance of a deity does not determine function. A peaceful deity might serve the function of a protector. A wrathful deity could be a meditational deity and not a protector. The function of deities needs to be learned on a case by case basis, although there are some general guidelines.

Only three of the compositions in the collection are true mandalas: (HAR 2184, 2185, 2214). There are many types and varieties of mandalas. The most important and the most common reproduced in painting are 'meditational deity mandalas' or more simply put, 'deity mandalas.' There are two compositions that are mandala-like rather than being true mandalas (HAR 2174, 2176). Both compositions depict the Buddhist pureland (or heaven) of Shambhala associated with the Kalachakra cycle of tantric practice and ritual. The pureland is depicted as a circle with geometrically arranged internal spaces as if it were a mandala.

Protector Deities are a classification based on function or activity. They can appear in any gender, or appearance, peaceful, semi-peaceful, wrathful, or animal-featured. Buddhist protectors are tasked with protecting the practitioner from external and internal dangers to religious life. There are two general classes of protector deity based on their spiritual advancement, such as high spiritual attainment and low spiritual attainment. The two types of classes are called Wisdom Protector and Worldly Protector.

Two paintings in the collection are painted on a black ground which is special for the protector deity known as Mahakala (HAR 2187, 2215). The black colour is obtained from cemetery ash and charcoal. Both of these compositions are in the same Lhatog (Khampa Gar) painting style of Eastern Tibet. They do not appear to be from the same set but are definitely from the same atelier.

Lakshmi (HAR 2196), is the only female in the protector deity group. Although she has a third eye on the forehead, she is still considered to be in Peaceful Appearance based on her narrow meditation-like eyes and passive expression. In this collection all five deities are classified as Wisdom protectors (HAR 2187, 2215, 2208, 2158, 2196).

There are two controversial paintings in the collection. They are controversial because they both depict a protector deity named Dorje Shugden. This protector has been deemed by the current Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso (b.1935) to be a mischievous spirit and harm doer. Some Tibetan Buddhists now have an almost irrational fear of this former protector deity along with his image in painting or sculpture. He is depicted as whitish in colour with one face and two hands holding in the right a curved sword with a vajra handle. In the left hand is a human heart. He is slightly fierce with three staring eyes and a gaping mouth with the canine teeth exposed. Richly attired in monastic robes, silk brocades, and a golden yellow riding hat of Chinese origin, he is completely surrounded by flames. The mount is a mythical Tibetan snow lion, white with a green-blue mane, fierce in appearance with a snarling face - gazing up at Dorje Shugden as an expression of respect. The images of the deity can be found at the bottom right and left corners of the paintings of Tsongkapa and Shakyamuni Buddha (HAR 2191, 2200).

There are two photo-realistic images in the collection. The first is a composition with the central figure of an unidentified Tantric yogi (HAR 2216). The second example is of a secondary figure depicting the teacher Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo (1878-1941) at the upper middle left side (HAR 2200).

There are many different painting styles represented in the collection ranging from the areas of Lhasa in Central Tibet all the way to East Tibet, including both Amdo to the North, and Kham to the South. The quality of the works in the collection also varies however there are a number of shining stars of both rare style and beauty accompanied by esoteric iconography and puzzling compositions yet to be fully explored and understood.

A great deal of explanation can be given in explaining each of the different aspects of the collection starting with the general topics of Art History, iconography, and religious and regional studies. In the beginning it is probably enough to know that Himalayan art is a broad field with hundreds of thousands of extant artistic works. Many collections, institutional and private, are available for study the world over. What you see is not always the full picture. Even a small collection can represent hundreds and hundreds of works in total.

Jeff Watt,
Himalayan Art Resources.
March 29th, 2017