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Publication: Tibetan Contemporary Painting: Symbolic Art

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Tibetan Contemporary Painting: Symbolic Art

The traditional arts of Tibet are primarily founded on painting and sculpture. Over the past fifteen years or more, Contemporary Tibetan art in all its variations has started to make a name for itself. It all began very modestly with a number of young artists expressing themselves in different mediums, both traditional and current, from painting and sculpture to performance art and multi-media. Much of the new art is comprised of painting and a large percentage of this is borrowing from the themes, styles and motifs of the traditional two-dimensional art which is rooted heavily in religious imagery, iconography and narrative.

One of the challenges at present is to understand the place and purpose of this new art and how we are to understand its meaning and relevance in relation to the traditional art which remains very popular and well represented in the world’s great art institutions and collections.

With painting as the most prolific of the traditional art forms it would appear quite natural that painting would also be quite dominant in the Tibetan contemporary art world. The subjects, types and topics of paintings are many and varied. Especially with the subjects of the traditional painting there is a very steep learning curve which presupposes an extensive knowledge and foundation in literature and ritual religious texts.

Somewhat removed from the traditional art, a new and different set of tools and categorization are necessary in order to understand the new contemporary paintings. Based on what is available to see currently and what has been observed over the past couple of decades, contemporary painting falls into three broad categories or genres of subject and composition. They are [ 1] traditional, [2] symbolic and [3] modern.

Three General Painting Subjects: Traditional, Symbolic, Modern

Traditional painting over the past one thousand years has transitioned through four major composition types and numerous regional and artist inspired styles. Traditional paintings which are still created today, in ever increasing numbers, and now included as part of contemporary art, can be divided into three dominant types: [1] orthodox contemporary, [2] decorative contemporary and [3] souvenir art.

Traditional Painting: Orthodox, Decorative, Souvenir Art

Orthodox contemporary refers to the traditional ‘tangka’ paintings that are still being created at the present time according to well established standards of iconometric measurement, hierarchy of figures and subjects, iconographic accuracy based on Sanskrit and Tibetan literature, along with traditional methods of creating the ground, pigments, detailing and framing. This is the contemporary continuation of the Tibetan ‘tangka’ painting tradition.

Decorative contemporary paintings are compositions that appear to be orthodox paintings but are not. The compositions follow the general appearance of orthodox paintings but only copy from other traditional paintings without any understanding of the identity of the figures or hierarchy of the subjects, or meaning of the overall composition. Pretend paintings such as these that are not created correctly or accurately are commonly sold as legitimate orthodox ‘tangkas.’

Souvenir: The last of the three subjects of traditional painting but not least in importance is souvenir art. This has been discussed at length by Yael Bentor in her excellent December 1993 article titled: Tibetan Tourist Thangkas in the Kathmandu Valley. ‘Souvenir art’ is a marginally better way of saying ‘tourist art.’ The use of the word ‘tourist’ puts a lot of the responsibility on the unknowing purchaser of the painting whereas the creator and seller are often taking advantage of the tourist or devout pilgrim. Souvenir art is made as a pastiche of a traditional painting without any meaningful concern for subjects and figures of the painting. Souvenir art generally has no religious or spiritual meaning whatsoever other than what is imputed by the owner or insinuated by the seller.

Symbolic Art

Symbolic art is more in keeping with what might be considered contemporary art as it is generally known today. This form of art is a borrowing of all kinds of cultural and religious symbols, motifs, icons, and using them in new ways without any consideration for the orthodox paintings, hierarchy or methods of creation used in the past. Much of the new art falls under this category with examples such as the appropriation of single letters from the Tibetan alphabet or the re-visioning of orthodox ‘tangkas’ replacing the central subjects for modern comic book heroes and new cultural celebrities. The subject of symbolic contemporary Tibetan art is what is generally considered to be the main thrust of the movement.

Modern Art

Modern art is here meant as modern contemporary art. Examples of this form of painting are varied and many. The general characteristics are the complete lack of any traditional compositions or themes, subjects or hierarchical structure. Art of this variety can follow any style or regional influence. It can be portrait, landscape or abstract. This form of art can also be characterized as International
contemporary art.

Five Appearance Types: Figurative, Symbolic, Design, Landscape, Abstract

The three general contemporary painting subjects of traditional, symbolic and modern can employ all five appearance types individually or in various combinations. The specific definitions for the three painting subjects will in some cases determine the dominant or passive use of the five appearance types. For example the traditional orthodox paintings will not employ very much abstract or landscape features. Modern painting will not likely use very much traditional symbolism.
Figurative appearance is the heart of traditional ‘tangka’ painting along with secondary features such as symbols framed within a composition that has strong elements of repeated design. The symbolic appearance can be found with a number of different types of minor orthodox traditional art. Initiation cards are ritual images created like a deck of playing cards with each face having a different image. A single card can have a single image or several images. The image only appears on one side with the reverse blank, or sometimes having explanatory inscription written in Tibetan language. The design appearance can refer to any modern or traditional repeated motifs. Landscape appearance has never been a popular form of art in Tibetan culture but it has played a role as an element of the background composition in paintings, especially after the 16th century. Abstract appearance is a modern art concept that is often found in close proximity to the term surreal, or surrealism. With surreal art the subjects are often figurative or symbolic whereas with the abstract art any figures or symbols have been obscured to the point of unrecognizable to the viewer.

The Artist

Of the three general painting subjects, traditional, symbolic and modern, the symbolic is probably the most utilized in current Tibetan contemporary art. It is really only with this subject of painting that the artist can convey self-expression within the framework of Tibetan visual culture and handpicked imagery. In other words, the individual can be identified as a Tibetan contemporary artist because there are recognizable visual Tibetan elements and motifs seen in the finished work of art.

Some current Tibetan artists of note have trained in traditional Chinese fine art, or traditional Western art and fine art. Some of these artists have had no training at all in any Tibetan art, traditional, contemporary, or any Tibetan literature which supports the creation of orthodox traditional art. Further to this, any claim by an individual or group of individuals that someone is an artist is readily understandable to all, however, a claim of being a Tibetan artist or a Tibetan contemporary artist becomes a very vague claim indeed. There are two very easy possible meanings that quickly come to mind. The first, a Tibetan artist is someone who is ethnically Tibetan and creates art (of any type). The second meaning is anyone, regardless of ethnicity, who creates art in a style that is considered Tibetan, be it traditional, contemporary or otherwise.

A number of well-known contemporary Tibetan artists claim to be well trained in the traditional ‘tangka’ painting style. This is a popular skill and a solid background of training popularly used to qualify and bring respectability to a contemporary artist. Of course such claims can sometimes be dubious and must be supported by artistic examples and proven skill.

Contemporary artists will generally follow one or two of the general art subjects. Those artists that create traditional paintings for the most part remain within that genre of composition. Artists that create symbolic works might also venture more broadly and paint in any general modern style that attracts them in some way.
Individual styles will evolve from the artists themselves based on their preferred genre and the body of works created. The style of an artist is generally only discerned based on a volume of work over time. Artists of course can always change or vary their style over time.

The Artist Orgyan Chopel & Symbolic Art

One of the most interesting artists of our time that creates two-dimensional works on paper is Orgyan Chopel, a Tibetan from Sichuan Province. He exemplifies symbolic contemporary painting in a unique way that has not been seen with other contemporary or earlier artists of this genre. The uniqueness is found in both the figurative subject matter and the positioning of elements in the composition. Orgyan Chopel has borrowed, copied and transformed the traditional Tibetan miniature paintings known as ‘initiation cards’ (tsakali) and appropriated them for himself and for visual communication in contemporary modern times. Initiation cards are traditionally used in Buddhist initiation rituals. The subjects of the cards can be figurative, symbolic and in some cases surreal bordering on the abstract.

In the paintings of Orgyan Chopel, he freely uses the traditional symbols alongside modern landscape scenes, images of the human body, partial, full, naked or clothed. It is as if he is trying to take very large complex subjects, dismantle and reduce them to basic elemental and emotional components, and then reassemble the three, four or five primary pieces into a manageable quintessential image of the original subject.

The physical human sense organs such as the eyes and ears along with hands, breasts and a host of naturist symbols such as flowers, trees and birds flood the landscapes and skies of the compositions. Water in various forms acts as a fluidity, a movement, as well as a glue in many compositions. The fluidity enlivens the various components and relates them to each other in a series that can be read in different non-linear directions. Short verses of poetic inspiration accompany most compositions.

The use of traditional imagery such as the arrow, conch shell, wish-fulfilling jewel, wheel or reliquary mound are not gratuitous or overplayed. The symbolic elements are inserted sparingly, with tempered thought and a suitableness which belies an understanding of their true meaning and use. Each of the compositions created by Orgyan Chopel can be viewed from a finely trained traditional point of experience or by a lay observer with little or no prior knowledge of Tibetan Traditional or contemporary art.

From a Tibetan point of view the compositions are filled with cultural symbols and motifs. From a modern outside perspective the individual works might be characterized more as surreal. The art terms really don’t matter so much outside of the classroom and curriculum study courses. What is really special here, with this artist and his work, is to see a traditional art form, the ‘tsakali,’ transformed and re-purposed in meaningful ways for a new generation of visual thinkers.

Jeff Watt 6-2017