Himalayan Art Resources

Publication: Zhiguan Museum (Article)

Zhiguan Museum (Article) | Zhiguan Museum Page

Introduction to Art

Human created objects are always defined and explained according to the perspective of the viewer. For the objects created in a particular style with related roots and origins from the Himalayan regions along with the Tibetan plateau, China and areas of central and north Asia, then the terms ‘Himalayan Art’ or ‘Himalayan style art’ are commonly used. This is a very broad term intended to be inclusive. There are simply too many regions, cultures and countries that are related to Himalayan style art to be able to use them in normal day to day communication. A more technical definition worked out with the aid of Gene Smith some years ago is as follows...

“Himalayan 'Style' Art is art that is indigenous to the Himalayas, predominantly Tibet, Nepal and Kashmir, and the areas under the cultural sway of these cultures.”

As to the particular subject and character the definition further states... “Himalayan 'style' art is primarily concerned with religious subjects and is recognizable through the use of composition, symbols and motifs.” A unique Himalayan art feature not commonly found with other forms of art is given in the final line of the definition... “Individual works of art are commonly created in sets forming much larger works of art.” (Gene Smith, Ben Brinkley, Jeff Watt. 2001).

The many geographic regions that are involved are vast and cover the areas of Kashmir, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibetan Plateau (China), Northern China, Mongolia and Southern Siberia (Russia).

In the very center of Beijing is Beihai a Himalayan style stupa and reliquary mound. Again, a very short distance to the west is a stupa created by the famous Nepalese artist Aniko (Araniko) in the 13th century also famed as the architect for the Wutaishan Stupa. Along the Pacific Ocean at locations such as Hangzhou, south of Shanghai, Himalayan art from the Yuan period can be found.

The subjects of the art are primarily religious in nature and drawn from the religions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Bon and various Tribal groups.

There are many types and mediums of art but two categories of objects stand out as the principal art forms, painting and sculpture. With paintings, murals and scrollwork, the artistic style is best recognized through composition, accompanied by symbols and motifs unique to the individual Himalayan regions, as well as from artistic and cultural exchange with other great neighboring civilizations. Textile art can be added as a third category although the designs for textile scrolls are based on painted models and drawings with artist’s notations.

Sculpture is primarily figurative in form with both very small and very large examples. Metal is the primary medium followed by stone and other substances. The figures depict religious, historical and mythical characters such as the historical Buddha, Indian gods, Tantric deities - with multiple heads and arms, and famous philosophers and teachers. Like painting, sculpture is often created in sets of works with the intention that all of the individual pieces be displayed as a single whole.

It is generally said by religious teachers and the devoted followers that Himalayan art is created for the purpose of acquiring merit. This is a common and universal response which does not do justice or begin to explain why objects of artistic value are created. The function of the various forms of art and the motivation for the creation of such objects can generally be divided into seven categories. Some objects can belong to more than one category such as ritual objects made at the request of the Yongle Emperor for the purpose of gift exchange with teachers, temples and monasteries, can be of a very high decorative and artistic quality. Objects can also be created for one or two reasons and then later re-purposed for another use such as initiation cards being framed and then strung together into a banner to be hung in a small temple or chapel. A painting or sculpture made as a commodity could later be owned by an important teacher and then re-classified after his passing as a sacred or devotional object.

The seven main reasons for the creation of art objects are devotional, didactic, narrative, utilitarian, memorial, commodity, and decorative.

Devotional objects are related to faith, the creation of merit, i.e. good karma. The objects might also relate to personal, or community, practice or a required object based on a religious oath. Examples of such works are the figure of a Buddha, a deity or a famous teacher, both for personal shrines and public temples.

Didactic works are created for the purposes of education and instruction. This category almost exclusively refers to painting. It is nearly unheard of to find sculptural objects that have a didactic function. Examples of didactic works are medical and astrological charts, cityscape and pilgrimage paintings, along with the famous Wheel of Life painting.

Narrative works are paintings that are biographical, story-telling, fables or epics. The narrative type is one of the three main subject types, along with figurative and diagrammatic, of Himalayan style painting. Again, narrative works are primarily referring to painting. Only a few examples of sculptural works related to indicating and contextualizing a story are known.

Utilitarian works can be both painting and sculpture. The main purpose is for ritual use. Utilitarian works are functional such as the creation of clay molds (tsatsa), initiation cards, ritual objects such as a vajra and bell. The vast majority of utilitarian objects are not fine art.

Memorial works are objects created for funerary purposes, a painting or a sculpture to mark or commemorate the passing of a family member or a special teacher, or community leader. The objects created for such purposes can be painting or sculpture. Paintings are more commonly found in Buddhism and sculpture are more commonly found in the Bon religion for funerary purposes.

Works of art created as a commodity are objects that are purpose made for gift exchange, if it is sponsored by political figures and regional leaders, or simply for sale as a business transaction for the sake of profit. Other examples are decorative art that are mass produced, pilgrimage and temple shop art, along with ritual objects. All the new Tibetan paintings seen in the marketplace are by definition created for the purpose of commodity, not for devotional reasons. However, a customer might purchase a painting or sculpture and treat it as a devotional work and place it in a reverential place on a shrine, or offer it to a temple, or teacher.

Decorative works are made with the intention to change something from plain or unadorned into something beautiful. Examples of such works are religious book covers, furniture, amulet boxes, and textile works used to adorn homes or temples. Decorative works can also have the purpose of being a commodity.

As mentioned above, painting have three main subject types, figurative, narrative and diagrammatic, whereas sculpture is almost exclusively figurative. For the figures in art, both painting and sculpture, they are divided into eleven different appearances based solely on visual characteristics: buddha, elder (lohan), king, monastic, layperson, siddha, peaceful deity, semi-peaceful deity, wrathful deity, animal featured deity, and warrior.

Sculpture has eleven topics that are useful for the analysis of a three-dimensional object. The first is (1) subject which means identifying the subject of the sculpture according to one of the eleven figurative forms and after further observation establishing a more precise identification and name of the figure being represented. For example a sculpture could have the general appearance of a buddha but then the exact identity of that buddha must be ascertained.

The general (2) region of production has to be established which is also associated quite closely with the time period of creation. These two, region and period, are more closely aligned with early sculpture where broad regional styles are more easily identified.

For establishing a (3) period it is generally done through comparison of style and characteristics with other sculpture that have been well researched and published. Knowledge is like architecture and needs to be based on a strong foundation of previous research and also acknowledgement of past mistakes.

The various (4) styles of sculpture are very much tied to region and period. Cultural differences based on earlier styles, used as inspiration or examples, along with local aesthetic taste in body form and facial features account for many of the differences. Headdress, jewelry and dress are important indicators along with the seat, lotus or throne, atop which the figure is placed. For early standing sculpture emphasis is also placed on the traditional Indian tribanga posture.

The finishing, or patina, of a sculpture can vary from simple unadorned metal to (5) gilding, incising or inset stones. Generally there are two types of gilding, mercuric gild and applied cold gold. For the incising on mercuric guild sculpture it often appears very shallow having been done prior to the gilding process. For the unadorned sculpture the incising can be either deep or shallow followed by a resin rubbed over the surface to darken the incised patterns and in the process creating a greater contrast of the different elements and aspects of the figure.

With the analysis of any work of art (6) comparables are indispensable and more important for sculpture than for the study of painting. The reason for this is because paintings are far more complex, and typically, the composition has much more information to share with the observer or researcher. Sculpture is usually a single object with no background, no complimentary figures to assist in the analysis of the subject, style or region.

Half or more of all Himalayan art is created in (7) sets. This applies to painting, textile, and sculpture. It is important to try and discern based on comparables or context whether a sculpture is a single one-off creation, or whether it belongs to a bigger set of works. Sometimes this can be determined by knowing the subject, at other times it can be learned from inscriptions.

Understanding the greater (8) context of a sculptural work is based on accumulating more and more specific knowledge of the piece, along with studying comparables and having some cultural and religious background knowledge. Inscriptions written around the base of a sculpture are most useful. There are generally three types of inscriptions found on a sculpture: name, dedication, and a number and placement reference such ax right, left or center. The name inscription is usually short, possibly just the name itself or an abbreviation of the name. Sometimes there will be a standard honorific word or language to accompany the name, often in Sanskrit, but written in Newari, Tibetan, Lantza, or some other script available to the artist or donor. The second type, the dedication, can be longer and comprised of one or more sentences. Often the dedication names the individual or individuals that the sculpture is dedicated to, along with the donor’s name, and occasionally the artists name, place of creation, and even more rarely with a date.

As with all artworks time, climate, and geo-political changes effect the works. The physical (9) condition of an artwork must always be assessed. Look for any breaks or broken parts, newly made replacement parts, old replacements of arms legs or attributes. The patina is of concern and could be susceptible to bronze disease. Mercuric gilding could have been applied and then removed or cold gold on the face. Cold gold and gilding can also be used to cover up flaws in the casting process. Over cleaning is always a concern. Museums, large and small, and university galleries always create a condition report for all of their holdings along with detailed digital photographs, or black and white photographs on archival paper for long term storage.

There are different reasons why individuals choose to collect, analyze or study works of art. For some (10) aesthetics plays a leading role. Aesthetics are usually culturally established over generations of collectors, scholars and observers and a canon, or guidebook, a loose manual, of aesthetic standards are established. There is of course the danger that this could be very subjective and culturally biased.

With any type of artwork, or an art style, or artist, there seems always to be some kind of (11) controversy. A common controversy for sculpture has always been the dating. Many different experts might disagree on the exact dates. Region of origin can be very aggressively disputed. A known artist in history might have a number of works attributed by inscription or oral history, but disputes can arise as to what an early artist actually created and what did the students, or the later atelier create. Fakes are plentiful in the market place and they can also find their way into museum and private collections.

Understanding just a little about Himalayan art requires some knowledge of the geographic area covered, along with the early and later influences on the art due to cultural and aesthetic differences. The strength of the Zhiguan Museum collection, at this time, is sculpture with some very fine examples of some of the best works to have survived over the last two millennium.

Jeff Watt, Beijing, China. June, 2018