There’s a lovely and lyrical exhibition at the Asia Society titled Unknown Tibet: The Tucci Expeditions and Buddhist Painting, and although a degree in theology isn’t required to walk through, it wouldn’t hurt. The paintings, all done on cloth with water-based pigments and ranging from the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries, are of devotional subjects, and comprise two spiritual endeavors: the Path of Sutra and the Path of Tantra. The former is based on texts attributed to a Buddha, the latter is, according to the museum’s notes, “attributed to a tantric transformation of the Buddha that contains philosophical principals (sic) as well as instructions for ritual and meditation.” In other words, these are works of art designed for prayer and to facilitate the path to enlightenment, and they are arranged in a half dozen groupings that reflect the content of Tibetan daily invocations. Represented here are paintings of the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha, the Lama, the Yidam, and the Protectors of the Dharma. These acknowledge the Buddha and Buddhist teachings, Gurus, and lastly, the Protectors of sacred space.
Pictorial conventions were honored, as they were in Western iconography; like devotional paintings made during the northern and Italian Renaissance, these sometimes include the small, peripheral figures of donors and their families. Installed in one room is a series of Arhat paintings—what remains of a set of sixteen works originally hung around a temple altar—depicting monks who were disciples of the Shakyamuni Buddha. While each Arhat is shown enthroned in a more or less standard landscape and surrounded by his attributes and followers, there are variations of individual characteristics, as well as in the quality of painting. Among the finest of the set are those portraying Vajriputra Arhat and Vanavasin Arhat, their elegantly contrived gestures nearly identical, except for the delightful detail of Vanavasin’s exposed feet. A series of lama paintings presents a more varied iconography, owing to differences in the times and places of their creation. The most ornate, that of Tsongkhapa, was produced in India, and though it is based on a Tibetan wood block, it is anomalous here, more decorative than devotional.
In terms of creative imagery, it was the painters of the yidam—personal meditation deities—and the Protectors who drew the plum commissions. A yidam could be either a meditative or a wrathful deity, allowing for more demonstrative forms. A fifteenth-century representation of Chakrasamvara is true to Tibetan convention, the Mother Tantra having four heads and twelve arms and in mystical union with Vajravarahi. More fun still are the Protectors of the Dharma, the guardians of the mandala. In an 18th century painting, the Black Garuda assumes the posture of a standing eagle, wings outstretched to fend off illness and bad karma. The hallucinogenic highlight is Palden Lhamo, a female warrior deity—Lhasa’s principal guardian goddess—astride a horse. Moving amid a constellation of smoke and flame, animal and deity constitute a sort of Uccello on an acid trip. The image is fantastic in every sense.
These extraordinary painted scrolls (thangkas), are on loan from the National Museum of Oriental Art in Rome—the museum’s full Italian title bears Giuseppe Tucci’s name. Tucci’s story, even in severely abridged form, brings to mind a star turn by Harrison Ford or Humphrey Bogart: ambitious and brilliant, he was an expert on Tibetan Buddhism who navigated hostile terrain and political complications before and after World War II in an effort to preserve a vanishing culture. A native Italian, as a child he taught himself Chinese, Hebrew and Sanskrit. He was both a scholar and explorer, making multiple lengthy expeditions to the Himalayas that entailed rough travel and primitive accommodations. On his journeys to Nepal, India and Japan, Tucci also may have played a willing role in propagandizing on behalf of Italian fascism in the 1930s; a recent biography about him is called ‘Mussolini’s Explorer.’ One would like to think he was a pragmatist, traveling on his country’s dime in the service of a higher cultural calling, but he supposedly found the disciplines of fascism and Buddhism compatible. According to A Dictionary of Buddhism, “he was somewhat unscrupulous in his methods of obtaining materials from their Tibetan custodians;” the qualifying ‘somewhat’ suggests that history is hedging its bets on his character. After the Second World War, Tucci underwent an investigation that halted his career for several years before he was exonerated.
Tucci’s interest in Tibetan culture was genuine. He was the first western scholar to travel to the region for the purpose of studying its culture. He negotiated a tangle of British and Indian bureaucracy, but his mastery of languages impressed the Tibetan hosts. Through written and photographic documentation, he was intent on preserving a heritage then still visible in monasteries, temples and ruins, but little known in the west. He must have felt that he was racing against time: Tibetan and Indian authorities were uninterested in conserving monuments in these isolated and impoverished areas, and at least one abbot told him he’d prefer to simply paint over old murals. Ancient temples were in such a dire state of disrepair that Tucci sometimes detached portions of wall paintings in order to preserve them. Whatever the circumstances and motives surrounding Tucci’s acquisition of ancient materials, the tide of history would seem to have vindicated him in dramatic fashion. In the 1960s, Mao’s Cultural Revolution swept through Tibet, destroying nearly all its monasteries and erasing centuries of art, religious artifacts and scriptures.
“Tibet,” Tucci wrote, “was, and still is, the greatest love of my life; and the more I burn with this love, the more difficult it seems to satisfy with each visit. In eight trips, I have traveled far and wide, I lived in villages and monasteries, knelt before teachers and sacred images, crossed mountains in caravans and traversed deserts as vast as the sea, and debated issues of religion and philosophy with wise monks.” A fragment of what Tucci procured from those expeditions is on view for the first time in America, in peaceful confines at Park Avenue and 70th Street.
Unknown Tibet: The Tucci Expeditions and Buddhist Painting continues at Asia Society through May 20. The author thanks Adriana Proser, John H. Foster Senior Curator for Traditional Asian Art, for bringing the exhibition to his attention.