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April 7 - 14, 2000

[Art Reviews]

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Saved Tibet

A picture window into the exiled world of Buddhism

by Leon Nigrosh

At the Springfield Museum of Fine Arts and the G.W.V. Smith Art Museum, 220 State Street, Springfield, through April 30

Even if you are not familiar with the precepts and concepts of Tibetan Buddhism, the trio of exhibitions featuring Tibetan art now on display in the museums on the Quadrangle in Springfield are not only informative, but also visual delights.

The first, and by far the most enlightening, is "The Mystical Arts of Tibet," which is arranged in several galleries of the Springfield Museum of Fine Arts. In an effort to preserve Tibetan culture, the Loseling Institute in Atlanta has assembled a collection of 108 eye-catching religious and secular objects. Since the Chinese invasion in 1949, Tibet has been all but closed to the West. More than 90 percent of Tibetan artifacts were either carried off or destroyed by the intruders. Fortunately, many of the works on display were smuggled out of Tibet by the Buddhist monks of the Drepung Loseling monastery and brought safely into India, the exile home to the monastery.

The installation's overall effect is breathtaking. The colors, the fabric textures and patterns, the gleaming bronze and silver -- all of it competes for attention. Add the meticulous craftsmanship exhibited and you have a feast for the eyes. Not to mention, the majority of the esoteric subjects consist of many-headed, multi-armed creatures that are designed to instill fear in the hearts of whomever they encounter -- or so it may seem.

Take Vajrabhairava. In this 19th-century tangka (or sacred, painted scroll), we see a giant, blue, buffalo-faced figure holding a ritual knife in one of its 34 hands, which are shown scooping the brains out of a skull. The creature's necklace is composed of human heads, it's circled by blazing flames, and all around it people are in pain. We wouldn't want to cross paths with this fellow. But the nearby didactic panel goes to great lengths to assure us the "The Diamond Terrifier" (a/k/a "The Opponent of Death") is really on the side of the faithful. A small 12th-century bronze casting of this deity, with its multiple heads and arsenal of weaponry, is a little less terrifying.

We can easily admire the artisanry involved in the articulation of a two-foot-high, 16th-century bronze dancer, Vajrayogini. This deity may have the body of a 16-year-old, but, according to the wall plaque, she holds the wisdom of the ages. Never mind the garland of 50 dried-up skulls, the cup of blood, or the fact that she is crushing two hapless figures with her feet. To the initiated, these are symbols of passion transforming into wisdom -- a major step toward enlightenment. She can be seen again in all her fiery red, female glory as she dominates the activities in an early 20th-century tangka, surrounded by her wrathful blue bodyguards and attended by hundreds of ancestral practitioners.

Other objects worth noting are the 10-foot-tall dung-chen trumpets, which emit elephant-like musical sounds and telescope down to less than four feet when not being played. Then there are three dramatic stupas, or bronze memorial urns; an intricately chased silver butter lamp; and the original saffron monk's robe that belongs to His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama.

In another area of the Fine Arts Museum, Loseling monks completed a four-foot-diameter mandala sand painting. It took six days to draw out the complex geometric forms and then fill them in with layers of multicolored, vegetable-dyed white sand. Such sacred circles, through their many levels of symbolism, are thought to reconsecrate the earth and its inhabitants. Normally, the monks destroy these sacred circles soon after completion, but this one will remain on display until the close of the exhibition. Then monks will perform the ritual sweeping, and then hold a public desanctification and pour the sand into Connecticut River to carry the healing energies throughout the world.

Across the quad at the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum more than 150 local students, under the guidance of Tibetan artist Kalsang Lodoe Oshoe, have created "Katmandu," an artistic interpretation of three 11th-century Tibetan temples. The central figure is Shakyamuni Buddha, a mixed-media sculpture eight feet tall and painted gold. He sits on a lotus, the symbol of purity, and holds his hands in the mudra position, "witness to his enlightenment." In contrast, in the shrine of The Black Mahakala, a fierce, six-armed deity resplendent in skulls, blood, and eviscerated mammals stands ready to help believers find enlightenment by overcoming their frailties. In the shrine room of the female bodhisattva of compassion, a life-size Green Tara is adorned with beautiful silken clothes and glittering jewelry as reminders of her heavenly status. The detailing in all of these sculptures attests to the skills and energy of the young people who were involved in the construction.

Allow yourself plenty of time to view these exhibits. The fascinating imagery, uncommon to most Westerners, is engaging by itself. But to better understand these objects are not thought of as art by Buddhists but rather as metaphorical religious objects, invest in the color catalogue that accompanies "The Mystical Arts of Tibet." It answers specific questions about each item, and serves as a primer about Tibetan Buddhism.

The museums are open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. Call (413) 263-6800.


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