June 06, 2006:

[achtung! kunst] *exhibition* : New York, Metropolitan Museum: Tibetan virtuosity shines in the art of warfare ("Warriors of the Himalayas: Rediscovering the Arms and Armor of Tibet")

IHT, JUNE 3, 2006
Tibetan virtuosity shines in the art of warfare
By Souren Melikian International Herald Tribune

NEW YORK It is not easy to write lucidly about a distant culture imperfectly understood by the outside world when you are a stranger to it, however sympathetic you may be. Novelty and beauty, however, can make the temptation too compelling to be resisted if you are a museum person.

The exhibition of Tibetan arms and armor put together at the Metropolitan Museum by the curator Donald LaRocca, on view until July 4, is indeed the first of its kind. Everything about the show, from the display designed by Michael Langley in close collaboration with LaRocca, to the curator's opening chapter of the exhibition book, speaks of a labor of love spread over 11 years.

The title, which is also that of the book, "Warriors of the Himalayas: Rediscovering the Arms and Armor of Tibet," describes exactly what the viewer and reader are offered, a work in progress, as enticing visually as it is often intellectually frustrating.

Factual information is patchy. A good deal of the documentation that might have yielded detailed knowledge was scattered to the winds as countless temples where many pieces were preserved were sacked by the invading Cultural Revolution zealots.

In her essay on the armor and weapons with which Buddhist deities are equipped in Tibetan art, Amy Heller illustrates a figure of Vaisravana, "god of wealth and also guardian of the north," carved in high relief, probably in the late eighth century, in order to show what some early breastplates were like. The face of the stone figure is smashed. The sculpture itself is a fragment knocked off a rock relief or a wall, lying in the gravel on the site of the famous monastery at Samye where Heller photographed it in 1986.

Most of the objects, like so many other Tibetan works of art, would never have left the Himalayan highlands had it not been for the massive cultural looting of a land forcibly annexed, followed by the emigration of hundreds of thousands who sold what they could to survive. Others, as always in any mass human catastrophe, happily organized the commerce that fed tens of thousands of artifacts to the Western art trade. It is no surprise that many pieces are given conjectural dates, and, worse, hypothetical regional provenance.

This begins with the earliest object, an iron helmet in the shape of a dome with a pointed profile, dug up or recovered from a cache locked up for centuries. It would be vital to know where. "Possibly Tibetan, 8-10th century," the heading speculates, although at the end of the entry, LaRocca writes more confidently about "the earliest extant helmet with clearly distinguishable Tibetan characteristics."

The Tibetan connection is established by the method of fabrication, eight iron plates held together by riveted copper bands instead of a single iron bowl, and the finial of a type found later in specimens that are clearly of Tibetan make.

This is followed by a series of other helmets of bewildering diversity. LaRocca prudently hedges his bets when it comes to determining origin and period. "Multi-plate helmet of forty- nine lames, probably Mongolian or Tibetan, 15th-17th century," reads the heading of one, bought by the Met in 2001. "Multi-plate helmet of forty-two lames, possibly Tibetan, Mongolian or Chinese, 15th century," says the heading of the next piece loaned by the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, England. This came from a 1985 sale at Sotheby's New York. Add that the finial and visor are later additions (the helmet probably never had a visor) and the conundrum becomes opaque.

Similar hesitations affect most of the helmets. "Mongolian or Chinese, 1350- 1450" refers to an iron helmet with patterns in gold overlay interpreting Chinese motifs in a manner that does not suggest a Chinese hand. "Possibly Iranian or Central Asian, 14th-16th century," says the entry of another helmet that does not remotely stand a chance of being Iranian either in design or technique.

The uncertainty extends to much of the material in the show. The phrase "Tibetan or Mongolian" recurs like a leitmotif.

Luckily, at intervals, pure gems of shape and formal decoration leave no doubt about Tibetan accomplishments in the art of warfare, the supposed peacefulness of Buddhism notwithstanding.

An art, it undoubtedly was. A ceremonial spearhead acquired by the Met in 1999 is a three-dimensional masterpiece of geometricized form and patterns in gold and silver.

The pervading uncertainty that plagues the show does not reflect any lack of originality on the part of Tibetan craftsmen. They were brilliantly creative, even when borrowing motifs from other repertoires, as artists from all cultures do.

Two wrought iron and gold objects unrelated to warfare which are displayed for comparative purposes demonstrate the virtuosity of Tibetan metalworkers of the 15th or 16th century. One, on loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, is a circular openwork case for carrying precious porcelain or jade bowls which would be protected by felt or yak hair padding. Chinese dragons squirming amid seething dense scrolling motifs are transformed beyond recognition by the Tibetan artist's interpretation.

The other piece, a door fitting from the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, is even more beautiful. Here, too, a dragon motif and two lotus blossoms are borrowed from China. The muscular ferocity of the mythical reptile and the seething scroll work bear no resemblance to anything Chinese.

Tibetan virtuosity was maintained into the 19th century and extended to all models, including those adopted in later times.

Matchlock muskets were probably introduced into Tibet from Mogul India judging from their elongated barrels and slender stocks. Indeed, according to a Tibetan source read by Gene Smith, the American Tibetologist quoted by LaRocca, a Portuguese emissary gave in 1635 or 1636 matchlock muskets, cannon and gunpowder to the ruler of Bhutan, an independent area that is culturally Tibetan. The emissary would have arrived from India, where there was a Portuguese presence at the Mogul court.

The model remained virtually unchanged into the early 20th century. Two muskets, one from the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, the other from the Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey, show that Tibetan artists had lost none of their brio when working patterns in repoussé silver sheet or engraving them on bone plaques.

As visitors leave the show, many will retain impressions of wonder at some of the splendid objects and dizziness induced by so much hypothetical labeling.

Vagueness in attribution is alas inevitable in a field where systematic research has only just begun. LaRocca's pioneering endeavor is heroic. It has one major historical justification. Whether Tibetan, Mongolian or Chinese, all the arms and armor are known to have come out of Tibet and that in itself throws some light on a quasi-unknown aspect of Tibetan history and culture.

The exhibition might have gained from being more extensively set in the context of the arts of Tibet but then, perhaps, it would have become too complex and lost some of its atmosphere of "war-in-the-mysterious Himalayas."

What could undoubtedly have been improved is the outline of the Asian context in which arms and armor developed in Tibet. Not much is said about the massive presence of Tibetans at the imperial court of Beijing in the late 15th century and the general interaction of Chinese and Tibetan art at that period.

In a chapter on the "History of Ironworking in Tibet," John Clarke, a curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum, points out the connections with the Iranian world but some howlers regrettably mar the attempt.

Unaware that "the Sasanians" were a dynasty whose kings ruled Iran from A.D. 224 to 651, not a nation, the English curator writes that "the iron and steel technologies of Sasania and Sogdia might have reached Tibet and enabled it to develop its own arms and industry at an early date."

Too many basic inaccuracies crop up, such as the confusion between Transoxiana and Sogdia. This is astounding in a book published under the twin imprint of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press. The ultimate fallout of the Cultural Revolution that devastated Tibet, perhaps?




with kind regards,

Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)



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