Thursday, January 22, 2015

Buddha, Bodhisattvas and Dancing Girls

Yesterday I trekked over to the Block Museum of Art to check out the new exhibits. They are displaying a few collections of religious art from the Kashmir/Himalayan region, set up in two interlocking exhibitions.

(Block Museum: Collecting Paradise)

The main room is dedicated to "Collecting Paradise," which gives an interesting look at how these pieces were taken from their original shrines and monasteries, and set up in private collections as stand-alone pieces. The collectors viewed these Bodhisattvas and Buddhas as works of art created by artisans, suitable to be shown off in their homes.  Back in Kashmir, these were anonymous pieces of larger altars, that are now entirely useless as objects of adoration or meditation.

There is also a comparison to later pieces from the western Himalayas, showing how the techniques were picked up by traveling monks who collected icons to take back home with them, and then used them as inspiration for their own shrines. There are even some Hindu pieces that have obviously been formed from this migration of objects.

(Block Museum: Collecting Culture)

A separate room is dedicated to "Collecting Culture" and focuses on some of the men who brought these pieces back to the western world. We have Giuseppe Tucci, who was a leader in the Fascist party and was in Tibet looking for the roots of the pure European race. Disregarding the current inhabitants as degenerate, many religious pieces were boldly taken in the name of scientific preservation. Buddies Walter Koelz and Thakur Rup Chand, on the other hand, were motivated by profit, acquiring pieces for themselves or to re-sell to collectors, without any knowledge of the objects' context, "Aryan" or otherwise. And we're presented with the writings and films of William McGovern, who is a saint by comparison, but probably exaggerated his adventures, giving his audience the taste of exoticism that they desired.

(Block Museum: Toulouse-Latrec Prints)

There is also a tiny, student-curated exhibition of Toulouse-Latrec prints. This is a different sort of exoticism, portraying the world of dancers and actors to appeal to the middle-class. There are also a few prints of proper bourgeois citizens, showing the romantic side of Latrec's talent. Still, he's best know for the "rougher" images, and these are presented in pristine, colorful glory. I was particularly taken aback to see how much hand stippling was involved in filling in the background of "Divan Japonais." It's interesting to reflect on an urban environment that was once covered in posters of such detail and vivacity.

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