More than Meets the Eye – “Flip Side” Exhibit at Rubin Museum of Tibetan Art Reveals Secrets
By Kristin Travagline and the Flatiron Hot News Editorial Staff
A black deity holds a human heart to his snarling, open mouth. Peacock plumes, snakes, and flames flow from his jeweled crown of skulls. Blood drips from his garland of human skulls. This exotic, exciting 19th-century Tibetan painting is featured in the exhibition “Flip Side” at the Rubin Museum of Art located in the Flatiron District on 17th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. “Flip Side” will be on display until February 10th. This is not one to be missed.
As you examine this creation more closely, minute details become more and more apparent until the intricacies overwhelm and pull you into the composition. Although appearing to be, to the casual western observer, a wrathful, fierce and terrifying image, the Black Maning is actually, to those who know the Tibetan culture, a benevolent and protective figure. Rather than embodying evil qualities, wrathful deities represent the immense effort involved in vanquishing evil and violence.
Tibetan art, primarily religious in nature, is consecrated with text and images found on the backs of works. The texts and images include mantras, poems, drawings, and handprints of eminent masters. Although rarely seen, the “flip sides” of these pieces can reveal clues to their meaning, function, and historical context, which the Rubin takes excellent advantage of by displaying both sides of Tibetan scroll paintings (thangka), sculptures, and picture cards (tsakali).
The hand print of the seventh Dalai Lama, Lobsang Kalzang Gyatso, marks the reverse of the 18th-century Tibetan painting. The hand print, surrounded by a rainbow and embellished with a golden wheel, was identified through an inscription on the painting’s back. Dorje Dragtsen, a demon converted into a protector of Buddhism, is painted on the front of the work: “Blue in color, he holds a stick and a snake noose and rides a snake, an unusual vehicle,” the museum description humorously states.
The exhibition includes other rare pieces, including a 14th-century Tibetan gilt copper alloy sculpture of Vajrasattva, the personification of Vajra, or the thunderbolt. Usually Tibetan sculptures contain consecration materials inside of the body; it is extremely rare to find mantras written or engraved directly on the back of an image, as are two on this piece.
The backs of the pieces constitute as much of an artistic viewing experience as the fronts. For instance, two sets of red handprints mysteriously emerge from a black canvas on the reverse side of Black Yimari, dating from 1755-1788. A variety of elegant, curling scripts also adorn the backs.
The blank areas of canvas simultaneously emphasize the elaborate scripts and convey a powerful, calm silence, such as when an author skillfully spaces poetry on the page. In fact, the fronts and backs function in conversation with one another as the text is typically aligned with the figures on the front of the work, linking the two in meaning and composition.
Exploring “Flip Side” is like being let in on a secret. One at first gathers a general impression of a piece, such as Black Maning, until one looks more closely and realizes the extreme detail and precision of the work. One might take in the sublime colors of a painting before one notices the violent imagery. The pieces gradually reveal themselves to the viewer. The backs whisper and hint at their beautiful mysteries.