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Flatiron Hot! News | October 23, 2017

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Paradise in Chelsea: Buddhist Art of Kashmir at the Rubin Museum

Paradise in Chelsea: Buddhist Art of Kashmir at the Rubin Museum
Kristin Travagline

Reported by the Flatiron Hot! News Editorial Staff

On October 12th I traveled 45 minutes from my apartment on the Upper East Side to the Rubin Museum of Art in the heart of Chelsea, just a short walk from our own Flatiron location. My commute was nothing compared to that of three other visitors who perused the Rubin’s exhibition Collecting Paradise: Buddhist Art of Kashmir and its Legacies at the same time as myself.

Nicole He, her husband Jomo Wang, and their son Nico Yu traveled more than 15 hours from their home in Chengdu, China to visit the Rubin. Not only did they wish to visit the Rubin, they came to experience this particular exhibition and see the famous metal sculpture, “Crowned Buddha Shakyamuni,” which is more than a thousand years old. Yu described the piece as, “a world-famous piece of art.”

Made of copper, silver, and zinc inlays, this piece is “among the finest and most complex surviving examples” of lost-wax casting techniques. Although the sculpture stands one foot tall, every inch is sumptuously ornate. The golden Buddha sits atop a lotus beside two tall architectural reliquaries that stretch toward the sky. My gaze was immediately drawn to the central figure and his crown, the pinnacle of the sculpture. Stepping closer, I noticed minute details including tiny golden flowers and little circles that form the Buddha’s earrings. The entire sculpture is richly textured; I found myself wishing I could run my fingers over the bumpy folds in the Buddha’s clothing and the lotus’s smooth petals.

Famous 8th Century "Crowned Buddha Shakyamuni"

Famous 8th Century “Crowned Buddha Shakyamuni”

The Rubin specializes in artwork native to the Himalayas, India, and neighboring regions. They aim to promote cross-cultural connections that may inspire visitors “to contemplate ideas that extend across history and span human cultures.” Standing in front of “Crowned Buddha Shakyamuni,” Nicole He described her experience at the Rubin: “Here we can see a lot of masterpieces. Most of the pieces we have only read about in books. So now today we can see them with our eyes, right in front of us.”

Collecting Paradise, which closes this Monday, October 19th, transports us to Kashmir, a region that extends between present day Pakistan, India, and China. Nestled between the highest ranges of the Himalayan Mountains, Kashmir has long been described as a paradise, which its decadent artwork easily evokes. Delicately carved ivory. Elaborate metal sculptures.

Beginning in the 5th and 6th centuries, Kashmir bustled with cultural exchange and prestige. Buddhism flourished; artists crafted sophisticated sculptures, paintings, and manuscripts that Western Himalayan pilgrims collected. The Western Himalayans invited Kashmiri artists and teachers to their communities where they worked together to decorate monasteries and translate Buddhist texts into the Tibetan language.

Over time, Kashmiri art influenced the cultural identity of the Western Himalayan Buddhists. Rather than merely imitating Kashmiri artwork, the Western Himalayans developed their own distinct style, which Collecting Paradise highlights and celebrates. Moving counterclockwise, the exhibition begins with carved ivory and metal sculptures, such as “Crowned Buddha Shakyamuni,” that were brought to the Western Himalayas from Kashmir in the 7th through 12th centuries. The exhibition continues with sculptures and paintings created by Kashmiri and local artists in the Western Himalayas in the 11th through 14th centuries.

The last portion of the exhibition displays artwork created during the 15th through 17th centuries when Kashmiri aesthetics were revitalized in Western Tibet. One of my favorite pieces, “Four-Armed Mahakala,” made in Western Tibet during the 15th century, is featured in this section. Mahakala is known as “the destroyer of obstacles to enlightenment. Kashmiri artists created this type of wrathful deity image, but Western Himalayan artists intensified its expressive authority.”

A large, dark blue deity with four arms, wide eyes, and a crown of skulls sits in the center of the painting. Bright red surrounds his body in a flame-like pattern. Perhaps the most stunning aspect of this painting is the vibrancy of the pigment and the contrast between blues and reds. The combination of beauty and wrath conveys power that seems appropriate to both Kashmiri and Himalayan culture.

"Four Armed Mahakala," Western Tibet, 15th Century

“Four Armed Mahakala,” Western Tibet, 15th Century

The conclusion of the exhibition provides books and photographs for visitors to peruse if they wish to learn more about Kashmiri and Western Himalayan culture and artwork.

Nicole He and her family, having traveled all the way from China to visit Collecting Paradise, would certainly agree, this is not an exhibition to miss. The Rubin is located at 150 West 17th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. To plan your visit please go to their website: www.rubinmuseum.org or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

All information pertaining to Kashmiri and Western Himalayan artwork and culture derived from the Rubin Museum website and exhibition descriptions.