A brush with Tibet art

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 February, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 February, 1998, 12:00am

Living for a summer at the age of 19 in a Tibetan refugee camp in Ladakh, India, I was lucky enough to have some basic lessons in painting thankas from an artist with years of experience creating these traditional Tibetan religious artworks.

There was a curling ribbon in the picture, which I wanted to colour blue, but was told very firmly that it could only be green.

'Why?' I asked, a product of the questioning West.

'Because it has to be like that,' said Migmar, my teacher. And patiently he explained that Tibetan art is not like Western art: it is not an expression of individuality, but one of solidarity and continuity.

Each stroke of the brush must go just so, each gesture must be a copy of the gestures before.

There is a way to paint a thanka, and your artistic merit is gained from painting it in the right way, from forgetting your ego and remembering the tradition.

After such an immediate and personal explanation of style in Tibetan art tradition - for years remembered as an illustration to myself of how there are no absolute qualities in art, merely cultural ones - I picked up this heavy, glossy art history book with a quickening of interest.

It has been assembled as a very richly illustrated record of an important conference at the London School of Oriental and African Studies in 1994, co-hosted with the Victoria and Albert Museum, in which several dozen leading Himalayan art historians attempted to establish a vocabulary for discussing traditional Tibetan art styles.

It is a greatly needed book for interested Western readers: while 30 years ago little was known in the West of this rich tradition, and its scholarship outside the Himalayas was a lonely task, today the region is swarming with Western art historians with their photographic tripods, notebooks and dictionaries.

While about 90 per cent of monastic buildings in Tibet were destroyed by occupying Red Guard soldiers during the Cultural Revolution, and many of the treasures were destroyed, moved or smuggled out, there is still enough important remaining artwork to be the subject of thousands of doctorates.

A consolidation of the existing scholarship is therefore vital: if only this one could have been a bit more approachable.

Despite its coffee book appearance - the pages glow with lusciously reproduced paintings - this is not for the casual visitor to ancient Himalayan temples or the Tibetan galleries of museums.

It will not explain in easy terms how to tell between Sakyamuni and Maitreya Buddhas, nor the difference between green and white tara goddesses.

Instead, in its 23 chapters by different academics, the book mostly looks at rather more specialised subjects, like architectural styles of particular tombs, or the development of thanka styles within one monastery.

The book is full of interesting subjects, which are mostly dealt with in a rather academic writing style.

One chapter details rarely seen art objects from the remote areas of Mustang, Nepal.

Another debates how anyone can arrive at an agreement about regional art styles in a country so full of nomads and traders that the artefacts are also well travelled before any scholar has seen and recorded them. Another examines how younger refugee Tibetan artists are leading what can only be called a renaissance in the traditional styles, picking some aspects and rejecting others to make a new in-exile style.

This is a book designed for libraries and scholars. Most other people need less dry text, like that offered by another new book, Art of Tibet by Robert Fisher (Thames and Hudson, $135), a more down-to-earth description of Tibetan art small enough to carry on the MTR, yet still with some wonderful colour pictures.

Yet the beautifully lush art pictures of Tibetan Art make it a joy for anyone.

Tibetan Art: Towards a definition of style Edited by Jane Casey Singer and Philip Denwood Laurence King, $1,000