On Exhibit: exquisite artifacts from the roof of the world | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Exhibit: exquisite artifacts from the roof of the world 

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"The purpose of this show is to establish a benchmark for what are the finest, most beautiful objects of Himalayan art," says Pratapaditya Pal, the visiting curator who developed the Art Institute's new exhibit, "Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure." Including 187 mostly religious pieces from Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Kashmir, and northern India, the show is the largest ever of objects from the region--many from private collections and previously unexhibited--and is the first comprehensive look at the art produced by its many interrelated cultures.

The Himalayas cover 1,550 miles from Jammu and Kashmir to Tibet--like "a girdle hugging the hips of Asia," says Pal--and have inspired awe and worship for ages. The region's name means "house of snow" in Sanskrit, and its peaks, lakes, and rivers are considered sacred by its inhabitants. In Hindu mythology, Pal points out, Himalaya is "personified as the father of the goddess Parvati, daughter of the mountain." In Buddhism too the names of the peaks are religiously charged. "Everest, to use the colonial British name, has a Tibetan name that means 'mother of the world.'"

Little is known about the early indigenous people of the region, who produced mostly utilitarian objects, but the visual arts began to flourish in the fifth century when Hinduism and Buddhism throve peacefully side by side. "Tibet was under the sway of Buddhism from the seventh century on," says Pal, "and Nepal served as a bridge between it and the Sanskrit south."

Most of the elaborately carved statues of gods and goddesses are of gilded bronze and inlaid with semiprecious stones; the paintings and tapestries are richly hued and often painted in gold. "There are local variations in style and iconography adjusting to the myths and folklore of a particular ethnic group," says Pal, pointing out the contrast between "the slender proportions and gentle expression of Nepalese statues and the rounder, fleshier faces and voluptuous poses of ones from Kashmir." One 17th-century Nepalese painting uses Indian iconography to depict courtiers in a temple scene, but other elements are indigenous.

The art of the Himalayas didn't have much of an impact on Indian art, but it significantly influenced Buddhist art in China--"all because in the 13th century, Kublai Khan hired 80 artists from Nepal to work in his court," Pal explains. Yet, he adds, "this show is not about cultural context or influences. It's pure aesthetic appreciation."

A Bangladesh native, the 67-year-old Pal became fascinated with south Asian art while doing postgraduate work at the University of Calcutta. "Then I went to Cambridge for a doctorate in the subject," he says. "That was in the mid-1960s, just about the time when old art treasures from the region were being sold in the West." Before then, due to the region's inaccessibility and the political turmoil of the first half of the 20th century, Himalayan art was largely unstudied. The pieces that did find their way to the West were categorized by the experts as Indian or Chinese. "Two factors created tremendous change," says Pal. "Nepal opening up to American aid missions, and Tibetans fleeing their country." In the 60s and 70s, as trekkers and hippies romanticized the Himalayas in the popular imagination, Western collectors were quick to snap up the wealth of artifacts emerging from the area, most of which, Pal says, "were taken by refugees from destroyed temples, especially during the Cultural Revolution, to make sure their heritage is preserved." That heritage, he says, isn't so much the art of worship or technical finesse. "The aim was to express truth, beauty, and the auspicious in a form that delighted the eye."

"Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure" runs through August 17 at the Art Institute of Chicago, Michigan and Adams. It's free with admission to the museum ($10; $6 for students, seniors, and children six and older). This weekend a free symposium related to the exhibit will be held in Fullerton Hall (9 to 5:30 on Friday and Saturday, April 4 and 5) and Morton Auditorium (9:30 to 1 on Sunday, April 6). Among the topics are "Aesthetic Theories and Principles," "Collecting and Connoisseurship," and "Form and Transformation in Himalayan Art"; presenters include Pal and collector Tom Pritzker. Call 312-443-3680 or see www.artic.edu for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul Merideth, courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago, courtesy the Kronos Collection.

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