I found the perfect place for a rainy Saturday afternoon last week, when I went to the Rubin Museum, which has several wonderful exhibits I’d recommend taking in. And if you don’t know a lot about Himalayan art, on the 2nd floor in the Gateway exhibit you’ll find excellent explanations of the iconography, influences, materials and other elements that shape the art of this part of the world.
On my visit, I started on the top floor at the Becoming Another exhibition. As the explanatory notes remind us, the act of being hidden often allows revelation. When masks represent characters such as the fool, they permit the expression of ideas that might otherwise be uncomfortable, even forbidden. When representing archetypes, like a fox, or historical figures, masks can be a sort of shorthand. In other circumstances, the mask allows the wearer to lose him or herself to another power, as in shamanistic rituals.
The section on Theatrical, Performance and Storytelling has about two dozen masks, some from the 19th and 20th centuries, from Bhutan and Tibet, of either papier mâché, or painted or lacquered wood. One section is devoted to masks used in Japanese Noh theatre, most from the Edo Period (1615-1868), representing characters such as beggars, goblins, or suffering ghosts.
In the section on Shamanistic rituals, there are not only terrific masks from Mongolia and Nepal, but also a short film of a Mongolian shaman dance. Reaching across continents, the exhibit also includes many wonderful, large masks, especially of birds and some animals, made by First Peoples in the Pacific Northwest for ceremonies and rituals.
At the end of the exhibit are screens that allow you to take your own picture “wearing” a mask. It was fun to do, and I’ve posted mine on my Instagram feed.
The “Collecting Paradise” exhibit explores how Western Himalayan art incorporates Kashmiri aesthetics. There are many paintings on cloth, almost always religious in nature, with many wrathful deities depicted. There are two wonderful ones of the wrathful deity Mahakala that stood out for me. In several instances I was struck by the vibrancy of the color – these paintings are mostly from the 15th to 17th centuries – but, as I learned on the 2nd floor, pigments were made from crushed semi-precious stones such as malachite, azurite and cinnabar, mixed with glue, which makes them durable.
Throughout the exhibit you’ll find exquisite sculptures of silver, brass and copper alloy, dating from the 7th through 13th centuries, when artists from Kashmir were invited to Tibet to create Buddhist sculptures. Be sure to also look at the folios from the illuminated manuscript “Perfection of Wisdom.”
The “Masterworks” exhibit explores the influence of Chinese, Indian and Mongolian art on Tibetan art, especially on the Geluk School of Central Tibet in the 19th century. Be sure to see the thangas (paintings on cloth) of the 5 Tantric Buddhas.
The Rubin hosts lectures, films, performances, yoga, and activities for children; you can find more information on their events page