REVIEW: Early Himalayan Art, By Amy Heller

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Early Himalayan Art
By Amy Heller
Ashmolean Museum
Cambridge University Press
2008

REVIEW by John Johnston for Buddhist Art News

Dr. Amy Heller, author of the recently released Early Himalayan Art, is an outstanding scholar and an established and recognized leader in the field of Himalayan art studies. As such it is very fitting that she was chosen as the author for the catalogue presenting early works of Himalayan art at the Ashmolean Museum.

The catalogue presents 61 pieces from the Ashmolean collection. Early objects are defined as 7th to 14th century. As some of these images have never before appeared in print, collectors and specialists on this subject will want to include this book in their libraries. The general public and specialists alike will enjoy the fine introductory essay by Dr. Heller. Her succinct summary of how styles originated in India and were transported and evolved in the Himalayas is insightful. The stylistic chronology and geographic distribution of these styles are illustrated with many examples from Nepal and Tibet. Practitioners and those interested in how these images are (or were) used in Buddhist religious activities are not given many clues or interesting tidbits in the essay or entries, the focus being more on the development of aesthetic features and styles over time.

Works of art in the catalogue that particularly merit the attention of the Buddhist art community are figural sculptures in stone and bronze. The tall stone sculpture of standing Avalokiteshvara from Nepal (cat. no. 2) is a very beautiful work of art. The slight movement evident in the treatment of the body, almost a subtle tribanga pose, is entrancing. The bodhisattva looks light and lithe despite being rendered in stone. I would have enjoyed detail photographs as the incising of the garments, the jewelry features, and elaborate crown all merit closer inspection. The author explains how the distinctive sash worn below the waist is an indicator of the object’s date.

A stone relief from 8th-9th century Nepal depicts a Yaksha in the form of a supple nature deity (cat. no. 4). The figure’s bearded face and wicked smile are amusing. Though relatively small (13 cm), a pensive Shakyamuni in bhumisparsa mudra (cat. no. 5) is quite moving. I found the 9th century bronze image of Manjushri (cat. no. 32) alluring and memorable as well, perhaps due to the figure’s apparent poetic detachment. Other highlights include an 11th-12th century gilt bronze Standing Shakyamuni (cat. no. 8), a wonderful gilt bronze Vajrapani from the 13th-14th centuries (cat. no. 11), a large standing 11th century bronze Shakyamuni from Tibet (cat. no. 31), an 11th century Tibetan sutra cover (cat. no. 39), a vivid and wrathful 12th century gilt bronze image of Yamantaka (cat. no. 46), and a beautiful and early Western Tibetan gilt bronze of Tara from the 11th century (cat. no. 50). A striking silver vase (cat. no. 15) attributed to Tibet (though obviously influenced by Tang precedents) is given very fine analysis by the author who is a specialist on such works of art.

Only one painting is included in this collection overview, a 15th century Tibetan-Newar mandala of Manjuvara recently purchased with funds from the Neil Kreitman Foundation. The painting is very good, with vibrant colors, bold and simple geometric composition, and inventive scrollwork. Similar purchases will elevate the museum’s collection. It should be mentioned that Neil Kreitman supported the Early Himalayan Art book project and is also a benefactor and advisor on the subject to the Ashmolean Museum.

One difficulty in presenting a limited group of objects from a single museum or collection is the potential variation of aesthetic quality of selected works of art. In other words, some very fine and important objects may be presented alongside material that is marginal or inconsequential. This is certainly the case with the Ashmolean Museum’s collection of early Himalayan material as presented in this volume. Many small metal objects are included based on their antiquity, not their artistic presence. Examples of works which received more treatment than their due, compared with the fine works of figural sculpture cited above, are an 8th century Tibetan brass buckle (6 cm in height, cat. no. 16), a 9th century Tibetan pendant (4 cm in height, cat. no. 17), and several items of similar size and date (cat. no.s 13, 18, 19, 28, 33, 34, 42, 43, 53). Tokchas, which in recent decades have gone from trinkets available at Himalayan markets to objects worthy of serious collections, are amulets favored by Tibetans and other Himalayan peoples. The tiny tokchas are quite worn, the metal being heavily rubbed, and are generally visually uninspiring. Without their early date, and thus the material link to early Tibet, they offer very little aesthetically and in fact diminish the overall visual impact of the book. One exception is the beautiful 9th century Plaque of Fifty One Seated Buddhas (cat. no. 27). If but all the small metal objects reached this high level of artistry.

I would like to note the fine design and size of this volume. The front and back covers of this soft book are simple and understated. The gilt bronze Newar figure of yab yum samvara is a good selection as the cover image, although the background gradation from light to dark is a bit abrupt to my eye. This small matter is more than made up for on the back cover where a colorful mandala stands boldly and beautifully on a white background. I imagine many will be curious about what you are reading when they spy this strangely beautiful mystical diagram. The size and weight of this book makes it portable and easy to handle, not like the large and weighty anchors that normally pass for art books. At about 175 pages and roughly 8 x 10 format, it makes a good choice for the carry on bag or for a weekend trip.

The varying sizes of photographs and backgrounds somewhat obscures otherwise solid object photography. Several back and profile views of objects appear as additional entry photographs. Such perspectives are used to illustrate points made by the author and, perhaps inadvertently, also help the viewer grasp the three-dimensionality of the objects. A few of the images accompanying the introductory essay are blurry and out of focus. While this is often the case with “field” photos, in several cases these drop below the minimally acceptable standard.

The omission of an index in this book is regrettable. I wanted to quickly refer to a few subjects but had to flip through the book to find the relevant passages. I hope editors of future volumes on Buddhist and Asian art take the extra time and money and include indexes which we can all use. The index is not an optional inclusion; they make the book a much more valuable tool and resource for researchers and the general public. The bibliography is excellent, a focused list of the best books on the subject in western languages. Any library or collector could convert the bibliography to a very fine library on Himalayan art. The addition of web references and articles is also helpful.

Early Himalayan Art is a recommended addition to the libraries of those interested in the subject. This book is helpful in developing an understanding of the earliest epoch of Buddhist art in the Himalayas. The book is not meant as the last word on the subject, but rather has a more introductory tone. Specialists will want to consult the many images of early objects published in the volume. Several stellar works of art are contained within the book which merit returned viewing and continued reflection and contemplation. There are also many less memorable and less important works of art that constitute about a third of the selections. The photography of the objects is generally good. The introductory essay, lively catalogue entries, and bibliography are all interesting and helpful. Dr. Heller writes text that you want to read, no easy feat when presenting a somewhat esoteric historical subject. This volume also brings to light fine examples of Buddhist art in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum and underscores the institution’s admirable commitment to Asian art.

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