San Francisco Chronicle, By Jesse Hamlin, September 21, 2016
Julia White was standing in a gallery at the Berkeley Art Museum the other day, gazing up at a monumental gilt-bronze Buddha made by master Tibetan craftsmen in the 14th century.
The blue-haired Buddha exudes an aura of deep tranquillity, the fingers of his right hand turned downward in the mudra, or gesture, of touching the Earth and “calling it to witness his readiness to enter the state of enlightenment,” says White, the museum’s senior curator for Asian art, who made this rare sculpture the centerpiece of the intimate exhibition “Buddhist Art From the Roof of the World,” on view through Nov. 27.
Composed of 30 exquisite sculptures and thangka paintings from Tibet and Nepal, the show is one of many exhibitions, lectures, film screenings and performances taking place during Asia Week San Francisco Bay Area, Friday, Sept. 30-Oct. 8, a celebration of Asian art and culture involving dozens of organizations, from the Japanese American Museum of San Jose to the Mongolia Foundation to the Society for Art & Cultural Heritage of India.
The ancient Buddhist art in Berkeley, created as objects for spiritual devotion, is drawn from a major private collection owned by an anonymous patron who has loaned it long term to the university museum. White kept the show small so she could leave space around each object and let the gallery itself breathe.
“I wanted to present the objects in a very meditative and contemplative kind of environment. That’s what they’re about,” White says.
“I didn’t want to crowd it with too many objects, so that each can stand on its own and really be highlighted. There are two benches in here, so you can sit down and engage with the piece however you approach it, either as an aesthetic work of art or as a religious icon. Or both.”
The curator, who chose objects displaying differing stylistic expressions of Buddhist iconography, likes to wander into the gallery during the day and “just sit with these objects and absorb their energy. I think they’re imbued with a real sense of spiritual depth. I feel very calmed by their presence.”
She placed that monumental sculpture of the historical Buddha — which bears the influence of Indian art but whose features and expression are clearly Tibetan — on a high pedestal, as he would have been seen in the temple where he originally sat. You can walk completely around his cast-bronze form, the way the Tibetans did who once placed devotional objects inside his hollow body (in addition to other apertures, the top of the Buddha’s head comes off).
On an adjacent wall hangs an image of the Medicine Buddha, a transcendent deity who brings healing and the physical well-being needed to pursue the idea of perfection and achieve enlightenment. He’s depicted in a beautiful 14th century thangka painting (on cotton) that’s packed with richly detailed supporting figures and creatures — gods riding geese, goats, sows and buffaloes — meticulously painted in glowing greens, reds and gold.
The imagery and its placement is highly prescribed and laid out in advance, “almost like architectural drawings,” White says, “using very precise coordinates to position the central image as well as the attendant images. It’s not a highly creative process,” she adds, but the artisans who made these paintings “understood that creating a work like this gains you religious merit. It’s a devotional act to make a painting or sculpture.”
The oldest piece in the show is a 10th century gilt-bronze sculpture of the historical figure believed to be from Kashmir. He’s only about a foot tall but feels larger. He holds up his right hand in the gesture we may read as “stop” but which is, in fact, the mudra for “fear not.”
“It’s not a big piece, but it feels really powerful,” White says. “He has a strongly articulated body, with a very full chest and a belly that is expressed as if full of air. Which is, of course, the breath of the Buddha.”
The piece is particularly noteworthy because the depiction of the body is very Indian in style, White explains, but the Buddha stands on a raised dais of the sort common in Chinese sculpture of the time but not seen in either Tibetan or Indian art.
“We know the Kashmiri artists were being heavily influenced both Indian and Chinese artists. So we see this crossroads of craftsmanship coming together in the piece.”
Jesse Hamlin is a Bay Area freelance writer.
‘Buddhist Art From the Roof of the World’
Through Nov. 27. $10-$12, free for Cal students and staff and visitors 18 and younger. Berkeley Art Museum, 2155 Center St., Berkeley. (510) 642-0808, www.bampfa.edu
More Asia Week San Francisco Bay Area events
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco: “Mother-of-Pearl Lacquerware From Korea,” on view through Oct. 23. www.asianart.org
Japanese American Museum of San Jose: “Exquisite Art Under Adverse Conditions: From the Japanese American Incarceration Camps: 1942/1945,” Friday, Sept. 30-Oct. 8. www.jamsj.org
Oakland Asian Cultural Center: Celebrating Filipino American Heritage Month, the center’s First Friday reception Oct. 7 features two exhibitions by Filipino artists. One showcases Epekto Art Projects, the other Henry Francisco and Emagn1, riffing on basketball/sneaker culture. www.oacc.cc
Institute of East Asian Studies, UC Berkeley: “Thunder From the Steppes: New Perspectives on the Mongol Empire.” Sept. 29 at Cal’s Doe Library. A symposium with international experts about the Mongols’ far-reaching impact. www.iaes.berkeley.edu
Center for East Asian Studies, Stanford University: Stanford professor and orchestra conductor Jindong Cai lectures about the importance of Beethoven in 20th century China, drawing on his 2105 book “Beethoven in China: How the Great Composer Became an Icon in the People’s Republic.” Oct. 6. www.ceas.stanford.edu
For a complete list of events, go to www.asiaweeksf.com.