Saturday, May 8, 2010

Rubin Museum of Art/Tibet House

5/1/2010, Saturday

MUSEUMS:
Rubin Museum of Art ……… http://www.rmanyc.org
Tibet House ……………....… http://www.tibethouse.us 

TME:
Rubin Museum of Art ………. 2.5 hrs (with free tour)
Tibet House …………………. 15 min 

COST:
Rubin Museum of Art ………. $10 (with 2 for 1 coupon)
Tibet House …………………. Free

How many museums devoted to Tibetan art do you think there are in New York City?  Just make a guess.  Maybe one, at most two?  Surely no more than three.  After all, it’s not a place that has a lot of contact with the U.S.  Other than the odd documentary about Everest, and the occasional mention in the news about Chinese oppression, we Americans don’t get much exposure to Tibet, which is literally on the other side of the planet.  Well, apparently Tibetans want to change that, and there are actually FOUR museums just in NYC devoted exclusively to Tibetan art and culture.  We went to two of them today. 

We started with the Rubin Museum of Art, the largest and most well regarded of the NYC Tibetan museums.   I’d like to say it was because we were organized and wanted to start with the best, but in actuality it was because we had a coupon, good for two for one admission valid through this month only.  The Rubin is a huge, five floor museum that took over a defunct department store (Barneys).  The museum kept much of the old layout, so it has the open but compartmentalized feel of a department store, organized around a wide gleaming spiral staircase.  Its lovely, but you may find yourself thinking, as you get off the elevator “Fifth floor.  Ladies lingerie, Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti, next to the shoes.”  There is also a bit of irony in it, as the former home of $35,000 dresses is now a primarily Buddhist institution celebrating release from worldly desires.

Most of the collection originated from a single person, Donald Rubin, the founder of the managed-health-care network MultiPlan, Inc.  What led a rich white Jewish American businessman to connect so strongly with Tibetan Buddhist art that he filled his home and offices with it?  According to a Washington Post article, his father, Jay Rubin, was a Jewish immigrant who came here alone from his family home in Grodno, Poland.  During World War II, his entire family disappeared.  Every brother, sister and nephew and niece was exterminated.  Donald Rubin explains, "I was a 10-year-old at the end of the war, and I watched my father's anguish as he tried and tried to find them.  Many American Jews went through this. It left a deep imprint. What is it in the human mind and the human heart that allows us to behave so barbarously?"

Tibetan art and religion embraces humanity’s "barbarous" side; its full of angry demons, murderous gods and macabre scenes.  We saw necklaces made from skulls, sculptures of zombies with decaying flesh, bloody human skins with bulging eyes hung over doors, and demons with knives in all four hands drinking blood and crushing people under foot.  Some of my favorite drawings were of the symbolic deities that Tibetan’s believe must be faced after we die.  These are derived from our own minds, and we face 58 wrathful reflections of ourselves, but only 42 peaceful ones, demonstrating where they think the balance lies in human nature, yet all must be recognized as illusions to pass out of the circle of rebirth. Clearly this art acknowledges the darkness in human nature.


In that spirit, the first exhibit we saw had the cheery title “Remember That You Will Die.”  It compared the Tibetan approach to death with the Christian one from the middle ages to the present, pointing out the similarities in the art that each religion uses to remind us that our time is fleeting and our deeds have an impact on the afterlife.  There were a lot of skulls and dancing skeletons, including a drawing of a “dance of death” mural from a German church (a line of people from all walks of Medieval life dancing with skeletons) and a haunting performance art video of dreamy woman walking through a veil of water. [Paul here- I saw it as a meditation of the cycle of life and death.  The oldest woman led the way into life and back across the veil, followed by a young adult and a teenage girl.  On one side of the veil they are in color, and drained of it on the other.  I was captivated and mystified and I kept going back to watch].  The exhibit was made even more creepy by the fact that the only other people in this exhibit were a pair of very old woman, one hunched and barely walking, the other mostly blind, with the one who could see yelling the descriptions of each item to the other.  “IT’S A SKULL WITH FANGS.  IT SAYS TO REMEMBER THAT YOU WILL DIE.  THAT WE WILL DIE."  For me, that was the most effective reminder in the whole exhibit.

The other exhibits were less clear in their meaning.  We got on a tour from an obnoxious tour guide (I have been to India and am so much more spiritual than thou), who seemed to think that everyone who visits the museum knows everything about Buddhism, and just wants to discuss it with her.  We were left with a lot of questions about the art, like “Who is that 4 armed blue guy with the sea shell and the flower coming out of his naval, and why is he getting a foot rub?” and “Why is the guy with the 10 legs having sex on that cow?”  There wasn’t a lot of explanation, and after 5 floors of this it got tiring.  Paul said it was probably what someone with no background in Christianity would think if they visited the Vatican.  “Who’s the guy with the beard, and why did they want to torture him?”  Lots of pretty art, but without a background in the stories behind it, we were mostly puzzled.

The Tibet House is a much smaller museum, founded by the Dalai Lama as an outreach house to NYC.  It has some small exhibits, but focuses on talks about Tibet and Buddhist meditation groups.  It’s not usually open on Saturday, but they let us in anyway, and we tiptoed around trying not to disturb the meditation group in the next room.  There was some nice art, similar to what we saw in the Rubin Museum, but Paul and I both thought that the most interesting thing was a framed government document from the 1940s granting permission to an American journalist for a tour of Tibet.  The calligraphy was breathtaking and all done with a brush.  Clearly this simple document took hours to paint, harkening back to an earlier time and philosophy, when even paperwork could be beautiful.

Images in this exhibit, from the top: detail of Guhyasamaja with Sparshavajra, Secret Gathering, Tibet 17th century; Manjushri, The Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Tibet 15th century; Vajra Terror, Tibet; detail of The Red Yogini Vajrayogini, Eastern Tibet 19th century; dancing skeletons and skull from the "Remember that you will die" exhibit; image from Bardo Thodrol, known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead; Vasudhara, Godess of Abundance, Nepal 12-13th century; Garuda, Napal 13th century .

6 comments:

  1. "Find the dream in waking life, and waking life in the dream." - Tarthang Tulku Rimpoche, head of the Nyingma Institute in Berkeley, California, in response to a question about the place of dreams in Buddhism. That might serve as a credo for artists, Buddhist or other.
    Mike

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  2. I enjoyed your descriptions of the Tibetian artwork, although weird to my western way of thinking. I especially wonder about the "mediators in the next room" that you did not want to disturb. Were they mediating with a god or gods about their next life? Or perhaps about tomorrow? Perhaps they were only meditators meditating! Lynn

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  3. I really enjoy all the detail you add to your descriptions (e.g. the bit about the collector, Donald Rubin). It really adds to your pieces about the museums. Thanks!
    -keith

    ReplyDelete
  4. A good place to muse on oil painting in Western art history online, I find, is at this site at wahooart.com. There is a huge archive of digital images of artwork now housed in art museums around the world.
    The company makes canvas prints and hand-painted, oil painting reproductions to order, from your selection of images from this big archives.
    It's some resource for art lovers and historians. There are many images of works by famous artists of the past that I have never seen.
    From their home page at wahooart.com, you can browse by the hundreds of artists there, movements in art, art media, historical timeline and even by subject matter. There is much biographical information about the artists.
    I am always fascinated by the way the 19th century English landscape painter, William Turner, used layers of luminous oil paint to recreate his blazing landscapes. Clicking http://EN.WahooArt.com/@/WilliamTurner , I find his paintings indexed in a floating 3D gallery at the site.

    ReplyDelete
  5. A good place to muse on oil painting in Western art history online, I find, is at this site at wahooart.com. There is a huge archive of digital images of artwork now housed in art museums around the world.
    The company makes canvas prints and hand-painted, oil painting reproductions to order, from your selection of images from this big archives.
    It's some resource for art lovers and historians. There are many images of works by famous artists of the past that I have never seen.
    From their home page at wahooart.com, you can browse by the hundreds of artists there, movements in art, art media, historical timeline and even by subject matter. There is much biographical information about the artists.
    I am always fascinated by the way the 19th century English landscape painter, William Turner, used layers of luminous oil paint to recreate his blazing landscapes. Clicking http://EN.WahooArt.com/@/WilliamTurner , I find his paintings indexed in a floating 3D gallery at the site.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Namaste,
    I am in possession of two elegant Tibetan hand-made woolen carpets (each approximately 6'x3'). They were made before the occupation, and are somewhere around 60 yrs old. What makes these carpets unique is that they have been stored and are in excellent condition.
    If you are interested in purchase, please write to me and I will forward pictures...
    Sincerely,
    Dr. Michael Schleyer (mbtaliesin@yahoo.com)

    ReplyDelete