26 SEPTEMBER 1992, Page 50

Exhibitions 2

Wisdom and Compassion: the Sacred Art of Tibet (Royal Academy, till 14 December)

Higher culture

Giles Auty

In common with nearly all who will see the show, I had little prior knowledge of the art of Tibet. A wonderful exhibition at the British Museum a few years ago showed us art from the secular side: armour, fabrics, jewellery, ornaments. This time we move to the sacred. There has probably never been any country in history where religious thought and practice so infused the life of the nation. At one time one third of the population of Tibet was attached to religious institutions.

The physical destruction wreaked on Tibetan culture during the past 40 years by the country's Chinese invaders is yet anoth- er example of Marxists attempting to destroy all that they fail to understand, which generally includes just about every- thing. The extraordinary beauty and com- plexity of the sacred art on show is simply an external manifestation of a Buddhist culture dedicated to the furtherance of wis- dom and compassion. To contemplate the ignorant destruction of such a world is as depressing as the work on view is uplifting. This is an exhibition beyond praise in its sensitive, intelligent and intelligible han- dling. The fact that it has come to London reflects great credit on those officials of the Royal Academy with whom I find myself more habitually in disagreement.

The exhibition comprises 160 priceless works of different kinds: sacred figures in brass, silver, bronze, clay and stone, paint- ed works on cotton celebrating the major and minor figures of Buddhist iconography, painted mandalas. Monks from the Nam- gyal Monastic University, Dharamsala, India, are making two particle mandalas from coloured sand also during the course of the current exhibition. I saw the begin- ning of work on one of these and will find it hard to forget the extraordinary complex- ity of the design or the calm authority of the seated monks who were patiently creat-

ing this ephemeral masterpiece. The con- trast between sacred Buddhist art, dedicat- ed to the furtherance of wisdom and enlightenment through the abandonment of self, and contemporary Western art, with its endless emphasis on the cult of the indi- vidual, could not be more marked. I am in little doubt which has the more valuable and profound lessons to teach us collective- ly. To Buddhists the root of all evil is our desperate clinging to self-image and self- satisfaction; by contrast both are exalted constantly in contemporary Western cul- ture. But profound links exist between Buddhist and traditional Christian teaching about the uses and abuses of art. In lec- tures given in Dublin in the 1940s, Arthur Little, a Jesuit, remarked: 'The revelation of an individual mind as such cannot be of any importance to the world save in so far as it includes revelation of the eternal truth of human nature. But modern individual- ism, which makes the individual the centre of his own world, also makes him in art what is most worth expressing.'

Partly through its inaccessibility, Tibet has always been a source of fascination and mystery to foreigners. During the second half of the 19th century, Tibet closed her frontiers to travellers of all kinds. The fact that this was of little avail is illustrated by the fact that none of the works on view comes from present-day Tibet. Tibetan Buddhist art is linked even more closely than Christian iconography to the practice of the faith itself. While visitors may be awestruck by the aesthetic appeal and com- plexity of the former, we should reflect that these are incidental issues to the art's main purposes. While the causes of wisdom and compassion — let alone enlightenment may seem entirely alien to readers of a sig- nificant part of the British national press, one cannot but hope that some inkling of what really lies behind the miraculous care and detail of so many of the works on view will not be lost on all visitors. Even the most elementary effort to understand the extraordinary complexities of Buddhist iconography may give cause to reflect on the habitual emptiness of art and, for many, of life itself in the contemporary Western world. Yet in his influential book Red China Today, first published in 1961, the American Edgar Snow describes the priestly caste of Tibet in less than compli- mentary terms: `Even without Marxism, however, mass literacy and access to sci- ence and knowledge of the modern world alone would have condemned the anachro- nistic Tibetan theocracy together with its prayer wheels and sorcerers.' Apart from the inherent fascination of Tibetan sacred art and all that it repre- sents, those with some knowledge of Chris- tian art may choose to make intriguing comparisons between the two. Accepting that extra-terrestrial beings are hard to illustrate except by reference to human form, one might compare profitably how advanced the understanding of human form was already in 'Green Khadiravani Tara', painted roughly two centuries before Giotto's European masterpieces. That the culture of a remote mountain state beyond the Himalayas was capable of producing such a masterwork 850 years ago may be thought to put the uncomplimentary remarks of a 20th-century American into fairly sharp perspective. Do not miss this show on any account, nor leave without the massive catalogue. When I have finished studying my own copy thoroughly I will be older but wiser.

'Vajradhara' (detail), late 17th century„c;ottache on cotton, eastern