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February 9, 2009

Rubin Museum of Art Presents First Exhibition Devoted to Historical
Tibetan Artist

NEW YORK.- The same year that Sir Joshua Reynolds painted Samuel
Johnson, a venerable lama in the southeastern-most province of Tibet
ordered silver finials for a set of paintings on cloth called thangkas.
By that time in 1772, the 72-year-old Situ Panchen Chökyi Jungne had
already single-handedly revitalized an entire Tibetan artistic tradition.

Situ Panchen’s artistic achievement and influence will be explored by
the Rubin Museum of Art from February 6 to August 17, 2009 in Patron and
Painter: Situ Panchen and the Revival of the Encampment Style. As the
first exhibition ever, anywhere, to examine the oeuvre of a historical
Tibetan artist and his workshop, the exhibition paints a picture of a
brilliant polymath who greatly influenced the painting, literary arts,
and medicine of his time, and served also as the charismatic leader of
an influential Buddhist sect during a particularly volatile period in
Tibetan history.

It is commonplace in Tibetan studies not to be able to link a work of
art with the name of an artist, for artists often labored anonymously
within monastery or court settings. Partly for this reason, exhibitions
of Tibetan art typically examine objects from the perspective of
iconology or religion. Co-organized by Dr. David Jackson, one of the
world’s foremost authorities on Tibetan culture and history, and Dr.
Karl Debreczeny, curator, Rubin Museum of Art, Patron and Painter
departs from convention by exploring the influence of a real historical
figure from the point of view of artistic style and history.

“Such a path-breaking study is only possible because of tremendous
advances in the scholarship of Himalayan art in recent years,” says Dr.
Martin Brauen, Chief Curator of the Rubin Museum. “David Jackson’s
decades-long research into Tibetan primary textual sources and his
dedicated search for and study of far-flung paintings and sculptures
have helped to galvanize this effort.”

“Situ’s advocacy of the existing artistic lineage known as the
‘encampment’ style is hugely important in Tibetan art, for his paintings
and commissions spread throughout the Himalayas through diligent
copying, and continue to be copied to this day, shaping how the Buddhist
faithful in the region imagine both stories and doctrine,” says Jackson.

“Distinctive for its embrace of Chinese painting conventions, the
encampment style can be said to have opened up Tibetan art, introducing
a freer, more fluid way of painting,” Jackson continues. Tibetan
painting always had been heavily indebted to Indian art, but, with this
movement, figures migrated out of their hierarchical spaces (even as
they retained the iconography of eastern Indian and Nepalese art) and
began to inhabit landscapes in which details demonstrated a robust
interest in the natural world.

Fifty paintings, sculptures, and illuminated manuscript pages from the
12th to the 19th century are on view in Patron and Painter, drawn from
collections ranging from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to the
Basel Ethnographic Museum.

Three featured thangkas are attributed to Situ’s own hand—a number are
from his workshop, but most are copies of famous images from his
multiple thangka sets, copied after the demise of the master and his
workshop. A few of the works on view, predating Situ, serve to
illustrate the early development of the encampment style.

“We hope to convey the magnificence of the multiple thangka sets of 18th
century Tibet,” says co-organizer Karl Debreczeny. “Through David
Jackson’s research, we know that 12 sets of thankgas can be firmly
attributed to Situ or to his monastery seat.” This exhibition represents
ten of these sets, including what many scholars believe to be one of the
master’s earliest and greatest works, a famous set portraying the Eight
Great Adepts.

Sketched, colored, and shaded by Situ himself at the age of 26, this set
was presented by the master to a local king in a bid to win permission
to build his new monastic seat. The exhibition features a lively,
delicately colored portrait of the Mahasiddha Ghantapa, executed in the
18th century after one of the paintings in the set—which did indeed win
Situ his monastery. On loan from the John and Berthe Ford Collection of
the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, the painting shows Ghantapa rising
from a flood, legs and arms akimbo, trailing billowing scarves. Also on
view is another imagining of this scene from the 19th century, showing
the adept flying above craggy rock formations and brilliant pastel-hued
blossoms, every element reflecting the inspiration of Chinese painting.

A brocade framed thangka of Situ in his 60s, painted during his lifetime
by a court painter and one of the few known portraits of the master, is
a centerpiece of Patron and Painter. Situ is depicted holding a book and
wearing a red ceremonial crown-like hat, which, like those of all the
teachers in his lineage group, was carefully designed to convey his
learning and status—his badge of office.

Another highlight of the exhibition is a monumental thangka thought to
portray the Ninth Karmapa, a towering figure in Tibetan history and
Situ’s revered predecessor. A partly effaced inscription indicates that
the thangka was painted during its subject’s lifetime, around the time
the encampment style was born (1555-1603).

During his course of research, Jackson discovered that Situ commissioned
a set of thangkas based on tracings of paintings in the court of the
Ninth Karmapa. Three will be on view in Patron and Painter. In one, a
standing bodhisattva, draped in flowing robes, is depicted riding a fish
whose tail flaps up from blue waves and foam. In another, a single
figure is pictured languidly reclining on a throne of rock and
blossoming green foliage: a new acquisition by the Rubin Museum of Art,
this portrait of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, will be
newly reunited with other images from the set for this exhibition.

The Rubin Museum of Art will host an international conference on Situ
Panchen on Saturday, February 7, and Sunday, February 8, 2009. Situ
Panchen: Creation and Cultural Engagement in 18th-Century Tibet convenes
nine scholars who will address different aspects of the master’s life.
Among the presenters are Rémi Chaix, Centre national de la research
scientifique, Paris: “Situ Panchen and the House of Derge: A Demanding
but Beneficial Relationship”; Nancy Lin, University of California,
Berkeley: “Situ Panchen and the Re-enactment of Buddhist Origins”;
Frances Garrett, University of Toronto: “Medical Literature in the Situ
Panchen Tradition”; and Kurtis Schaeffer, University of Virginia,
Charlottesville: “Situ the Scholar.”

Recordings of the conference proceedings will be made available to a
wider public through and iTunes University.

A fully illustrated and comprehensive 304-page catalogue will present
new research on the work of Situ Panchen and the revival of the
encampment style painting tradition as well as biographical details of
Situ’s life. Contributing authors include Dr. David Jackson and Dr. Karl
Debreczeny. Patron and Painter: Situ Panchen and the Revival of the
Encampment Style will be sold in the Rubin Museum’s shop and distributed
by the University of Washington Press to bookshops worldwide. ($45.00
paper/75.00 hardcover).

Rubin Museum of Art - RMA holds one of the world’s most important
collections of Himalayan art. Paintings, pictorial textiles, and
sculpture are drawn from cultures that touch upon the arc of mountains
that extends from Afghanistan in the northwest to Myanmar (Burma) in the
southeast and includes Tibet, Nepal, Mongolia, and Bhutan. The larger
Himalayan cultural sphere, determined by significant cultural exchange
over millennia, includes Iran, India, China, Central Asia, and Southeast
Asia. This rich cultural legacy, largely unfamiliar to Western viewers,
offers an uncommon opportunity for visual adventure and aesthetic
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