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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Arts: Tibet on Staten Island

September 1, 2010

Lee Lawrence
The Wall Street Journal
August 31, 2010

Staten Island, N.Y. -- In Phil Borges's
photograph, the shaved heads of three Tibetan
Buddhist nuns draw an arched silhouette against
gray skies and mountains. The caption, printed on
the protective glass, identifies them as Kalsang,
Ngawang and Dechen, all in their 20s and
survivors of two years of harsh imprisonment for
protesting the Chinese occupation of Tibet. In
other photographs, a 9-year-old girl carries her
baby sister on her back, her unkempt hair
reaching out like tentacles, and 81-year-old
goatherd Tseten leans on his staff, his face as
lined as the arid hills behind him.

Tibetan Portrait: The Power of Compassion
The Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art
338 Lighthouse Avenue
Staten Islan, NY
Tel: 718-987-3500
Through Dec. 31

They are part of "Tibetan Portrait: The Power of
Compassion," a collection of 32 hand-tinted works
currently on display at the Jacques Marchais
Museum of Tibetan Art. In some respects, they are
the perfect choice for this small, idiosyncratic
museum, situated rather incongruously in Staten
Island -- New York City's most suburban borough.

In constructing a Himalayan-inspired center --
high windows with flared borders, a pagoda-like
roof and transoms of protruding timbers -- its
founder hoped to foster an understanding of
Tibetan culture and religion. Mr. Borges's
coupling of beautiful portraits with their
subjects' stories furthers that goal, generating
empathy and quickening curiosity.

Yet the photographs also seem incongruous.
Hanging on yellow panels, these almost
monochromatic portraits contrast with the bronze
hues of giant incense burners and temple statuary
displayed against stone walls and in glass cases.
Add to this mix some hands-on exhibits, one of
which unleashes a loud Buddhist chant, and one
begins to get a sense that the museum is not entirely sure what it wants to be.

View Slideshow

Tenzin Gyatso, 59, Dharamsala, India Born to a
peasant family, he was discovered to be the
Buddha of Compassion at the age of two. At four
he was installed as the fourteenth Dalai Lama. As
a teenager he faced the invasion of his country.
Eight years later he was forced to flee to
neighboring India, where he still lives. Our
appointment for this portrait was set for the
afternoon on the rooftop of his residence. As he
approached I nervously held out my hand to greet
him. He avoided it, stuck his fingers in my ribs,
let out his famous laugh and tickled me.

Indeed, it may never have known. It was founded
by a rather eccentric woman whose father so
wanted a boy that he named her Jacques Marchais.
Having lost her father young, she went on stage,
shedding her exotic name for the more fashionable
"Edna Norman." In 1916, as the museum's executive
director Meg Ventrudo tells it, the young actress
traveled to Boston to perform in a musical comedy
and "for the first time her mother does not
accompany her. And she elopes with the musician."
Three children and a divorce later, she reclaimed
her masculine name, keeping it even after remarrying.

Having played as a child with Tibetan figurines
her grandfather had brought back from Asia, Mme.
Marchais (as she insisted on being called) began
collecting Indian and Tibetan Buddhist works in
the 1930s. These were just beginning to attract
scholarly attention, and after the Jacques
Marchais Gallery opened in Manhattan, a reviewer
for the New York Times wrote in 1939 that the
idols "looked thoroughly vicious" and that the
gallery "is a nice place to visit, but it must be awful to live there."

Mme. Marchais disagreed. Inspired by a
reconstructed temple at the 1933 Chicago World's
Fair, she set out to build a Tibetan retreat,
complete with "chanting room," monk cells and
Buddhist devotional objects. With her husband,
Harry Klauber, she chose a hillside property on
Staten Island because it was "viney with briars,
stone-riddled and wild," as she later told a Newsweek reporter.

Construction proceeded in fits and starts
throughout World War II, and in July 1945 Mme.
Marchais opened the library, a single-story stone
building filled with some 2,000 books on Asia.
This "first unit of a Tibetan museum and temple,"
a columnist for the New York Sun reassured his
readers, "does not mean an attempt to convert New
York to that phase of Buddhism called Lamaism."
Rather, it was an attempt to further "in this
country the cause of Oriental art, particularly
that of Tibet." Indeed, as Mme. Marchais proudly
noted, many works previously labeled Chinese were
being recognized as Tibetan, Nepalese or Mongolian.

By October 1947, the center was complete: A
full-page photograph in Life magazine shows Mme.
Marchais seated on a throne flanked by bronze
Nepalese lions, regal from her blond bouffant
hair to the bejeweled sandals on her feet.

Today, the library has been partitioned into an
office and visitor's entrance. While the Nepalese
lions are still by the back wall of the museum,
the effect is nowhere as dramatic as in the 1940s
photograph. And in a garden festooned with
Tibetan prayer flags and presided over by an
alabaster Burmese Buddha, there peeks through the
foliage the occasional metal baboon. "Garden
follies," Ms. Ventrudo says with a laugh, as she
points out stone bunnies in a flower bed.

Had Mme. Marchais been able to pursue her
research and travel to Tibet as she so hoped,
perhaps she would have refined her vision for the
museum. As it was, she and Mr. Klauber died
within a year of the museum's opening, leaving it
caught in a quirky category somewhere between
folly and serious institution. Because the
buildings are not climate-controlled, the museum
can display only a fraction of its 1,200 pieces,
including silk paintings and wood furniture, and
the only Tibetans in residence are those in Mr. Borges's photographs.

* Ms. Lawrence is a writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.
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