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"Lama, Patron, Artist" Exhibition Is First in the West Devoted to a Historical Tibetan Artist

January 28, 2010
January 26, 2010

Those who study the sacred arts of Tibetan
Buddhism seldom know the names, much less life
stories, of the artists they research -- the vast
majority of these painters and sculptors toiled
anonymously within the confines of monasteries
and courts. Consequently, exhibitions of Tibetan
Buddhist art typically focus on iconographic or
religious aspects of the works. “Lama, Patron,
Artist: The Great Situ Panchen,” on view March 13
through July 18 at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M.
Sackler Gallery, offers a fresh approach to
Tibetan painting by bringing to the foreground
the remarkable life story of the great
artist-scholar Situ Panchen Chokyi Jungne (1700-1774).

Paintings, sculptures and illuminated manuscript
pages from the 12th to the 19th centuries
represent Situ’s life and greatest artistic
achievements. Originally organized by the Rubin
Museum of Art in New York City, the exhibition is
based on new research conducted by David Jackson,
a leading scholar of Tibetan culture and history.
Jackson and his co-organizer, Rubin curator Karl
Debreczeny, chose an innovative path for this
first Western exhibition on Situ, approaching the
paintings as historical documents and delving
deeply into his diaries, journals and other primary sources.

The portrait that emerges reveals a brilliant
polymath who changed the course of Tibetan
painting and made significant contributions to
the literary arts, medicine and diplomacy of
18th-century Tibet. Situ was well educated and
well traveled, and his artistic influence
extended far beyond his own workshop and into
Chinese cultural circles, fomenting an artistic
dialogue with Qing Dynasty artists and leaders.
New to the exhibition in the Sackler venue are
several key Chinese works from the Freer Gallery
of Art collection, which allow more insight into
Situ’s engagement with transnational Buddhist culture.

Born in January 1700 in Derge, a small but
culturally significant kingdom in Kham Province
of historical eastern Tibet (modern Sichuan
Province, China), Situ was recognized at an early
age as an incarnate lama of the Karma Kagyu order
of Tibetan Buddhism. He studied with the great
teachers of his sect and eventually became a
revered and charismatic lama and founder of
Palpung Monastery, located near Derge. By the
time Situ began his studies, art making had long
been an important aspect of Buddhist monastic
tradition, in which paintings and sculpture are
employed as aids to support Buddhist devotional
and meditative practices. At the age of 15, Situ
was introduced to the traditional Tibetan styles
of painting and sculpture. He developed a keen
interest in the early masterpieces and styles, as
well as a consciousness of past models that
deeply informed his artistic sensibilities.

"Lama, Patron, Artist" examines the mature
artist’s greatest achievement: his revival, as a
painter and patron, of the Encampment style of
painting that emerged in central Tibet in the
late 16th century. Inspired by the conventions of
Chinese court painting, the Encampment style
spread as the Karmapas (heads of the Karma Kagyu
order) moved from place to place in portable
encampments that functioned as moveable
monasteries, complete with skilled painters and artisans.

The Encampment style was a revolution in Tibetan
art, freeing Indian-inspired figures to roam in
open Chinese-inspired landscapes. However, during
the 17th century, sectarian conflict in the
region caused the order’s suppression and nearly
obliterated the Encampment style. Situ inspired
an 18th-century revival, and in his workshop at
Palpung Monastery he created and designed
paintings that continue to be copied today.
Situ’s revitalization of this stylistic tradition
also ignited a resurgence of the local artistic
traditions of his home province of Kham, where
the Encampment style transcended sectarian
divisions to become a regional visual idiom.

"Situ’s advocacy of the Encampment style is
hugely important in Tibetan art," said Jackson.
"His paintings and commissions spread throughout
the Himalayas through diligent copying, shaping
how the Buddhist faithful in the region imagine both stories and doctrine.”

Three of the featured thangkas (scroll paintings)
in the exhibition are attributed to Situ’s own
hand, and several more are from his workshop. The
majority are copies of famous images from his
multiple thangka sets, created after his death. A
number of the works on view predate Situ,
illustrating the early development of the Encampment style.

"We hope to convey the magnificence of the
multiple thangka sets of 18th-century Tibet,"
said Debreczeny. "Through David Jackson’s
research, we know that 12 sets of thangkas can be
firmly attributed to Situ or to his monastic
seat. This exhibition represents 11 of these
sets, including a set portraying the Eight Great
Adepts, which many scholars believe to be one of
the master’s earliest and greatest works.”

The fully illustrated exhibition catalog, written
by Jackson with an essay by Debreczeny, presents
the first comprehensive exploration of the
artistic legacy of Situ and an extensive account of Karma Kagyu paintings.

"Lama, Patron, Artist: The Great Situ Panchen"
and "The Tibetan Shrine from the Alice S. Kandell
Collection" will be showcased together March 13
through July 18 as part of “In the Realm of the
Buddha,” the Sackler’s spring and summer
celebration of the sacred arts of Tibetan
Buddhism. For more information about these
exhibitions and related programs, visit

"Lama, Patron, Artist" is a featured exhibition
of the Freer and Sackler’s Asia in America
program, which showcases the holdings of
important American institutional collections of
Asian art through an ongoing series of
exhibitions presented at the Sackler Gallery.

The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located at 1050
Independence Avenue S.W ., and the adjacent Freer
Gallery of Art, located at 12th Street and
Independence Avenue S.W ., are on the National
Mall in Washington, D.C. Hours are 10 a.m. to
5:30 p.m. every day, except Dec. 25, and
admission is free. The galleries are located near
the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and
Orange lines. For more information about the
Freer and Sackler galleries and their
exhibitions, programs and other events, the
public is welcome to visit For
general Smithsonian information, the public may
call (202) 633-1000 or TTY (202) 633-5285.

Deborah Galyan
(202) 633-0504

Amanda Williams
(202) 633-0271
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
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