A pair of paintings of the black-faced Tibetan god Mahakala, wearing a necklace of skulls and squatting atop a corpse, greets visitors to a new exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts. Organized by Joseph Scheier-Dolberg, this informative exhibit showcases 20 rare paintings and printed works of astounding complexity from Tibet and China.
A pair of paintings of the black-faced Tibetan god Mahakala, wearing a necklace of skulls and squatting atop a corpse, greets visitors to a new exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Resembling fraternal rather than identical twins, these two painted deities display similarities and differences that go to the heart of a fascinating exhibit, "Tibet/China Confluences."
In the 15th or 16th century painting of uncertain origin, the god called "Big Black" has tiny teeth, a neat beard and three eyes bulging like pingpong balls from his round face.
Finished a century or so later, the second painting, from Tibet, depicts a fiercer, sword-bearing figure with sharp fangs, pressing a big foot into a dead man's face.
Organized by Joseph Scheier-Dolberg, this informative exhibit showcases 20 rare paintings and printed works of astounding complexity from Tibet and China.
He said he put the exhibit together to use rare art from the MFA's collection to reveal how two distinct cultures influenced one another and eventually created their own hybrid art.
"As each tradition interacted with the other, Chinese painters took from their Tibetan counterparts a fearlessness in use of color and composition, pushing at the boundaries of their more reserved styles," Scheier-Dolberg said. "Tibetan painters for their part, adopted flower, bird and landscape elements from Chinese art into their own compositions, infusing their fantastic visions with a sense of naturalism."
To make his point, Scheier-Dolberg has displayed related paintings together so viewers can compare how Tibetan artists borrowed Chinese imagery or how Chinese painters enlivened their work with bolder colors and subjects.
When he organized the show, Scheier-Dolberg was working as a research fellow for Chinese art at the MFA. He has since left the museum to study for a doctorate in Chinese art history at Columbia University.
Visitors will receive an informative crash course on symbolism and iconography in Buddhist paintings.
They'll discover why the skulls Mahakala wears in his crown represent the "five poisons of anger, pride, lust, greed and ignorance." They'll see what happens when formally trained court painters from China encountered their color-obsessed counterparts from the Himalayas.
And in the rarest work on display, a 12th-century paining by Lin Tinggui, visitors will learn why Buddha's enlightened apostles, called "arhats," fed pure rice to a "hungry spirit" whose greed had shrunk his throat and distended his belly.
For Scheier-Dolberg, Lin's "masterpiece," titled "Arhats feeding a hungry spirit," reveals the naturalism and studied refinement of Chinese painting that Tibetan artists changed and adapted for their own ends.
And later Chinese artists who probably painted the benign, round-faced Mahakala represented a strange new hybrid tradition, often described as "Sino-Tibetan," that incorporated elements from both cultures.
As Chinese emperors embraced Buddhism, they authorized the printing of Buddhist sutras, or scripture, of which several rare works are on display.
In 1410, the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty authorized the printing of the entire Tibetan Buddhist canon of scripture, an extraordinary technical accomplishment for that time.
Despite a potentially volatile subject, the exhibit strenuously avoids contemporary politics to focus almost exclusively on four centuries of "strong cultural exchange" between Tibet and China, once independent countries now bound by disputed ties.
Once a sovereign nation, Tibet was invaded in 1950 by its larger communist neighbor and remains occupied by China which claims it as a province since renamed Xizang, or "western storehouse."
Visitors might helpfully compare the cultural interplay between China and Tibet from the 14th to the 17th centuries to the symbiotic relationship between American artists influenced by their European forebears and Mexican artists who'd been influenced by their Spanish occupiers.
While some visitors might shy away from 500-year-old Buddhist art, this exhibit offers gorgeous paintings that should satisfy serious sinologists and open-minded newcomers.
"These works are stunning. It's my hope visitors will be excited to see rare Tibetan paintings like these," said Scheier-Dolberg. "Just sit down and take in their beautiful visual palette. Let the colors and images wash over you."
MetroWest Daily News
"Tibet/China Confluences" runs through May 23, 2010.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is open seven days a week. Hours: Saturday through Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.
General admission (which includes two visits in a 10-day period) is $17 for adults; $15 for seniors and students 18 and older. Admission for students who are university members is free as is admission for children under 17 during non-school hours.
On Sunday, Sep. 27 from 2 to 3 p..m., Hiromi Kinoshita will give a gallery talk on "Chinese Buddhist Art and the Sino-Tibetan Tradition." Gallery talks are free with museum admission.
For information, call 617-267-9300 or visit www.mfa.org.