By Stephanie Yang
“If there is paradise on Earth, it is this. It is this. It is this.”
Upon entrance to the exhibition Collecting Paradise: Buddhist Art of Kashmir and Its Legacies at Northwestern University’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, visitors are greeted with this one-line quote by Persian poet Amir Khusrau. Across from the quote hangs a life-size image of the people of Kashmir and the Western Himalayas that emanates a sense of awe and serenity.
The exhibition presented 44 major collections of Kashmir and Western Himalayan Buddhist arts across the United States and was curated by associate professor Rob Linrothe from Northwestern’s Department of Art History with the support of Christian Luczanits and David L. Snellgrove from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. The exhibit allowed art aficionados to explore the impact of Kashmiri Buddhist art on the works of Western Himalayans with a wide array of religious artifacts, manuscripts, paintings and sculptures made with ivory, wood and metal. The exhibit also sought to investigate the cultural significance of collecting these artworks by U.S. and European museums in the 20th century.
“I was astonished by the variety of art collection in the exhibit, including paintings and sculptures, to demonstrate the theme. The exhibit definitely helped me to gain a deeper insight into the legacies of the Kashmiri art and culture,” said Selina Ke, a Northwestern freshman studying Communication Studies.
Visitors to the exhibition were introduced to a complex but fascinating history of Kashmiri art and culture between the 7th and 11th centuries, a city that once stood as the center of wealth, trade and religion. Buddhists from the Western Himalayas who assembled in this culturally advanced city beginning in the 10th century were influenced by the distinctive Kashmiri style and integrated the Kashmir artistic styles into their identity.
While the first half of the exhibition explored the intricate relationship between the Kashmiri and the Western Himalayan Buddhism, the latter half sought to invite the viewers into a moment of contemplation. Starting in the 1900s, the Kashmiri and the Western Himalayan artworks were sought after by the Western scholars and art collectors, who traveled to the region’s isolated temples and often surreptitiously removed the artifacts against the wills of the natives. Such mode of collecting gives rise to two conflicting perspectives: the desire to expand education and appreciation of Buddhist art across the globe versus the loss of meaning in an artwork that no longer serves its original religious function.
“The formation of major collections of Asian Art in Western museums helped shape our understanding of both ‘Asia’ and ‘Art.’ At the same time, art collecting also initiated the almost irreversible process of removing these art objects from their original settings,” said Professor Jun Hu, the professor of the introductory Asian Art course for 2015 Spring.
“Now that they have become museum display, the conditions under which they were appreciated changed. So did their meanings,” he said. Hu sees the exhibit as a timely supplement to his class material, and has decided to make visiting the exhibit a class requirement.
Sunny Ha, freshman Chemistry major, said she was impressed by the organization of the exhibit.
“The exhibit’s organization matched up so well with its theme. I think the temporary structure in the middle of the exhibit space shows how meticulously the artworks were displayed,” she said.
Hu expressed hopes that every student with an interest in Asia or Asian art would not miss the event.
“The Collecting Paradise exhibition examines similar issues, that is the kind of impulses that informed the collecting of Kashmiri art first by the West Himalayans between the 8th and 16th centuries, and then by Western collectors in the 20th century. Therefore, this exhibition provides an excellent case for the students to think about the various consequences of art collecting. Plus, the art on display is simply wonderful to behold.”
The exhibition came to a close on April 19, 2015, after being on display for three months beginning January 13, 2015. The next exhibition on display will be The Last Supper: 600 Plates Illustrating Final Meals of U.S. Death Row Inmates, a project by Professor Julie Green from Oregon State University who has painted images of death row inmates’ last meals for the past 15 years. The exhibit’s opening ceremony will be held on May 9, 2015.