Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Rubin's Situ Panchen Lectures

Some of us had the misfortune of dwelling on a totally different continent when the Rubin Museum had its Situ Panchen conference. I've heard from more than one Tibetanist that it was a huge success. And even if many may want to, most of us can't find let alone afford apartments in New York City, so we haven't been able to see the Rubin's amazing art exhibit. It's bound to please a much wider public than its associated conference. The show, entitled "Patron and Painter," ends on August 17, so there is still time if you have the interest and where-with-all.

Our frontispiece is a sample of a Situ-commissioned painting (copyright Rubin Foundation). In fact it depicts Situ Panchen as the donor and commissioner — notice the tangka painters hard at work in the lower left-hand-corner — for a set of paintings illustrating Avadâna stories.* I don't need to say much about this, since there is a very nice explanation of this set among the Himalayan Art webpages that may be seen here. (If you are really insistent you can of course go read the works of David Jackson listed later on.) Evidently Situ made the sketches for the originals of this set totaling more than 23 paintings, directed the painters, and several years later, in 1737, he himself performed the consecration rites.
*That means the Bodhisattva-avadāna-kalpa-latā (Byang-chub-sems-dpa'i rtogs-pa brjod-pa dpag-bsam-gyi 'khri-shing) composed by the Kashmiri poet Kṣemendra (Gewai Wangpo; Dge-ba'i-dbang-po) and his son Somendra (Rabjor Dawa; Rab-'byor-zla-ba), completed in the year 1052 CE. Each scene in the paintings has an inscription that keys it to the stories in Kṣemendra's work. The artist consciously chose to illustrate this Indian work in a Chinese-inspired painting style, but with "palaces and costumes in an Indian or Nepalese manner" (Jackson's book, p. 264).

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Now the conference:

The conference (see the press release in PDF here), co-organized by David Jackson and Karl Debreczeny, with the full title Situ Panchen: Creation and Cultural Engagement in 18th-Century Tibet, took place at the Rubin Museum on Saturday, February 7, and Sunday, February 8, 2009. Among the nine scholars presenting papers or acting as respondents were these:
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.”

Kurtis Schaeffer — University of Virginia, Charlottesville: “Situ the Scholar.”

At the link to the audio (sorry, no video this time) versions of these lectures, you will also find the lectures by Jann Ronis and Karl Debreczeny. You will hear both David Jackson and Elliot Sperling acting as emcees before, and respondents after, the papers. I believe Tashi Tsering (Amnye Machen Institute) also gave a paper. In any case, you can hear him speaking in the question & answer session. But wait, now I see that he was in fact the keynote speaker, although I still can't seem to locate the audio file for his lecture.

I'd like to especially comment on Karl Debreczeny's, since it has to do with a set of paintings that I believe to be truly great in many senses of the word. Although Situ Panchen didn't originate this set, he did commission copies. K.D. located them as a set of wood-panel paintings that were preserved in a temple in Lijiang, in Yunnan (you'll learn more about this with patience and a reliable modem), as well as in scroll-painted copies and copies of copies. The Rubin possesses some of these tangkas, and the whole world can admire them at Himalayan Art website. Go here to see the New Encampment Style (Sgar-'bris) set of Eight Bodhisattvas (and if you have at hand's length the book Worlds of Transformation and its essay by David Jackson, look at pages 102-109). I think you can observe the same luminous visionary perfection in some other paintings in the New Encampment Style, especially in the single-Mahasiddha and single-Arhat portraits. Among the portraits of Situ Panchen himself, this one showing nine Indian masters seated behind him is truly remarkable.

Before I get too carried away and forget what I intended to say, the good news is that iTunes University (there is such a thing, silly as it sounds, if you will kindly accept my word for it) has put up the audio for six of the (7?) papers plus the question & answer session. First of all make sure your computer is equipped with iTunes.* Then try this link.
*If you have a newer Mac it's part of the package, but if you don't have it you can try this link and have patience, bearing in mind that I do this as a favor to you for this purpose only, and not as an encouragement to consumerism. iTunes U is educational and free as far as I know. It's the other parts of iTunes that aim to part fools from their money...
I imagine that might have worked for you without any hitch. If it didn't, open iTunes on your computer. Use the internal search function (not Google!) to search for "iTunes U," and while you are there look for the words "Situ Panchen Conference." Then you can get the downloading started. You can probably let the downloading go ahead in the background while you busy yourself with other things on your computer. Downloading takes a little time, so I recommend you not watch it while it works.

§ § § § §

Print publications well worth seeing:

Marilyn M. Rhie & Robert A.F. Thurman, Worlds of Transformation: Tibetan Art of Wisdom and Compassion, Tibet House, Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, & Harry N. Abrams (New York 1999).

David Jackson, A History of Tibetan Painting, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Vienna 1996). This being without risk of exaggeration or contradiction the best historical study of Tibetan art ever written in any language, see especially Chapter 10 on art associated with Situ Panchen on pages 259 through 287.
On p. 266 (plate 50 with detail in plate 51) you will see the photo Karl Debreczeny talks about, of White Tara surrounded by the eight fears from which she saves us, also mentioned in David Jackson's comments following K.D.'s paper (look here for several versions of this salvific icon).
Karl Debreczeny, The Buddha's Law among the 'Jang: The 10th Karma-pa's Development of His 'Chinese-style Thangka Painting' in the Kingdom of Lijiang, Orientations, vol. 34, no. 4 (2003), pp. 46-53.

Tashi Tsering, ed., Situ Panchen: His Contribution and Legacy. A special issue of Lungta, the occasional publication of the Amnye Machen Institute, issue no. 13 (Winter 2000), it includes contributions by E. Gene Smith, Elliot Sperling, Franz-Karl Ehrhard and Hubert Decleer.

Some significant linkages:

I understand the papers from the Situ Panchen conference may eventually be published as a group in the Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies (JIATS). If this happens it will be very good news, since the JIATS is entirely free and freely available to anyone with a wire plugged into the web. This is the real and future way to circulate Tibetological research, and not those ungodly precious academic publishers (the guilty parties with their one, two and three hundred dollar volumes know who they are).

Go to Flickr to see some 85 photographs from the conference. Maybe while you're at it you could check and see if this is the same or a different set.

Four of the papers were revised and/or repeated at a panel of the Association for Asian Studies annual meeting in Chicago in March. At this page you find abstracts!

Here is the Art Daily announcement for the conference. Another from Asian Art Newspaper can be found here.
A catalog of the Situ exhibit has been published, although my copy is still in on order, on its way I hope. Oh, wait, here it is! It's entitled Patron and Painter: Situ Panchen and the Revival of the Encampment Style, authored by David P. Jackson with a chapter (chapter 10) by Karl Debreczeny.

If you feel like spending whole days looking at Situ Panchen-related art (and really, Who wouldn't?), look here. Take note of the Sino-Persian sense of space, the emphasis on landscapes, the subtle shading methods. Use the "take a closer look" function, and do just that. Be dazzled by the details.

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