Fourteenth to Sixteenth Centuries
Table of Contents:
2 Visions and Visualizations
3 Kadampa Style
4 Sakyapa Style
5 Thankas from Western Tibet
6 Landscape Tradition
7 Age of the Dalai Lama
While most schools of early Tibetan painting were dominated by the strongly figural styles that were derived from the Indo-Nepali tradition, natural forms came to play an increasingly important role in later thankas, especially after the seventeenth century. There can be no question about the fact that the Tibetans adopted the idea of using natural forms in their thankas from Chinese Buddhist paintings. But exactly when they began the practice is now difficult to determine.
The Tibetans must have been familiar with Chinese art as early as the seventh century. Not only did King Songtsengampo marry a Chinese princess, but some of his successors did as well. The Tibetan tradition informs us that when the Samye monastery was built in the eighth century, one of its floors was designed in the Chinese manner. There are also stories of other buildings erected and decorated in the Chinese style during the period of the Yarlung dynasty. In the Introduction I have discussed the evidence that clearly indicates the presence of Tibetan artists in Central Asia during the period when the Tibetans occupied that region. If, however, the Tibetans did admire the Buddhist paintings of Central Asia at that time, they did not leave much evidence for posterity. No thanka earlier than the thirteenth-fourteenth century has survived that reflects any obvious presence of Chinese landscape elements. This is precisely the period when the Tibetans established very close ties with the Mongol princes and emperors of the Yuan dynasty, as it has already been discussed. It has also been mentioned that in the fourteenth century Tibetans invited Chinese artists to paint murals in the monasteries of Shalu, Gyang and Gede. Both the Sakyapas and the Karmapas were active at the imperial Chinese courts and must have been familiar with court painting as well as with Buddhist paintings of the period. However, Chinese elements seem stronger in the murals still visible in the Sakyapa monasteries than in the thankas rendered in the Sakyapa style.
The fundamental contribution of the Chinese tradition to Tibetan painting is in the introduction of landscape setting. The vehicle for this appears to have been the subject of arhat or lohan. Tucci has discussed at length the origins and the different iconographic traditions of arhat representations in Tibet. Tucci 1949. One tradition was introduced from China by the monk Lume (tenth century) and the other from India by Atīśa in 1042. However, it must be remembered that one of the banner paintings rendered by a Tibetan artist in Dunhuang, probably in the ninth century, depicts an arhat. M. A. Stein, Serindia III, reprint (Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass, 1980), pp.1472-1473. Illustrated in Stein's Thousand Buddhas, pl. XXXII. The painting is on paper and represents the arhat Kalika. The artist's name is given as Do khong. Since the inscription is in Tibetan the paint-ing obviously was intended for a Tibetan patron. Thus, it seems certain that the Tibetans were familiar with Central Asian arhat paintings earlier than Lume. However, no thanka in the style of the Dunhuang banner by the Tibetan artist has yet come to light. Nor do we have any early thanka that follows the tradition of Lume, though there are verbal descriptions. Nevertheless, since arhat paintings of the Song period in China have survived, we can form some idea of the models brought back by Lume from that country. As to Atīśa’s tradition, we are left completely in the dark for there is no artistic evidence at all that the arhats were ever portrayed in India, either in sculpture or painting. In Chapter 1 I have quoted a Chinese text that does mention that the arhats were represented on linen in Nalanda. Nor do we know of any representations of arhats in Nepal, which is surprising considering the close connection between Nepal and Tibet. This further makes it abundantly clear that the arhats in Jīvarāma’s sketchbook of 1435 (Fig. 5) served as models for thankas only. Although a great number of murals have survived from the early period in western Tibet, they seldom include representations of arhats. The natural forms depicted in the Kadampa style thankas (Pls. 6 and 11) are formalized and used symbolically. Thus, if Atīśa did introduce a tradition of arhat representations in Tibet, that tradition must have been largely figural. Considering how faithful the Tibetans were through the thirteenth century to imported Indian styles of art, it is unlikely that they would have preferred the Chinese style if an Indian style was available. Fig 5,Pl. 6
Portrait of a Sakyapa hierarch
Central Tibet (Sakyapa monastery?). 12 century
Ernst Jucker Collection, Basle. Ettingen
If the Chinese tradition was slow to penetrate into central (and western) Tibet during the period of revival of Buddhism (eleventh century), it must have been more familiar to the artists of the eastern regions of the country from the earliest times. Both Amdo and Kham are geographical neighbours of Sichuan and Yunnan; the former was a border region of China proper and the latter comprised the independent kingdom of Nan-chao. Both by trade and religion, these two regions have remained closely associated with Tibet, especially its eastern provinces. Thus, although early paintings from either Kham or Amdo seem to be nonexistent, we must not presume that the region did not produce any art during the period of revival. It may be recalled that even earlier still, while Buddhism had entered its dark ages in the central region after the assassination of the last monarch of the Yarlung dynasty in 842, the lamp was kept flickering in the eastern regions from where the monks Lume and Sumpa returned to central Tibet in 978.
Most eastern Tibetan thankas that are commonly seen were painted over the last three centuries or so, and, by and large, they reveal a stronger use of landscape than do the thankas of other regions. Although actual evidence is lacking, it is very likely that the landscape style of Tibetan painting developed primarily in the monasteries of eastern Tibet, especially those belonging to the Karma-Kagyupa, sometime during their close association with the Mongol princes and thereafter moved west.
A large number of thankas representing arhats have survived, but none is dated. The problem is further compounded by a lack of adequate literature on Chinese Buddhist paintings, especially after the fall of the Tang dynasty in 906. After the tenth century, the Buddhist church ceased to be the principal patrons of painting in China, as they were during the Tang period, and literati painting with emphasis on landscape became predominant. Thus most books on Chinese painting discussing the period between the eleventh and the fifteenth centuries - precisely the period that interests the Tibetan scholar - have little to say about Buddhist paintings. Nevertheless, some attempts will be made here to define the development of the landscape style in Tibet, although the suggestions should be considered as tentative.
From the same sketchbook as Fig.4 It has already been noted that the landscape tradition must have been introduced into Tibet with arhat paintings. Although the Chinese tradition recognized as many as five hundred arhats, the Tibetan tradition generally believed in groups of sixteen or eighteen. Two types of arhat paintings were popular in Tibet. Either the arhats were individually portrayed in a series of eighteen thankas; or they were grouped in pairs or threes in each thanka. Because of persistent archaisms and since no early example is dated, it is extremely difficult to date the arhat thankas. However, it is clear both from the Gyantse murals and the 1435 pattern book (Fig. 5) that the iconography of Tibetan arhats, as is generally found in later Tibetan paintings, had become systematized by the early fifteenth century. Indeed, in the latter, we do encounter rocks and shrubs and animals sketched with lively brevity behind the figures, which indicates that the Tibetans were quite familiar with landscape elements before the fifteenth century.
The earliest known Tibetan painting that uses landscape elements is a striking thanka of an arhat which has frequently been reproduced and which is one of the finest surviving portrayals of this subject Pal 1969A, p.132. For a more recent discussion about both iconography and style of this very important thanka see Pal 1983B. (Pl. 56). The principal arhat represented in the thanka has generally been identified as Vajriputra but more likely he is Kanakavatsa. Whichever arhat the magnificent figure draped in a gorgeous red robe with a gold border may represent, there now seems further evidence that the thanka was based on a Southern Song or early Yuan dynasty Lohan painting. Although compositionally quite different, the face of the arhat with his piercing eyes is as expressive as that seen in a portrait of Bodhidharma J. Cahill, Hills Beyond a River (New York and Tokyo : Weatherhill, 1976), Color Plate 7. painted by an unknown Yuan artist before 1348. Even closer comparisons may be found among the disciples that surround the Buddha in a beautiful Nirvana painting of the thirteenth century rendered by Lu Xinchung (Lu Hsin Chung) now in the Nara National Museum. Masterpieces of Nirvana Paintings, exhibition catalogue (Kyoto National Museum 1978), Fig.17. Moreover, the rich textiles employed in this thanka have parallels in Yuan textile fragments, Lee and Ho, no.303. and we know that silks were among the most precious gifts sent by the Mongol princes and emperors to the Tibetan lamas. Indeed, the treatment of the arhat’s robe, with its golden border, is very similar to that of the Ascetic Śākyamuni of the Yuan period now in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Ibid. no.18. The thanka also differs from the more standard Tibetan arhat paintings in that despite the introduction of the landscape elements the figure of the arhat still predominates. The ambiguity of the arhat’s identity too follows the earlier rather than the later iconographic tradition.
An unusual example of Tibetan landscape painting is a long narrow scroll in the Virginia Museum in Richmond (Pl. 55). One reason why it is considered a Tibetan rather than a Chinese work is the fact that it is rendered on hemp cloth rather than on silk. The subject matter of this scroll remains as elusive as it did to Alan Priest when he first published it two decades ago. See Priest and Pal 1969A. It seems to depict some sort of a journey involving monks, merchants and monarchs in which, frequently, they encounter goddesses known as ḍākinīs. Whatever the subject matter, the style is very close to the fourteenth century murals at the Narthang monastery, as I have pointed out elsewhere. Very likely, however, it must have been rendered in a monastery in eastern Tibet, inspired, as Priest suggested, by Song paintings. It may be pointed out that another narrative scroll, rendered at the court of the Yongle emperor (1403-1424) and depicting the activities of the Fifth Karmapa Dezhin Shegpa (1384-1415), has been treasured in the Tshurphu monastery ever since it was donated to the Karmapa by the emperor in the early fifteenth century. It is believed that this important document of Tibetan painting has never been published and has been seen only by H. E. Richardson. Thus, there can be no doubt that both Chinese artists and paintings were present in Tibet. If indeed the Virginia scroll is a painting of the fourteenth century - as I believe it is - then it is one of the earliest examples of landscape paintings in Tibet in which all the elements that became the stock formula for the various Tibetan landscape styles have already coalesced, as we shall discuss presently. Before we do so, however, we must mention another early and distinct type of arhat painting which too seems to be as unusual as the early fourteenth century arhat thanka we have just discussed.
Plate 57 illustrates an arhat thanka from a series from which only two other examples have survived. As is the case with the Los Angeles thanka (Pl. 56) here too the figure of the arhat predominates and his identity remains obscure because of the absence of any precise attributes. There is no doubt that the thanka was modelled after a Chinese original but, as is the case with the Los Angeles thanka, the natural forms are added around the throne almost as design elements rather than as parts of an overall landscape in which the figures are integrated. Moreover, the shapes and forms of the hills are quite distinct and have nothing in common with the blue-green rocks which are the hallmark of Tibetan landscape thankas. Indeed, these forms are reminiscent of a different tradition of Chinese landscape - that which can be found in Central Asian Buddhist paintings of an earlier period rather than of Song and Yuan landscapes. However, it must be pointed out that they are not naturalistic, even though the representation of the arhat is. Painted in variegated hues of olive green, pale yellow and white, their undulating shapes seem to continue the rhythm of the arhat’s flowing garments and of the swirling clouds above, as if to counterbalance the geometric severity of the throne on which the arhat sits and from which he stares dreamily into space with his unusually narrow eyes shaded by bushy eyebrows. Quite distinct from both the early fourteenth century arhat (Pl. 56) and the more typical arhat thankas (Pls. 58-60), this unusual series must have been painted no later than the fifteenth century, perhaps in eastern Tibet.
Neither the Los Angeles arhat nor the Zimmerman painting represents the more characteristic Tibetan arhat thankas which are distinguished by stronger natural forms in more evocative landscapes. The most noteworthy difference is that although the primacy of the arhat is retained, he is not always placed in the centre of the composition. Secondly, the natural forms are not added simply as space fillers or as decorative passages, but are integrated with the figures into a cohesive landscape, if not of fact then certainly of fantasy. The rocks and trees are employed as solid masses that demand our attention no less than the figural forms. Whether seated on a rock or a chair, the arhat is shaded by the umbrella-like leafy branches of a tree with a gnarled, twisted trunk. The representations of trees, foliage, animals and figures in such thankas is often very naturalistic, even if the rocks and mountains acquire a fantastic quality. Note, for instance, the sensitive rendering of the animals and plants in Pl. 56. Equally convincing are the strolling peacocks in the foreground and the pine tree below which the arhat sits in another thanka (Pl. 59). As to the forms of the arhats themselves, the Tibetan artists were aware of both Chinese traditions of showing them either as personages with grotesque faces (Pl. 60) or as normal beings (Pl. 59). Generally, however, the Tibetans preferred the more human figurative form which is said to have originated with the Northern Song painter Li Kung-lin (ca. 1049-1106).
The earliest and perhaps the finest of the arhat representations in the fully developed blue-green landscape style may be seen in a series of thankas now in the British Museum (Fig. 58). Pal 1969A, p.54 and Beguin 1977, p.112, no. 83. The British Museum thankas were evidently recovered from the ruins of a monastery in Shigatse but they were very likely painted in eastern Tibet. Dated to the fourteenth century by common consensus, the thankas reflect a freshness of imagination and a refinement of execution that can only be encountered at the early stages of a given style before it degenerates into a conventional mannerism. Indeed, the British Museum series is closely related in style to the Virginia Museum scroll. In both we see a similar use of contorted masses of solid blue-green rocks and trees with convulsively twisted trunks spreading their branches like sharp tentacles. In both paintings too the landscape seems to be enveloped in a thin film of mist, a popular Chinese device that generally did not appeal to the Tibetan painters.
It has already been suggested that any attempt to trace the origins of the arhat thankas in Chinese painting is unlikely to succeed partly due to the absence of Chinese scholarship in the Buddhist paintings of the Yuan and Ming periods, and partly because of the very conservatism of the Tibetan pictorial tradition itself. The ultimate inspiration for such paintings can be traced back to the Buddhist paintings of the Ning-po school in Chekiang province during the Southern Song and the Yuan periods. Apparently the artists of this school were so famous that traveling Japanese monks often acquired series of paintings done by Ning-po painters. The closest Chinese models for such paintings, with their blue-green rocks, appears to be a series of twelfth century arhat paintings most of which are in the Daitoku-ji temple in Nara and a few in the Boston Museum and the Freer Gallery of Art. It is possible that Tibetan monks too, especially during their close association with the Yuan and early Ming emperors, acquired works rendered by renowned schools of Buddhist painting in China, as much as the emperors themselves received gifts of both art and artists from Tibet. After all, Chinese history informs us that after the death of the famous Sakyapa abbot Phagpa, who was the guru of Kublai Khan, a temple was raised in his honour in Chekiang at the foot of the Hua-kai Mountain, which contained a clay statue of the hierarch ‘decorated with gold and many colors.’ Franke, p.310; also for the excerpt in the following sentence. Moreover, the memorial inscription for Phagpa composed by a Chinese Buddhist monk was written by none other than Chao Meng-fu himself, while ‘the seal script title of the stele was prepared by another Yuan writer and artist, Yuan Ming-shan (1269-1322).’ As it has also been mentioned, during the visit of the Karmapa Dezhin Shegpa, who was the guru of the Yongle emperor, the latter had two copies of a scroll painted recording the visit of the Karmapa, one of which the emperor gave to his guru.
Although the forms are strongly Chinese, the visionary landscape developed by the Tibetan artists are essentially Tibetan both in feeling and expression. The basic vocabulary in such thankas, particularly of the blue-green rocks, stylized cloud patterns or expressively rendered trees, is derived from Chinese Buddhist paintings of the late Southern Song and the Yuan periods, but the ultimate visualization and representation remained distinctly Tibetan.
The Tibetan artists were more interested in placing their figures in landscapes largely of fantasy rather than of observation. Though not devoid of poetic charm, the landscapes in thankas do not translate by line and colour the ‘wonders of nature’ that the Chinese were so fond of observing and expressing through their brush, whether in verbal or visual images. The Chinese artist responded to nature directly; the Tibetan artist looked at nature through Chinese paintings and evolved a pictorial language of opulent colours and fantastic forms. He was not interested in the interplay of light and shadows, in exploiting the diverse moods of nature, or in emphasizing the seasonal variations that constantly fascinated the Chinese literati painters. In fact, the landscape of the Tibetan artist, although it uses shapes, forms, and colours of this terrestrial world, really represents an imaginary realm, like their own mythical Sambhala, or a paradise like that of the Daoist immortals. In a sense, the landscape in a thanka reflects an inner landscape of serene grandeur and clear light. Even though the Tibetan artists employed gnarled trees and fantastic rock formations and the figures were no longer placed in strict frontality or symmetrical composition (all reflecting strong influences of the Chinese aesthetic), the overall visual effect conveys tranquility and harmony. Instability and ambiguity are characteristics of the mundane world and therefore could not be reflected in the divine realm of the Tibetans.
Most of the basic elements of this style are encountered in the Virginia scroll (Pl. 55), in which the action is expressed against a continuous background of ‘purely fanciful landscapes of blue-green mountains and contorted trees enveloped in a misty haze.’ In the thankas (Pls. 58-60) the trees reveal a wide variety of forms and are often treated naturalistically. Although differences of light and shade are not emphasized, the compositions are no longer two dimensional as in the Indo-Nepali tradition. Forms of mountains as well as canyons and rivers are deftly used to add an illusion of depth by creating receding planes. The figure of the arhat still remains the focal point and is always much larger than those of the attendant’s and the animals, but in most instances, the trees and the mountains are given equal prominence so that the composition is not as strongly figural as in the earlier styles. The animals and birds are no longer conceptually rendered but often reflect the artist’s close familiarity with their forms. The figures are never grouped in schematic fashion but are placed more naturalistically and react with one another in a more realistic manner.
The most prominent, though not invariable, features of such landscape thankas are the blue-green mountains and the fantastically shaped rocks that have a solid presence. It need hardly be pointed out that the blue-green mountains were borrowed from Chinese paintings, but it would be wrong to assume that they were taken from Ming paintings. Indeed, the reverse pyramidal shape of the blue- green rock which is frequently used as the seat for the arhat was very likely borrowed from similar forms in Yuan embroidery, such as the beautiful Kuan-yin with Willow Branch, dated 1295 and now in the Nara National Museum. Lee and Ho, no.304. The Tibetan artists even attempted to reproduce the texture of the embroidered rock formation in their thankas (Pls. 58-60). There are at least two other examples of Yuan ‘embroidered pictures’ that are pertinent for the study of landscape thankas. Ibid., no.306 and Notable Acquisitions 1981-1982 — The Metropolitan Museum of Art, p.75.
Once, however, the Tibetans adopted this particular motif, it seems they became totally addicted to it. They continued to employ it with astonishing variations right into the present century. One can only explain this obsession in terms of the Tibetan’s innate love for the colour blue. Lapis lazuli and turquoise have always been their favorite colours, as is testified by Chinese documents as early as the Tang period. Summing up the evidence E.H. Schafer writes:
The Chinese were not alone among the Far Eastern peoples in their admiration for the blue mineral [lapis lazuli]. The Tibetans valued it above all others, even ahead of gold, and those highlanders saw in it the image of the azure sky, and said that the hair of their goddesses had its colour. Both men and women there wore it on their heads. Schafer, p.232.
Indeed, anyone familiar with Tibetan ornaments or with gem-encrusted bronzes will have noticed that by far the most predominant stone used is the turquoise. Very likely, after the Tibetans lost control of Central Asia, and particularly Khotan which was the principal market for lapis lazuli, they had to be content with turquoise. In any event, turquoise along with other stones such as corals and agates, are constantly employed in Tibetan poetry, especially for describing rocks and mountains. The love for turquoise is not limited only to rocks but even their lions have a blue mane, and ‘in the south, in the valley of Trowo, the turquoise dragon thunders.’ Once during his wanderings with his followers, the great poet Milarepa reached some rocks and immediately began singing:
The blessings of the lord guru have entered these rocks.
If you do not know the virtues of these rocks,
This is the Lofty Green Mountain Sky Fortress,
At the Pālace of the Sky Fortress,
Above, dark clouds gather;
Below, blue river flows,
Behind, the red rock sky fortress. Trungpa, p.193.
On another occasion they were walking near the mountain peak of Bonbo, when the disciples asked their master what the name of the mountain was. Milarepa replied, ‘It is called the Blue Heights of the Fair Goddess’ and sang a beautiful song which contains the following relevant lyrics:
This is the Mount of the Auspicious Goddess of Long Life,
The triangular, sharp-edged peak looming above its waist.
Is like a dumpling on a shell;
Flowing round its neck are silver-netted streams.
The high crystal peak that mirrors the first beams.
Of sunlight in the morning is the crown.
Beautiful by white hanging clouds. Chang, p.542.
Milarepa lived in the eleventh century, but his poetry verbally reflects the Tibetan’s love of nature and expresses the kind of metaphoric imagery seen in the landscape thankas. Individual motifs and even visual passages were borrowed from Chinese paintings, but the ultimate expression was as distinctly Tibetan as is the poetry of Milarepa.
According to the Tibetan scholastic tradition, at least three schools of painting flourished in eastern Tibet during the sixteenth century. One of these developed in Dege and was known as Man ris. A second school of painting was begun by one Jamyang Khyentse (b. 1524) and came to be known as Khyen ris. The third school was originated with one Namka Tashi and was known as Karma gadri. Macdonald and Stahl, p.35. However, very little is said about the characteristics of these styles, and hence it is extremely difficult to relate them to existing paintings. Nevertheless, there seems no doubt that the sixteenth century did witness the emergence of several new modes of painting in Tibet.
Pl. 61 illustrates a thanka that bears a Chinese inscription which includes the name of the Emperor Wanli (r. 1573-1612). A companion piece from the same series is in the British Museum and both represent jātaka tales, which are stories about the past lives of the Buddha Śākyamuni before his last birth as Siddhārtha. The inscriptions identifying the stories, however, are in Tibetan and hence, it seems clear that the series was painted in Tibet and presented to the emperor. The style almost certainly originated in eastern Tibet, perhaps in a Karmapa monastery, and one can assume that it was formulated by the end of the sixteenth century. Although most known examples of such paintings represent jātakas or the life of the Buddha, the style was also employed to represent the arhats (Pls. 62-63).
In most such paintings the various stories unfold around a central figure of Śākyamuni, who is either seated or standing. The episodes are not clearly distinguished from one another and seem almost to telescope into each other. Hills with gentle slopes and painted in muted greens and browns act as backdrops for both the architecture and the action. No blue-green mountains, rocks of fantastic shapes, or gnarled trees, have been employed in this style. Occasionally, a hill with its snowy peak may rise sharply but the trees are always conceptually rendered, reflecting the Indo-Nepali manner of formalization encountered earlier. Within each vignette, some sense of space is suggested by Chinese architectural forms, pools and streams, trees and hills, but when viewed as a whole, the painting remains a delightful configuration of rhythmic forms and shapes. Each story unfolds in its own little composition enriched with hills and skies laced with white, pink or mauve clouds. All these mini-compositions with their bustling activity and diverse landscapes are artfully integrated into a rich composition that magically retains its visual integrity.
The Life of Sakyagri (1127-1225)
Central Tibet (Sakyapa monastery)
ca.1300 85.8 x 66.4 cm. R. H. Ellsworth, Ltd. Even a cursory comparison with the earlier landscape style (Pls. 58-60) will make it clear that this is a totally different mode of expression that owes very little to its predecessor or to Chinese painting. Instead of the open and grandiose landscapes used for the arhat paintings, here several miniature landscape compositions are clustered together like rocks and boulders in a mountain stream. Some have suggested that the style may have been influenced by contemporary Indian miniature paintings, but this is improbable. Unlike the earlier arhat paintings,there are no bold juxtapositions of strong, strange shapes and bright, intense colours in this style. Although each painting is filled with figural, natural and architectural forms, because of the muted colours and gentle shapes, the total effect is serene and reposeful. There can be little doubt that the style was dictated partly by the subject matter. Several stories had to be compressed into a single thanka, and this kind of mini-composition proved to be the most economical. It may be noted that the Nepalis preferred to depict their narrative subjects in little framed compositions along the margin, as we see in the Sakyapa style thankas (Fig. 10), but obviously the sixteenth century Tibetan artists favoured a more lively manner that deftly integrated natural forms which played only a symbolic role in the Indo-Nepali tradition.
As it has already been noted, once the style was formulated, it was not confined only to narrative subjects. Arhats and divinities, monks and mahasiddhas (Pls. 62-66) were also represented in landscape settings. Invariably the central personage occupies the centre of the thanka with subsidiary figures distributed all around. The overall composition is always characterized by symmetry and a sense of order, but the arrangement is never too regular or monotonous. An astonishing diversity of forms and designs of the miniature vignettes make these thankas especially attractive.
Pls. 67-68 illustrate even a more imaginative and evocative style of painting than the one we have just been discussing. The style is related to a series of mahasiddha thankas belonging to the Tibet House Museum in New Delhi painted in the Karma Gadri style. 20 Pal 1969A, colour plate facing p.14 and no.16; and refer-ences cited therein. For another fine series in this style, see Olschak and Wangyal, pp. 72-73. The problem, however, is that a beautiful series of thankas depicting the Kagyupa lineage (Pls. 91-92), which will be discussed in the next chapter, is also said to be painted in the Karma Gadri style. Even a cursory comparison will reveal how different the two modes of expression are. The Tibet House mahasiddha thankas, according to the Tibetan tradition, were painted in the fifteenth century, and yet, as I have already mentioned, a nineteenth century Tibetan source regards the Karma Gadri style or movement to have begun in the second half of the sixteenth century. On the other hand, the biography of the Karmapa pontiffs mentions that the Karma Gadri movement was inspired by Karmapa Mikyo Dorje (1507-1554) who was an accomplished artist. Thinley, p.94. In view of the fact that the style is designated as ‘Karma,’ it seems that it may have been created in the first half of the sixteenth century by Mikyo Dorje himself. The Tibet House mahasiddha series, in fact, may well have been designed, if not painted, by Mikyo Dorje.
Birth Stories of the Buddha
Eastern Tibet, ca.1600
72 x 48 cm.
Zimmerman Family Collection Be that as it may, the two thankas depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha were very likely painted in the second half of the sixteenth century. Although the style is related to that of the jātaka series of Emperor Wanli (Pl. 61), what is striking about this style is the deliberate rejection of horror vacuii and the emphasis on open space. Each episode is presented here in clearly defined space, even though each is still a mini composition and is to be viewed in its own spatial context. At the same time, each vignette is part of the overall composition which now has a sense of cosmic vastness in which the Lilliputian figures act out the dramas of their existences in a surrealistic manner. Indeed, one may well characterize the treatment of space and time here as essentially surrealistic. The perspective certainly is aerial, as if one were looking down from an aeroplane at a vast stretch of the earth where people move about like ants.
Although natural forms are given much greater emphasis than the figures, nature here is not overwhelming. There is a remarkable variety of shapes and forms, some of which are just as fantastic and expressive as those seen in earlier arhat thankas, but they are less overpowering because of their reduced scale and are more quietly accentuated. As in the Wanli jātaka paintings, the figures and animals react with one another with far greater expressiveness than was the case with the earlier Indo-Nepali style of representation and are arranged with far more naturalism. The animals and birds, especially the ducks, the horse and the elephants, reflect a keener sense of observation. The natural forms, both of the mountains and the trees, however, are conceptually rendered, the former revealing the artist’s fantastic power of imagination, and the latter, his flair for decorativeness. Green is undoubtedly the predominant colour, but a wide variety of shades were employed with considerable tonal variations to create a landscape of great delicacy and charm. The style remained confined largely to eastern Tibet, but continued to be employed through the eighteenth century, especially for narrative subjects.
There is no doubt that probably as a result of the close contacts of the Sakyapas and the Karmapas with the Mongol and the early Ming courts and partly because the Indian sources had dried up, there was a renewed interest among Tibetans in Chinese Buddhist art. While in Tsang, the Sakyapas adhered more strongly to the Nepali tradition, in eastern Tibet Chinese styles may have been more popular. Extrapolating from Chinese paintings those natural forms that they found attractive, by the fourteenth century, the Tibetans had created a landscape style of their own that emphasized fantasy more than fact. This style was largely used for arhat and mahasiddha thankas and, once formulated, remained prevalent well into the eighteenth century. The style is characterized by fantastic rocks, often of blue-green colour, twisted and contorted trees, bold and vivid colours - all of which reflect the richness of the Tibetan’s imagination. In contrast to this landscape of fantasy, the figures, whether human or animal, are depicted with a much greater variety and naturalism than they are in the Sakyapa lineage thankas.
A second style that also made rich use of landscape elements appears to have developed sometime in the sixteenth century, largely to depict narrative subjects. There were two major variations of this style, though both employed a number of miniature landscape compositions which lead the eye from one plane to the next but gently merge into another to create a final picture of rhythmic patterns and visual harmony. However while in one manner (Pls. 61-66), the forms are used densely to fill the entire surface of the painting affording little relief to the eye, in the other (Pls. 67-68) the images float in more open spaces that make the landscape far more poetic and evocative.
All three styles continued to be used during the succeeding centuries and were often synthesized by individual artists to create their own modes of expression. Even if the Tibetans did not experiment with light and shade, or explore the moods and mysteries of nature, as did the Chinese, they continued to express their poetic sensibility and often used the landscape elements with charming archaism and admirable refinement.