Portraits of piety

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Publish Time: 2020-07-09 Author: Lin Qi From: China Daily

An exhibition of traditional Tibetan Buddhist scroll paintings in Beijing reveals the rich history of thangka.

The late 20th-century author and scholar Shen Congwen is best known for examining regional cultural heritage in his works.

Lesser known is that he developed an authority on the study of ancient Chinese attire.

Shen once donated four vintage Tibetan thangka paintings from his own collection to the Central Academy of Arts and Design, which merged with Tsinghua University in 1999 to become the Academy of Arts and Design.

These traditional Buddhist paintings were then transferred to the collection of the Tsinghua University Art Museum after it was opened in 2016. They're now on show at Auspicious Land, an exhibition of Tibetan Buddhist paintings and sculptures that's running through Oct 25.

It displays 38 thangka paintings from the Tsinghua University Art Museum's roughly 13,000 works. The scrolls are displayed in juxtaposition with dozens of gilt-bronze Tibetan Buddhist statues on loan from the Capital Museum in Beijing.

The Tsinghua University Art Museum is temporarily closed because of the COVID-19 epidemic. A virtual tour of the exhibition is available on the museum's website.

Thangka are known for their striking palettes and sophisticated decorative elements.

Fine quality, expensive metallic and mineral pigments have ensured the hues have survived for centuries. Thangka creation demands advanced painting and embroidery techniques. A piece may take artists months, years and even decades to complete.

It's also called "a mobile niche" since Buddhists carry them around to use during meditation.

Well-preserved vintage thangka paintings are highly sought after.

A 15th-century embroidered silk thangka once in the imperial collection of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) fetched HK$348.4 million ($45 million) at a Hong Kong auction in 2014.

The exhibition at the Tsinghua University Art Museum reflects a diversity of the styles and imagery of thangka.

An Su, the exhibition's co-curator, says the thangka paintings on show are dated between the 17th and 20th centuries. Most were acquired by the teachers at the initial central arts academy in the 1960s.

"The oldest (displayed) thangka, which is painted against a black background, dates to the late 17th century," she says.

"It depicts Kubera, a protector and lord of wealth, who's framed with an exquisite brocade decorated with raised floral patterns in gold and silver threads, presenting the most highly developed weaving techniques at the time."

She adds the smallest painting on show depicts Jetsun Milarepa, a Tibetan Buddhist master and accomplished poet. The thangka, which measures 29 centimeters by 20 cm, shows Milarepa clad in white. His skin appears greenish grey because of his solitary lifestyle and strict diet. He strikes his typical pose with his right hand to his ear as he listens to his own singing.

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