Media only: Megan Krefting 202-633-0271; kreftingm@si.edu
Public only: 202.633.1000

February 25, 2010

Those who study the sacred arts of Tibetan Buddhism seldom know the names, much less life stories, of the artists they research—the vast majority of these painters and sculptors toiled anonymously within the confines of monasteries and courts. Consequently, exhibitions of Tibetan Buddhist art typically focus on iconographic or religious aspects of the works. “Lama, Patron, Artist: The Great Situ Panchen,” on view March 13 through July 18 at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, offers a fresh approach to Tibetan painting by bringing to the foreground the remarkable life story of the great artist-scholar Situ Panchen Chokyi Jungne (1700-1774).

Paintings, sculptures and illuminated manuscript pages from the 12th to the 19th centuries represent Situ’s life and greatest artistic achievements. Originally organized by the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, the exhibition is based on new research conducted by David Jackson, a leading scholar of Tibetan culture and history. Jackson and his co-organizer, Rubin curator Karl Debreczeny, chose an innovative path for this first Western exhibition on Situ, approaching the paintings as historical documents and delving deeply into his diaries, journals and other primary sources.

The portrait that emerges reveals a brilliant polymath who changed the course of Tibetan painting and made significant contributions to the literary arts, medicine and diplomacy of 18th-century Tibet. Situ was well educated and well traveled, and his artistic influence extended far beyond his own workshop and into Chinese cultural circles, fomenting an artistic dialogue with Qing Dynasty artists and leaders. New to the exhibition in the Sackler venue are several key Chinese works from the Freer Gallery of Art collection, which allow more insight into Situ’s engagement with transnational Buddhist culture.

Born in January 1700 in Derge, a small but culturally significant kingdom in Kham Province of historical eastern Tibet (modern Sichuan Province, China), Situ was recognized at an early age as an incarnate lama of the Karma Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism. He studied with the great teachers of his sect and eventually became a revered and charismatic lama and founder of Palpung Monastery, located near Derge. By the time Situ began his studies, art making had long been an important aspect of Buddhist monastic tradition, in which paintings and sculpture are employed as aids to support Buddhist devotional and meditative practices. At the age of 15, Situ was introduced to the traditional Tibetan styles of painting and sculpture. He developed a keen interest in the early masterpieces and styles, as well as a consciousness of past models that deeply informed his artistic sensibilities.

“Lama, Patron, Artist” examines the mature artist’s greatest achievement: his revival, as a painter and patron, of the Encampment style of painting that emerged in central Tibet in the late 16th century. Inspired by the conventions of Chinese court painting, the Encampment style spread as the Karmapas (heads of the Karma Kagyu order) moved from place to place in portable encampments that functioned as moveable monasteries, complete with skilled painters and artisans.

The Encampment style was a revolution in Tibetan art, freeing Indian-inspired figures to roam in open Chinese-inspired landscapes. However, during the 17th century, sectarian conflict in the region caused the order’s suppression and nearly obliterated the Encampment style. Situ inspired an 18th-century revival, and in his workshop at Palpung Monastery he created and designed paintings that continue to be copied today. Situ’s revitalization of this stylistic tradition also ignited a resurgence of the local artistic traditions of his home province of Kham, where the Encampment style transcended sectarian divisions to become a regional visual idiom.

“Situ’s advocacy of the Encampment style is hugely important in Tibetan art,” said Jackson. “His paintings and commissions spread throughout the Himalayas through diligent copying, shaping how the Buddhist faithful in the region imagine both stories and doctrine.”

Three of the featured thangkas (scroll paintings) in the exhibition are attributed to Situ’s own hand, and several more are from his workshop. The majority are copies of famous images from his multiple thangka sets, created after his death. A number of the works on view predate Situ, illustrating the early development of the Encampment style.

“We hope to convey the magnificence of the multiple thangka sets of 18th-century Tibet,” said Debreczeny. “Through David Jackson’s research, we know that 12 sets of thangkas can be firmly attributed to Situ or to his monastic seat. This exhibition represents 11 of these sets, including a set portraying the Eight Great Adepts, which many scholars believe to be one of the master’s earliest and greatest works.”

The fully illustrated exhibition catalog, written by Jackson with an essay by Debreczeny, presents the first comprehensive exploration of the artistic legacy of Situ and an extensive account of Karma Kagyu paintings.

“Lama, Patron, Artist: The Great Situ Panchen” and “The Tibetan Shrine from the Alice S. Kandell Collection” will be showcased together March 13 through July 18 as part of “In the Realm of the Buddha,” the Sackler’s spring and summer celebration of the sacred arts of Tibetan Buddhism. For more information about these exhibitions and related programs, visit asia.si.edu.

“Lama, Patron, Artist” is a featured exhibition of the Freer and Sackler’s Asia in America program, which showcases the holdings of important American institutional collections of Asian art through an ongoing series of exhibitions presented at the Sackler Gallery.

The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located at 1050 Independence Avenue S.W., and the adjacent Freer Gallery of Art, located at 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W., are on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day, except Dec. 25, and admission is free. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information about the Freer and Sackler galleries and their exhibitions, programs and other events, the public is welcome to visit asia.si.edu. For general Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000 or TTY (202) 633-5285.