16th Annual Nelson Wu Memorial Lecture “Collecting Kashmir”

In his lecture, “Collecting Kashmir” at the Saint Louis Art Museum on Thursday, October 10, 2013, Robert Linrothe described the inspirations for his new travelling exhibition, which features Kashmiri and Kashmiri-inspired art objects from central Asia. The lecture was co-sponsored by the Department of Art History and Archaeology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, and the Saint Louis Art Museum and examines a topic that I think is relevant to a variety of collecting practices.

The Sculpture of Chöying Dorjé, Tenth Karmapa

The Sculpture of Chöying Dorjé, Tenth Karmapa

One of Linrothe’s main interests is exploring the dichotomy of “local”, west Himalayan collecting practices and larger “Western” collecting practices. At one point during the lecture, Linrothe reminds audience members that viewing objects in situ is very different from viewing objects in the ‘white cube’ of the gallery space. Since many collectors in western Tibet are Buddhist, they often regard the act of collecting religious imagery differently than Western academics or enthusiasts. Linrothe notes that for collectors in western Tibet, for example, the presence of almond eyes on a Buddha or bodhisattva statue is regarded as one of the most important attributes, while specific histories and provenances are sometimes of little interest to worshippers. For this reason, collectors in the western Himalayas and Tibet often seek to maintain close ties to objects in situ in Kashmir through common aesthetic conventions. Naturally, the most essential aspect of collecting for believers is that viewers can ‘read’ the statue via a system of visual conventions. This is likely the result of the widespread belief that the appearance of a statue is directly related to its spiritual efficacy. By contrast, the provenance and history of specific objects is often the greatest concern for Western historians and collectors, including institutions like the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum or the Saint Louis Art Museum.

Although contemporary worshippers and institutions collect for very different reasons, an analysis of the two different forms of collecting can grant a deeper understanding of specific objects. For example, Linrothe noted that an object featuring a horse head in the Saint Louis Art Museum collection, often thought to be a depiction of Hayagriva Lokesvara, might be viewed as Avilokitesvara by a western Tibetan Buddhist due to the fact that the sculpture features a Buddha figure prominently in the crown. These disparate interpretations undoubtedly enrich our understanding of the object. Raising questions about specific histories, many forget the importance of contemporary use in Buddhist art, where it seems to function as its own kind of visual language or scripture in certain areas today – educating viewers through imagery. The lecture reminds listeners that histories and functional use both play a role in the interpretation of many art objects, even those that have been removed from their original context.

By Bryce Heatherly (Friday, October 18, 2013)

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