Archive for Prince Vessantara

Buddha & the Heiress: The Doris Duke Collection of SE Asian Art

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Book Review, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , on December 26, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Note: The “Emerald Cities” exhibit at The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco runs through January 10, 2010.  These are the last weeks to view this large collection of Thai and Burmese art all together for an unspecified length of time.  Afterward, for conservation reasons, most of the articles in this exhibit will go back into storage.

Head of a Buddha image, Thailand,ca. 1800,
stucco, 46.4 x 40.6 cm.
(The Avery Brundage Collection, ©Asian Art Museum.)

In 2002, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum became one of only two U.S. institutions to receive a substantial donation of Southeast Asian art and antiques from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. (The other was Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum.) The bequest became the cornerstone of the Asian’s now preeminent collection of 18th- and 19th century Thai, and, to a lesser degree, Burmese art.

Doris Duke, circa 1939.

Doris Duke was a most reluctant celebrity. Born in 1912, she was the only child of James Duke, North Carolina tobacco and power magnate. When he died prematurely in 1925, the 12 year old became the sole beneficiary of his considerable fortune, between $30 to $100 million depending on the source.

Intensely private, Duke spent most of  her life trying to avoid the glare of publicity, hiding from cameras and refusing interviews. Though twice married and often romantically linked, Doris Duke died alone in 1993 at her Beverly Hills mansion. She left the bulk of her $1.3 billion estate to two foundations that bear her name.

Interior of the larger of two rooms in the Coach Barn,
Duke Farms, New Jersey (2002).

On an around-the-world honeymoon in 1935 with her first husband, Duke began a lifelong fascination with other cultures. She was a diligent and thorough student, and over the years, she developed a keen eye for art. Though a shy person, Duke was a bold collector. Over her lifetime, she amassed a large and well-known collection of Islamic art, which is housed at her Shangri La estate in Honolulu.

Miniature temple, Northern Thailand, 1850-1900,
lacquer, pigmented natural resin, paint and gilding on wood.
(Gift from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, ©Asian Art Museum.)

During the 1950s and 60s, Duke also assembled a lesser-known (though no less extensive) Southeast Asian art collection, an eclectic array of high caliber objects, which she planned to house in a “Thai village” on one of her many properties.  Although her dream of a village was never realized, her zeal for the project propelled her to amass more than 2,000 religious and secular works. Because she was the only Westerner at the time buying works of such stature, Duke’s collection has turned out to be the most important of its kind outside Asia.

Illustrated manuscript of excerpts from Buddhist texts, 1857,
paint, gold, lacquer, and ink on paper.
(Gift of Katherine Ball,  ©Asian Art Museum.)

Nearly 200 pieces from the Duke collection, as well as gifts from other collectors, are on display in the comprehensive “Emerald Cities” exhibition at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. Some of the pieces have been exquisitely preserved, while others have succumbed to lamentable states of deterioration. (The Asian’s conservation staff labored painstakingly for thousands of hours to bring a great number of these back from the brink.)

Seated crowned and bejeweled Buddha, Thailand, 1825-1900,
paint, gold, and lacquer on wood.
(Gift from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. © Asian Art Museum.)

Despite the individual disappointments, in aggregate the exhibit is a success. First, it is a rare opportunity to view superior artworks from the lesser-studied Asian countries, whose cultures are often overshadowed in the Western world by China and Japan.  Additionally, through the inclusion of scores of 19th-century artifacts, the show illustrates the huge transformation in Thai and Burmese societies during that time through the influx of huge numbers of Chinese and Europeans. But most importantly, “Emerald Cities” brightly illuminates the multiplicity of artistic expression associated with Theravada Buddhism, still the key cultural glue of SE Asia.

Seated crowned and bejeweled Buddha, Burma, 1895,
gilded dry lacquer with mirrored glass, 180.8 x 99.2 cm
(Gift from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. ©The Asian Art Museum.)

The practice of Theravada Buddism centers on devotion to the three “gems”—the Buddha, the dharma (an understanding of his teachings) and the sangha (monastic orders). All the religious works in the show relate to these three elements.

Like Byzantine icons, images of the Buddha were not considered art objects to be displayed for their beauty, but were regarded as the Buddha himself. The meaning of this seated bejeweled Buddha above would have been interpreted differently by devotees of different backgrounds and status. But the fact that he is robed in royal attire suggests that he is a “Jambupati” Buddha, referring to Buddha’s conversion of vain King Jambupati.  Additionally Buddha’s hands assume the Bhumisparsa Mudra gesture, which would signal enlightenment to devotees.

Vessantara and his wife see
the approach of Vessantara’s father’s retinue,

Chapter 12 of the Story of Prince Vessantara, Central Thailand,
ca. 1850-1900,
paint and gold on cloth, approximate 57 x 46 cm.
(Gift from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, ©The Asian Art Museum.)

Other than Buddha himself, the most popular subject in Theravada art is the depiction of scenes from the Buddha’s life.  Of particular note for its rarity is a stunning assemble of 13 paintings depicting the life of Prince Vessantara (one of the Buddha’s former selves) . Generally, visual elements were used in conjunction with oral recitations; as such, they were conceived to be used in one temple for a single celebration. Thus, complete sets of this cycle do not generally survive. This set is additionally noteworthy for the many elements of Western art, such as perspective,  that were incorporated into the compositions.

As the dharma spread across India in the decades after the Buddha’s death (given as 483 BCE), differing interpretations of the original teachings led to schisms within the sangha and the emergence of as many as 18 distinct sects of Buddhism. Today, sects fall into two general branches—”southern,” including Theravada, and “Northern” (i.e. sects in China, Tibet, India, Japan, Korea.)

Burmese manuscript of excerpts from Buddhist texts, ca. 1850-1900,
lacquer and gilding on stiffened cloth or paper with wooden covers.
(Gift of Katherine Ball, ©Asian Art Museum.)

Theravada draws its scriptural inspiration from the Tipitaka, or Pali canon, which scholars generally agree contains the earliest surviving record of the Buddha’s teachings. The Pali canon is extensive—the English translation, for example,  fills over 12,000 pages in approximately fifty hardbound volumes, taking up about five linear feet of shelf space! The elaborate manuscript above—an from the Buddhist texts regarding the conduct of monks—follows the tradition form, that is, six lines of text richly adorned with scenes of the Buddha’s life or, in this case, birds and celestial beings.

The holy monk Phra Malai visiting hell, Central Thailand, ca.1850-1900,
gilded bronze with mirrored glass inlay and pigment, 49.5 x 14 cm.
(Gift from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, ©The Asian Art Museum.)

And finally among the most delicious pieces in the “Emerald Cities” exhibit is the sculptural Phra Malai Visiting Hell. The four figures  emerging from the underworld at the monk’s feet, beseeching him with prayer, are a reminder that Hell is a nasty place, even in the benevolent practice of Buddhism.

Wider Connections

Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam and Burma 1775-1950—exhibition catalog
Thai History
Thai Buddhism
Buddha Images—a comprehensive look at the representation of the Buddha in Thai art.
Burmese Art
Backpacking Burma

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