From The Sacred Realm: Treasures of Tibetan Art from the Newark Museum
by Tony Luppino
The collection of Tibetan Art at the Newark Museum has long been referred to as one of the finest collections of art of Tibet in North America. But few people have had the opportunity to confirm this claim since so little has been published of the material.From the Sacred Realm: Treasures of Tibetan Art from the Newark Museum goes part way towards correcting the situation.Though admirers of Tibetan art will be happy to see the Newark works, this is primarily a popular book. As a result, the objects illustrated seem to be selected for their ability to show variety and function as much as for their artistic quality or historical importance.Fortunately, there are enough pieces in the collection to satisfy both requirements.The essays in the book are also directed at a popular audience.
You will not find any new scholarship based on the collection and that, given the importance of the works, is unfortunate. One can only hope that this book will attract researchers to the Newark Museum who will study and publish on the material in more depth.That said, we should not allow what is not here to obscure the value of what is. This is a well-organized and clearly written general reference work on Tibetan art and culture for the non-specialist.The illustrations work well with the text though I wish they were closer together on the pages.
Many of the essays are illustrated with historic photographs from the Museum’s own extensive archive.These photographs from the early 1900’s are another unique element of the Newark collection that deserves a separate publication. Their contribution to this book is significant in light of how little photographic documentation from that time in Tibet is available. Some of the most intimate of these photographs are the work of Dr. Albert L. Shelton, a missionary in Tibet who collected the works of art and household goods that would become the foundation of the Museum’s Tibetan collection.
Dr. Shelton formed a friendship with one of the Museum’s founding trustees, Edward N. Crane aboard the steamship Mongolia en route from Yokohama to America in 1910. Dr. Shelton had been with his wife in China and Tibet since 1904 where they had two daughters. The story of how the Shelton family trip back to the States in 1910 saved them from political upheavals and warring activity between China and Tibet make for interesting reading. It also provides insight into the moving force behind the Newark collection. Dr. Shelton planned to sell his Tibetan “curios” in America to finance his mission hospital. His meeting with Mr. Crane gave the story a new twist.
At Mr. Crane’s urging, Dr. Shelton lent his collection of 150 objects to the fledging Newark Museum for an exhibition. The Tibetan exhibition was a blockbuster for its time in Newark. Nearly 18,000 people visited the exhibit between February and June of 1911. Mr. Crane passed away in the summer of that year and his wife and brother bought the collection from Dr. Shelton and gifted it to the Newark Museum in honour of Mr. Crane. This first group of objects set the direction for Tibetan collections at the museum. The approach is to collect objects of the highest quality representing all aspects of Tibetan culture both religious and secular. Dr. Shelton continued to do just that.
Dr. Shelton returned to missionary activity in Batang in 1913 and collected additional objects specifically for the Newark Museum. The Shelton family felt the consequences of political unrest in the area in the ensuing years. Robbers attacked Shelton and his family just twelve days out of Batang on one of their trips back to the United States. They were carrying additional objects for the Newark Museum at the time. Dr. Shelton was held for ransom for three months but eventually arrived back in the States in the summer of 1920. Over 600 new objects he collected also made it to the Museum. Shelton returned to Batang alone and in 1922 was killed by bandits just as he was warned to turn back from a trip to the interior of Tibet.
Other missionaries following in Shelton’s steps continued to send materials to the Newark Museum between 1928 and 1948. All of these missionaries enriched the Museum collection not only with material objects but also with an invaluable photographic record of Tibet. The photographs reveal a unique mutual trust between
subject and photographer that attests to the humanity of the collectors. Ironically the turbulent times in Tibet are responsible in many ways for the availability of materials that made their way to collections around the world, including the Newark Museum.
Many objects were sent out of Tibet to protect them from local strife, a practice that continues to this day. Highlights from the first group of objects collected by Dr. Shelton include a silver “Wheel of the Law” associated with the 6th Panchen Lama and fourteen manuscripts of the Prajnaparamita rescued from the destroyed palace in Tachienlu. These volumes were carbon dated to the twelfth century. They join other precious Tibetan manuscripts in the collection which date from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. Some of these books sit in cases beside the Museum’s Buddhist altar.
The Newark Museum built its first Buddhist altar in 1935 to serve as a fitting space in which to exhibit significant religious articles. That altar was deconsecrated in 1988 and a new altar was built to take its place. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama consecrated the new altar upon its completion in 1990. The altar is a focal point of the collection and also the starting point for Chapter four of the book, “Courtyards and Temples” that discusses the monastic tradition in Tibetan art. The text weaves together a catalogue of religious objects in the Museum’s collection with a broader explanation of their ritual significance and historic development in Tibet. Detailed essays on Tibetan ritual objects, “The Vajra and Bell” and “Phurpas: Pointed Compassion” complement the overview text.
Beautiful colour photographs of museum objects used in religious activity or carrying religious decorative motifs illustrate the essay. Among the pieces shown are a
thirteenth century brass chorten, stunning silver vessels, horns and bowls, textiles and carpets as well as several pieces made with human skulls. This use of Museum objects to carry the narrative through historic and cultural discussions is typical of the approach author Valrae Reynolds takes throughout. Ms. Reynolds has been Curator of Asian Collections at the Newark Museum since 1970.
Ms. Reynolds’ long association with the collection and her endeavors to make the Tibetan materials understood and appreciated by a broad audience is evident in the structure and language throughout the book. This publication is clearly a primer in Tibetan art. It is based on the conviction that the art must be appreciated in its wider cultural, religious, and political context. Ms. Reynolds has chosen her collaborators well. Chapter one by Amy Heller is a concise introduction to “Tibetan History and Religion.” Following Chapters include “Mountains and Valleys: Tibetan Everyday Life” and “Castles and Tents: Structures of Power and Patronage.”
The final chapter in the book by Janet Gyatso, “In the Sacred Realm”, from which the publication takes its title, provides in-depth commentary on specific paintings, sculptures, book covers, manuscripts and other artworks. An appendix of drawings showing “Poses, Hand Gestures, Symbols and Attributes” is a wonderful guide to anyone looking at Tibetan art. The practical and expository nature of the book is balanced by a respect for the importance of the objects culturally and religiously for the people of Tibet. Ms. Gyatso begins her essay by saying, “In the Tibetan religious context, a work of art that is a Buddhist image (kundra) is not merely a symbolic representation of
an ultimate Buddhist truth. Nor is it simply an icon… but, to the extent that it embodies the form of the Buddha or deity, the image also conveys the presence of that Buddha in its own right.”
This essential observation about Tibetan sacred art is a theme that runs through the book and through the collection itself. I have been fortunate enough to see the Tibetan collection at the Newark Museum and can attest that a special reverence is practiced in how the works are displayed. I am certain that the volume will attract more people to the Newark Museum and to Tibetan art in general. From the Sacred Realm is sure to become an often referred to publication for many a school paper. I would recommend it highly also for anyone planning a trip to Tibet or to any exhibition of Tibetan art.