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Articles by Mary S. Slusser

Mary Shepherd Slusser

May 19, 2003

While residing in Kathmandu in the 1960s, I acquired six Nepalese paintings on cloth (paubha, pata), five of which are now, or will be, in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia. All have undergone conservation, for the most part minimal but occasionally quite extensive. This report, including pre-restoration photo documentation, is therefore prepared as an aid to scholars and conservators who may be concerned with them. In case of doubt it clearly establishes what is original and what is not.

When I arrived in Nepal in 1965, accompanying my husband on assignment for the United States AID mission, the secluded nation had been opened to the outside world a mere fifteen years. Aside from a few progressive merchants along New Road in Kathmandu who dealt clandestinely in Himalayan fine arts, there were, to my knowledge, no sophisticated dealerships. Typically, one sought art and antiques in the numerous funky, dusty "curio" shops in the nearby town of Patan. Such shops usually occupied part of the ground floor of the traditional wood and brick Newar house and dealt in a variety of "collectibles" - ethnic objects, manuscripts or parts of them, paintings and sculptures old and new, good and bad, and in fact almost anything for which there was thought to be a market. Randomly mixed with junk, precious small objects - a bejeweled antique gold ear ornament, an exquisite tiny bronze image - gathered dust in open saucers on the countertops. Priceless Nepalese and Tibetan paintings hung draped in haphazard heaps over roughly-hewn sawhorses to be pawed through at will as in a second-hand clothes shop. Sometimes, if you were judged trustworthy, the shopkeeper would offer to lead you to an upper floor by way of dark, steep, ladder-like stairs to see something hidden away from the general public, it being illegal (theoretically) to export genuine antiquities.

The proprietors of these shops also made "house calls" to members of the foreign community who were customers, as was I in the role of an unpaid field assistant collecting ethnic objects for the Smithsonian Institution. The shop proprietors usually arrived in the evening with a few things stuffed into a cloth bag. The objects were spread out on the floor and buyer and seller sat cross-legged among them and haggled about purchases. Then, typically, the price of their offerings was often in the neighborhood of fifty cents, offerings that, assuming they could still be found, would be unaffordable in today's market. Because of the Smithsonian's limiting mandate and the few funds placed at my disposal, my purchases in the first couple of years were always very modest and did not include fine arts.

Fig. 1

Nonetheless, one August evening in 1967 a couple of Nepali strangers arrived at our house with a paubha, a painting on cotton cloth, to sell. It was an impressively large and stunning representation of the Buddhist goddess Vajravarahi and her retinue. Because the painting bore two donor and consecration scenes, one in an anomalous position at the top, I knew it had been doctored (fig. 1, left). Despite this and the fact that I was a neophyte in the field of Nepalese fine arts, the painting's artistic value was so apparent that I knew I had to possess it, not for the Smithsonian's ethnographic collection of course, but for myself. After much haggling I paid half the agreed price with the equivalent of about US$300.00 in local currency, the rest with an old 35 mm camera. Even so, for the unemployed wife of a mid-level government bureaucrat this represented a luxury purchase far larger than was my custom.

Having met with success in the sale of the Vajravarahi painting, one of the men - I will call him Mr. T - returned over a period of several days in August and once again in November bearing still more early paintings - or parts of them! - all of which I purchased. Flinging around what then seemed like such large sums of money for luxury items was a heady, indeed scary, time for me. I was too naive to have any idea that such purchases were an investment. In all there were five paintings. Two of them, my catalogue numbers 430 and 431, came to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts by way of someone to whom I traded them in the 1980s. They are accessioned, respectively, VMFA 91.550 and 549. The other two (my catalogue numbers 429 and 449) are part of my promised bequest to the museum. The fifth painting, a very damaged Cakrasamvara mandala (my catalog number 432), I gave to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (see Pratapaditya Pal, Art of Nepal [1985], catalogue P16). There was actually a sixth painting in this splendid assembly of five, of which more later.

Fig. 2

The group of paintings purchased in August had a far more intimate connection than I at first realized. To conceal damage these men had carried out a barbarous cut and paste job in which torn or worn parts of some paintings were simply cut away and discarded and crudely patched with parts cannibalized from others. In the case of the otherwise very well-preserved Vajravarahi painting, for example, approximately two inches had been trimmed from the top and replaced with a totally inappropriate consecration and donor scene that had been cut from the bottom of some other painting (fig. 2).

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The next painting to come my way via Mr. T featured a Cakrasamvara mandala (cat. 430). It too had been doctored but far more extensively. On either side of this new offering a large triangular portion had been trimmed away, presumably because of poor condition, and replaced with various pieces cut from another painting (figs. 3-5, above). While this handiwork gave the impression of a complete painting it was too crude to deceive any but the most naive. Still, most of the painting was intact, in very good condition, and clearly worth saving (fig. 6, below). So after the usual haggling it became mine.

Fig. 6

Knowing he had found his mark, Mr. T appeared yet again, this time with a painting that my journal records as mostly "bits and scraps." Nonetheless, they were original fourteenth- or fifteenth-century scraps that eventually proved to compose a splendid, if badly damaged Nepalese painting. This time I had no guilt about the cost, acquiring the painting for the equivalent of US$27.00 and cataloguing it as number 431. (The damaged painting (cat. 432), now in Los Angeles, was purchased the same day.)

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Fig. 10

Realizing that there was a market even for scraps, Mr. T soon returned and slyly pulled a crumpled painted fragment of cloth from his coat pocket. Dangled before me, it was a stunning depiction of four Hindu deities being trampled under the blue feet of a dancing deity (figs. 7-8, above). I surmised that it belonged with the incomplete painting (cat. 431) I'd bought the day before and acquired it. I made no record of the transaction and can no longer remember whether I paid anything for it or simply insisted that it belonged with the previous day's purchase. By now I suspected that the damaged "bits and pieces" painting and this newly acquired fragment were the remains of the painting that had been cannibalized to "enhance" the Vajravarahi and Cakrasamvara paintings (cat. 429, 430). That this was indeed so only became clear in the conservation laboratory of the Cleveland Museum of Art. At that time my sister, Dorothy Shepherd, was a curator at the museum and, fortuitously, a Japanese specialist, Mr. Yuji Abe, had come from Tokyo to do restoration work on Cleveland paintings. It was agreed that, at my expense he would also attend to the Nepalese paintings. In his skilled hands the Vajravarahi and Cakrasamvara paintings were divested of the deceptive additions, on the one the anomalous strip at the top (fig. 9, above) and on the other the insertions on each side (fig. 10, above). When these pieces were reunited with the "bits and scraps" painting (cat. 431) they yielded a fine, if still incomplete and damaged fourteenth or fifteenth century Nepalese painting (figs. 11-13, below). It depicts Hevajra and Nairatma locked in ecstatic embrace and trampling the four Hindu deities that once nestled in Mr. T's coat pocket.

Fig. 11

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At this point in the three paintings' history, as they left Mr. Abe's hands around 1968, none was restored beyond modest cleaning coupled with the work I've described. After the spurious inclusions were removed there was no attempt to reconstruct the missing parts. The paintings were simply mounted and framed. In the 1980s, when in the custody of the then owner, the Cakrasamvara painting underwent a very sophisticated restoration which included in-painting of the missing side portions. It is in this condition that it came to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (fig. 14, below). The Hevajra painting also had been considerably restored (fig. 15, below: compare with fig. 11). Despite the barbaric treatment suffered in Nepal, these two paintings under judicious restoration preserve the essence of the splendid works they once had been and now have a deservedly honored place in Virginia. In the case of the cannibalized Hevajra painting (cat. 431), lest anyone assume that its artistic value is compromised because of its history, one only has to reflect on the miracle at Assisi. There the Cimabue and Giotto frescoes, shattered by earthquake, will live again from the reassembly of meticulously gathered tens of thousands of fragments. For this, as with the Hevajra painting, we can only be grateful that there were pieces to assemble.

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Fig. 17

Until 2001 the Vajravarahi painting remained as it left Mr. Abe's workshop, lightly cleaned, divested of the anomalous strip at the top, mounted and framed. At that time, purposely, no attempt was made to conceal areas of paint loss. However, when readying the painting for an exhibition the Vajravarahi underwent a sophisticated restoration intended to recreate its former glory. To minimize the impact of the missing top portion, the tan-colored strip visible in figure 9 was given a more complementary color and pigment was applied to all the areas of paint loss. Most of this occurred in the central axis of the painting along a fold line acquired during long years of storage (fig16, above: compare with. 1, 9). Although perhaps to some eyes the restored painting more nearly reflects the way it must have appeared on the day of consecration, extensive in-painting now confounds the fourteenth century with the twentieth. It is essentially only the before and after photo documentation that unequivocally distinguishes which is which (figs. 17, above -18, below). In any event, questions of restoration aside, thanks to a "house call" on an August evening of 1967 there survives today for public benefit one of the largest, most magnificent, and all too rare early Nepalese paintings.

Fig. 18

I mentioned that there was a sixth painting included in the splendid set of five I purchased in August 1967 but I did not know of its existence until the next year. It was discovered by Mr. Abe glued face down to the back of the Vajravarahi. For what reason we do not know. Regrettably, the composition of the glue used to attach it was never determined but it was extraordinarily tenacious. The hidden painting could not be separated from the painting it was backing without destroying both and had to be sacrificed. It had featured an enormous dancing Hevajra in a composition similar to the recovered Hevajra and Nairatma (fig. 11). The deity's many hands held crania containing wondrous representations of humans and animals, albeit then barely discernible because of the damage. Whatever state it was in before falling into the hands of the dealers, it was undeniably one of the paramount Nepalese paintings of the time and had it survived would have been a stunning complement to the Vajravarahi painting.

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Throughout my transactions with Mr. T in August, I had tried to convince him to forego any further amateur "restorations" of paintings. Glue and gasoline (with which he had tried to clean some) were better left alone. Thus, mercifully, when he came with the fifth and last painting, a sixteenth-century Amoghapasa (cat. 449), it had not been doctored and the badly damaged upper part had been left undisturbed. Except for minimal cleaning and mounting carried out by Mr. Abe, then in his own atelier in Japan, it is still today in the condition in which I purchased it, providing a worthy addition to the all-too-meager corpus of early Nepalese paintings (figs. 19-21, above).

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I also had a role in the acquisition of another painting now in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the splendid pictorial pilgrims' guide which the museum recently purchased (fig. 22, left). I first encountered and photographed this painting in August 1967. Then it was displayed with other sacred objects for a few days in Yampi-vihara, a tumbled-down Patan monastery, during the annual Looking-at-the-Gods-in-the-Monasteries (Newari, bahidyah bwayegu). Physically separated from the public by some means - a balustrade, for example - fine bronzes, sculptures, damaged and whole, of wood, of clay, and of stone, pedestals without deities and deities without pedestals, paintings in varied condition, and a miscellany of sacred objects are (or were) made available for worship (fig. 23, above). Although the majority are bonafide belongings of the monastery, privately owned objects may be shown as well. As my photographs show, the pilgrims' guide was in deplorable condition, rodent-gnawed, wrinkled, and the pigments flaking away from dampness (figs. 24-26, below). Although I did not know it, it was to be its last display in the same monastery where it had been consecrated in another summer, exactly 402 years before. Sold or stolen soon after the display - as, regrettably, so many things were in those changing times - the painting was soon making the rounds in the hands of a curio dealer. Already in lamentable condition, the bundled-up painting daily became more degraded as it was trundled around town on the back of a bicycle in search of a prospective customer. For financial considerations I was reluctant to purchase it for myself (ah! but that I had had a crystal ball!) but it cried out for preservation. Thus, for a diplomat who had gone on to another post still yearning for a Nepalese painting, I did purchase it on September 30, 1967 with the stipulation that he spend whatever necessary to restore it. It was agreed and the painting went to Mr. Yuji Abe in Japan who consolidated the flaking paint, lightly cleaned and mounted it. There was no in-painting and no attempt was made to recreate what the rats had eaten. To my knowledge, no further restoration was ever undertaken and the painting came to Virginia in the condition it left Mr. Abe. In 1985 I wrote a detailed study of this wonderful painting entitled "On a Sixteenth-century Pictorial Pilgrim's Guide from Nepal" (Archives of Asian Art, vol. 38 [1985], 6-36).

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Among all these paintings only the origin of the pilgrims' guide is known: Yampi-vihara, popularly known as I-bahal, in the town of Patan where it must have been since its consecration in 1565. In any event, the poor condition to which it had succumbed by 1967 in its homeland is perhaps the most cogent argument in support of collectors and collecting: had it not been for the intervention of the art market, this important painting otherwise seems to have been slated for an ignominious end in someone's dustbin. That this happens I can attest from a 1960s experience in one of the narrow byways of Kathmandu. There alongside the cramped Newar houses, Nepali colleagues and I had paused during a discussion of history and art. From an upper-floor window there shortly appeared the grizzled head of a woman eavesdropper wanting to give us a painting. In a never-to-be-forgotten incident, incredibly, out came sailing a now useless, tattered and blackened rag, a once-upon-a-time Nepalese painting, which we could but leave with the other trash in the muddy way. One shudders to think of the countless masterpieces of Nepali painting that have met a similar end. It is the world's good fortune that so many, including the ones discussed here, have been spared this fate.

Regrettably, except to the sellers, nothing is known about the provenance of all the other paintings discussed here. Given the fact that the pilgrims' guide painting appeared on the market in August, at the close of the annual bahidyah bwayegu, as did most of the others discussed here, it seems a good surmise that they too had been among one or more monasteries' treasures. Despite the fact that in the l960s the displays endured for several days and that yearly I rushed from monastery to monastery to see them I never encountered these paintings. It is likely, given the size and age of the Vajravarahi painting and the Hevajra glued to its back, that they were a distinguished pair and came from a single location. There is also the possibility that they, and others, came from one or more private chapels, sold by a younger generation in exchange for the wherewithal to buy motorcycles, televisions and other things that increasingly were viewed of greater value.

It must be relatively rare that any part of the checkered histories of the centuries-old paintings we know today as seemingly pristine works in private and public collections can be documented as can the ones discussed here. However, the importance of such documentation to the art historian can hardly be underestimated.

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