Art illuminates two religions

Review: Buddhism and Hinduism are the core of one of the new exhibits at the renovated Walters.

October 20, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The Western eye can easily become lost in the vast panorama of Indian art. We don't recognize the signposts, as it were, of the Buddhist and Hindu inner world views.

In the art of the West, these signposts are familiar from daily experience, from books and pictures, and from our knowledge of history, especially the history of Western art.

But in the Buddhist and Hindu art of South Asia there is no such easy familiarity. We have to learn anew all the personages represented in this art, their attributes and powers and the stories they embody. Then we have to fit those stories to a pictorial language that, despite its superficial resemblance to the art of the West, remains deeply mysterious.

This is the task that confronts viewers of "Desire and Devotion: Art from India, Nepal and Tibet," the beautiful debut show of the newly renovated Walters Art Museum that opens today. This is a richly evocative view of a centuries-old civilization inspired by two of the world's great religions, Buddhism and Hinduism.

But just as one could hardly understand Western art without some knowledge of Christianity and the pagan religions that preceded it, so too some familiarity with Eastern religious ideas is helpful in appreciating the deeper meanings of Asian art.

Happily, the Walters provides such an introduction in the wall-texts and labels accompanying the show and in an excellent catalog that is itself an aesthetic gem.

Here we are introduced to the important characters in Buddhist and Hindu art, along with their attributes and the legends of their deeds. There is, for example, the great teacher known as Buddha, who lived in Nepal from around 563 B.C. to 483 B.C.

According to tradition, Buddha (meaning "the enlightened one") was the title given to Siddhartha Guatama, the son of a noble family who left a life of luxury at age 30 to devote himself to years of meditation and abstinence before finally achieving enlightenment. Thereafter, he was known as Buddha and spent the rest of his life teaching others how to achieve nirvana.

Buddhism is based on the Four Noble Truths taught by the master: 1) suffering exists, 2) suffering comes from attachment to desires, 3) suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases and 4) freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path - Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

The Buddha was one of many meditation experts active in this period, but his doctrines differed from those of the hereditary priests who upheld the caste system and carried out ceremonies based on sacrificial offerings. As Buddhism developed into an organized religion, its founder came to be regarded as only the most recent of a series of enlightened teachers, each of whom had discovered the same eternal truths.

Hinduism shares Buddhism's belief in reincarnation and its desire for liberation from earthly ills, but its dominant figures are supreme beings who may appear in many forms and aspects - for example, Vishnu the creator god, Shiva the destroyer and various goddesses associated with them. The stories surrounding the Hindu gods and goddesses recall the all-too-human passions and jealousies of the pagan gods of Olympus, yet the philosophy they embody is uniquely Eastern in conception.

The show opens with a group of statutes representing the goddesses of Indian mythology. Mostly unnamed, they take such forms as the nurturing mother, the devoted spouse and the avenging warrior, all of whom can be interpreted as different manifestations of a single supreme goddess.

These figures are frankly voluptuous and sensual, reflecting the importance placed on physical desire in Eastern religion, in which the urge for oneness with god is often compared with the desire of lovers to unite. Desire sublimated into devotion is believed to be one of the principal routes to spiritual power because it motivates individuals to strive for transcendent experience.

The next sections deal with representations of the Buddha and with early Hindu temple sculpture. Here, we also encounter the bodhisattvas - enlightened individuals who have voluntarily chosen not to take the last step into nirvana so that they can serve as guides to humanity, spreading compassion and other virtues in the world. There are many different bodhisattvas, each with its own devotees and rituals.

Some of the most charming works in this show are the miniature paintings depicting the god Krishna's flirtations with his milkmaids. Krishna (who can be thought of as an aspect of Vishnu) was, according to tradition, pursued by a group of milkmaids, one of whom, Radha, he singled out as his beloved. The story of their love is an allegory of the desire of the individual soul, represented by Radha, to merge with the divine.

There are also magnificently colored paintings on cotton from Tibetan and Nepalese monasteries, bronze statues, religious manuscripts and other objects testifying to a rich and vibrant culture. All the works in the show belong to the distinguished Baltimore collectors John and Berthe Ford, whose promised gifts to the museum will make it one of the country's leading repositories of Asian art.

The Walters has created a stunning exhibition space to show off these objects in a way that makes them comprehensible and emphasizes their jewel-like qualities. This is a fascinating and beautiful show whose treasures must truly be seen to be appreciated.

Exhibit

What: "Desire and Devotion: Art from India, Nepal and Tibet"

Where: The Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St.

When: Through Jan. 13

Admission: $8 adults, $6 seniors, $5 students; free for children under 17

Call: 410-547-9000

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