The stunning art of Tibet -- in Newark, N.J.

It's an unfortunate fact, but to many people, Newark, N.J., seems as inacessible -- as unlikely a place to encounter exceptional art -- as Tibet. One gets so accustomed to hearing that the only art of value hangs in the museums of New York, Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, St. Louis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, etc., that one makes very little effort to visit the many excellent smaller museums scattered throughout the country.

The Newark Museum is a particular case in point. Only a few miles New York, and thus forced, in a sense, to compete with its cultural riches (and in a city that has had more than its share of urban problems), it has had a difficult time extending its reputation beyond Newark's city limits.

That's a pity, because it is about as lively and dynamic a museum as any around, with an excellent staff, a large number of active and concerned members drawn from all walks of life, programs designed to stimulate and to exhibit the work of local artists, and a limited but good selection of fine works of art.

In particular, it has a rather fabulous collection of Tibetan art, a fact well known in art circles, where it is considered one of the most distinguished such collections in the world. It is well known to that Dalai Lama, who visited the museum in 1979 to view it, and who will do so again this summer.

What he will see, handsomely and intelligently displayed, will be a special exhibition of over 225 of the museum's choicest Tibetan items. He will not, however, be the only one fortunate enough to view these rich and exotic artifacts, for they make up "Tibet: A Lost World," the Newark Museum's current and very public exhibition devoted to the arts of that distant country.

The heart of the exhibition, and in many ways its most moving and revealing element, is a Tibetan Buddhist altar. Permanently and beautifully installed, this altar helps to establish the fact that a great deal of Tibetan are is religious in nature, and thus helps us to identify more easily with it by drawing us closer to its source.

Without this emotional and empathic base, our appreciation of Tibetan religious art could become rather complicated, for a great deal of it, to put it mildly, looks strange and exotic. What are we to make, for instance, of the various grimacing and demonic masks? The complex (and to our eyes cluttered) paintings depicting such things as "The Wheel of Existence"? Or the ferocious face of the silver sculpture of the divine goddess "vajravarahi"? Even the more calm figure of "Varjrasattva" (which means "whose essence is the thunderbolt") seems more intense and "inward" than most other Far Eastern sculpture we know.

On the other hand, Tibetan secular objects are much easier to understand and appreciate, especially the textiles, jewelry, clothing, lamps, banners, musical instruments, Weapons, etc. There is even a large and handsome appliqued picnic tent -- as well as small display of Tibetan postage stamps. It's all rather complete, and since considerable care was taken to include even common everyday objects, we manage, all in all, to get a pretty good idea of what Tibetan life was (and is) probably like, and an excellent idea of the nature and quality of its art.

For the origin of this collection of Tibetan art we have to go all the way back to 1910, when a small group of objects gathered by Dr.Albert L. Shelton, a medical missionary in Tibet, was exhibited at the Newark Museum through the interest of Edward N. Crane, a museum trustee.

The show was a great success, and its 150 articles were later given to the museum. But the museum's appetite for Tibetan art was not satisfied, and it commissioned Dr. Shelton to collect more "curios" when he returned to Tibet in 1913. This he managed to do until his death at the hands of bandits in 1922.

(In a letter, Shelton outlined the difficulties of sending freight from Tibet to America at that time. His shipping charges included: "460 miles from Batang to Tachienlu on Yak -- $2; 140 miles on men's backs to Yachow -- $2; 600 miles by water to Ichang -- $1.50; 1,000 miles by steamer to Shanghai -- 75 cents; and Shanghai to New York -- $3.50 -- for a grand total of $9.75.")

Between 1928 and 1948, three more missionary collections, all from Northeastern Tibet, were purchased, thereby greatly enhancing the museum's holdings of ethnographic and ceremonial art. These, in turn, have been augmented by recent purchases from Tibetan refugees.

This is truly a stunning exhibition on any number of levels, one very well worth visiting -- by children as well as by adults. it is both beautiful and educational, and will remain on view of the Newark Museum through next January.

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