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Tibet tour: Go to the heart of its Buddhist sacred art in a new Washington exhibition

'In the Realm of the Buddha' offers a rare glimpse into Tibet's sacred art and reveals a history largely lost.

By Carol StricklandContributor / April 15, 2010

Organized as a Tibetan shrine rather than set on pedestals, the assembled pieces are aimed at engaging people's emotions.

Courtesy of John Bigelow Taylor


Washington, D.C.

As a collector of Tibetan Buddhist art, Alice Kandell was off the radar screen of the art world, keeping her exquisite objects in what had been the dining room of her Manhattan home. Her collection, unique in quality and size, "has been a secret," according to Dr. Kandell, a retired child psychologist, "never seen except by friends."

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It's a secret no more. A sumptuously illustrated book, "A Shrine for Tibet: The Alice S. Kandell Collection," with essays by renowned Tibetan scholar Robert Thurman and art expert Marylin Rhie, has been published by Tibet House US. The artworks – gilded statues and scroll paintings, as well as banners, painted furniture, and ritual objects – are also the centerpiece of an exhibition, "In the Realm of the Buddha," at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., through July 18.

"None of the objects have been shown publicly," according to Debra Diamond, the Sackler's curator of South and Southeast Asian Art. Not only are the works unfamiliar, but the manner in which they're displayed is a departure. Organized as a sacred shrine rather than set on pedestals or hung on walls with labels, the assembled pieces, Ms. Diamond says, "offer a powerful aesthetic revelation."

Julian Raby, director of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, calls stepping inside "the hallowed space of the magnificent Tibetan shrine room ... an immersive encounter."

The installation marks "a new direction," Diamond says, aimed at engaging people's emotions. Mr. Raby agrees, predicting that entering the shrine will "override the authority of the rational mind" and "activate emotional understanding."

A pronounced effect of sensation overload is unmistakable. Intense red and gold colors and teeming imagery saturate the eyes, almost rendering a viewer snow-blind. While most blockbuster exhibitions feature 200 works spread over multiple galleries, this shrine crams 250 brightly colored paintings, glittery statues, and ritual objects into one dimly lit, 14-by-20-foot room. Liturgical music floats through the air, heightening the emotional clout. The intention is to duplicate an actual shrine in a Tibetan temple or an affluent family's house.

Kandell's curator is Philip Rudko, an art conservator and Russian Orthodox monk who began the collection 40 years ago and merged his pieces with hers in 1994. He says that seeing the profusion of religious works as presented in their original context should give the impression of "an overwhelming totality" into which the individual pieces meld.