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.

Courtesy of John Bigelow Taylor
Organized as a Tibetan shrine rather than set on pedestals, the assembled pieces are aimed at engaging people's emotions.
Courtesy of Cary Whittier
His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet poses with art collector Alice Kandell at the Sackler Gallery in Washington.

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."

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.

The vivid cinnabar, gold, and blue hues, Mr. Rudko adds, "inspire the individual to be in tune with the environment and make a person feel good." In the arid Himalayas, these brilliant mineral pigments must have created a sizable jolt, sedu­cing the eye and directing the mind to contemplation.

The images symbolize deities of all persuasions: male, female, fierce, and friendly. But they are not icons to worship – more like doorways to enlightenment. As Ganden Thurman, executive director of Tibet House US in New York (and Robert Thurman's son), puts it, "That golden image of a Buddha represents human potential to become enlightened" and the possibility of attaining "the ultimate power of knowledge, wisdom, and compassion – a power that ennobles rather than corrupts."

Another rarity is the fact that these works from the 13th to 19th century are complete, in pristine condition. A gilded Tara figure, for example, radiates benevolence with her gem-encrusted crown, necklace, and earrings intact. Prayers and jewels are still sealed in the lotus base.

Many of the pieces were smuggled out of Tibet in the early 1960s by aristocratic families who packed them on mules and crossed the mountains seeking sanctuary in India. The sacred art from their family shrines became currency for these refugees, who surrendered the pieces to Rudko on the condition that he keep them in a devotional setting. "Had these pieces been left in Tibet, they would not exist today," Kandell acknowledges.

Ganden Thurman offers a guesstimation that, after the full-scale Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 (or "peaceful liberation" in the Chinese version), the People's Liberation Army destroyed 95 percent of Tibet's material culture. Bejeweled gold and silver statues in monasteries "loaded with loot and defended by a bunch of monks committed to nonviolence," he says, were melted down into ingots, hauled away, or smashed.

Rudko agrees that "a vast majority of sites and materials were destroyed during the Red Guard period" of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Around 6,250 Tibetan monasteries, furnished with sublime art, were razed. Only 13 remain today. A Tibetan adage says that when a pickpocket meets a saint, all he sees are the other man's pockets. To young Maoists intent on eradicating the past, Tibet's holy sites were anachronisms to be plundered.

In 1959 the country's spiritual and secular leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, fled to Dharamsala, India, to set up a government-in-exile. In a foreword to the book on the shrine, the Dalai Lama thanks Kandell for preserving his country's cultural heritage and for sharing it with the public. In a world where most think of Tibet as a primitive land of yaks and yurts, the presentation of its sacred objects "will certainly help visitors to form a deeper appreciation of the richness and refinement of Tibetan culture," he writes, adding his hope that "it may inspire further efforts to save Tibetan culture from disappearing forever."

Kandell became inspired by Tibetan art when she traveled to Sikkim (an independent kingdom before joining India in 1975) for the coronation of her college friend Hope Cooke as queen of Sikkim. "The first shrine I ever saw," she recalls, "was in the royal palace. I couldn't enter, but I peeked in. It was so beautiful; the art just blew me away."

During many visits to the Buddhist country, she remembers the shrine as "so sacred – secret and special. I always wanted to be there." Over decades of collecting she created her own shrine but has come to feel, she says, "it wasn't fair to keep it in my apartment. Great art belongs to the world."

One Washington visitor, a young Tibetan woman dressed in a traditional long, silk dress, described her reaction to the shrine: "It is our heart."

One can almost hear prayer flags whipping in the wind or prayer wheels spinning to diffuse blessings to the sky. Ngawang Chojor, a mandala master and venerable monk from Lhasa who now lives in Madison, Wis., was touched by the shrine, saying the experience was like being back in Tibet.

Robert Thurman, a professor of Indo-Tibetan Studies at Columbia University in New York, has written many books that describe the expansion of Tibetan Buddhism across East Asia from 1400 to 1800, as monasteries and temples proliferated in Inner and Outer Mongolia, Siberia, and Manchu-dominated China. From roughly 1640 to 1950, he maintains, Tibet developed a unique, peaceful society where 20 percent of the male population entered monasteries. Spirituality and prayer permeated the culture. As monasticism replaced militarism, the country prospered, devoting its budget to religious education, welfare, and celebrations. Mr. Thurman credits the spread of Buddhism with "taming" neighboring aggressive, barbarian nations.

Asked if the display of Tibetan Buddhist art might have a similarly pacifying effect today, Kandell brightened. "In Washington, D.C., with its constant bickering? What a wonderful idea!"

The shrine will tour the US for three years. It is intended to be at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York for 18 months, beginning in October, as part of the exhibition "Gateway to Himalayan Art."

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