Valley Painting, The Jucker Collection
By Tony Luppino
Perhaps the most difficult decision an art museum must make is turn down a gift of works of art. The most common reasons to refuse such offers are that the works do not fit the gallery’s mandate, the proposed gifts are not very good works or the gallery may already have enough similar art of equal or better quality. Sometimes the museum may realize that it just does not have the curatorial expertise to do justice to the collection.
I am beginning to wonder if today’s book publishers are as vigorous as the galleries in deciding which private art collections merit a major book. There have been some excellent publications of this type recently, such as The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B. Elliot Collection and Crosscurrents, Masterpieces of East Asian Art from New York Private Collections. On the other hand, Kathmandu Valley Painting, The Jucker Collection makes me wonder if this book makes any significant contribution to our knowledge of painting in Nepal. It is a very pretty book. The works are, for the most part, first class. And, as the author says in his preface, “Books on Himalayan art are, on the whole, primarily about things Tibetan.” Unfortunately, for me, all of this does not necessarily add up to a satisfactory reason to publish this collection with the accompanying text.
For one thing, many of the books that are “primarily about things Tibetan” have a fair representation of excellent works from Nepal. Among these books, many are extremely attractive. Most importantly, several recent books on Himalayan painting offer a broad range of art, thereby providing a much-needed context for the Nepalese works. Perhaps we put too much emphasis on the importance of publishing books or building collections based on current political geographic designations. Above all, other publications also offer new scholarship or significant insight into the art, all of which is missing from Kathmandu Valley Painting.
I have no argument with expanding specialized publications on the art of Nepal. In fact, some good books with new information would be most welcome. I should add that this is not due to the lack of already existing excellent books, like the several books by Dr. Pratapaditya Pal.My main issue with Kathmandu Valley Painting is that while the collection is so small and focused (There are 51 pieces illustrated.) that it is likely to be of interest primarily to a specialized audience familiar with Nepalese painting, the text is quite rudimentary. There is no point of view. This is where the book disappoints.
The introductory text is a rather superficial look at Nepal’s geography and history with the addition of equally cursory sections entitled “Artistic Milieu”, “Stylistic Overview” and “Religion.” There is no insight. As for the catalogue descriptions, they are, on the whole, just descriptions of what we see in the plates. There is some attempt to show the relationship of the works in the collection to other works from the same region or period. But here too, one would need to have a considerable knowledge of Nepalese collections for these connections to mean anything. The author only references the other works. It would have been helpful to show some of the works cited. Most of the comparative works are referenced to Pal’s books The Art of Nepal, Painting and The Art of the Himalayas, Treasures from Nepal and Tibet. But is it fair to expect the reader to have these books at hand while going through Kathmandu Valley Painting?
This brings up another concern about the book and that is the lack of provenance for the works. Has any scientific dating been done? Is there any history of where the works originated? Surely, the paintings entered the art market from somewhere. All of this vital information is missing and detracts from the value of Kathmandu Valley Painting. I recognize that this is an ongoing issue for art from this part of the world in general, but we need to expect new publications to move towards dealing with this issue. For an example, one could point to a book like Sacred Visions: Early Paintings from Central Tibet. Through technology and historic scholarship the authors of Sacred Visions widen greatly our knowledge about the dating and provenance of works from an area where such information is even more difficult to obtain than in Nepal.
Occasionally, Kreijger begins to delve into some interesting aspects of the paintings but never quite delivers the goods. For example, the catalogue entry for Plate 38 describes the painting as “a fascinating example of how European techniques of chiaroscuro and perspective came to be introduced to Newari painting.” This is an intriguing topic and should be developed further by the author. The painting is dated as “circa 1900” so we want to know what was happening then between the West and Nepal that brought about this adoption of Western painting technique.
Similar comments on the introduction of “Western shading and perspective” are repeated in the entry with Plate 39. The introductory essay offers no more information, saying only that “From the late nineteenth century….the Ranas…became like many Asian potentates of the period interested in Western architecture and arts in general. Consequently, Valley artists begin trying to apply European one-point perspective and chiaroscuro techniques of modelling figures.” The connections between the social and political environment and their impact on painting are poorly developed.
Another lost opportunity to add some insight and passion into the text is in the comments on Plates 48 and 49. We are told that the sketchbook pages were collected by an English official of the East India Company, Brian Houghton Hodgson, between 1819 and 1858. The general belief is that such sketchbooks served as guides to iconography for painters. Kreijger suggests that “It is even conceivable that they ( the sketchbooks) were especially made for Hodgson.” How fascinating an idea. Wouldn’t that tell us something new about the impact of the early Western collectors on the artistic production of Nepal? This is a vital issue today and information about early contact could make a real contribution to the discussion. The opportunity to do so in this book was lost.
Kathmandu Valley Painting is, for me, a book full of lost opportunities. Undoubtedly, every new publication on art from Nepal, especially one with materials of high quality and covering a long historic timeline is a welcome addition to the specialist library. For all of my misgivings about the book in general, I am sure I will refer to it in the process of some research now and again. It is also commendable of the Juckers to make their collection available to the public, at least in print. In the end however, Kathmandu Valley Painting is a beautiful book about a wonderful collection of art that always leaves one wishing the author had gone a little further, dug a little deeper.