ESSAY: Cast for Eternity: Essay by Marcel Nies
Fortuitous circumstances are often at the root of ideas for new exhibitions. Later it sometimes transpires that these ideas have been lying dormant in the subconscious for some time. Such was the case with the present exhibition. When Mr J.P. Esman, who died in 2002, bequeathed a collection of fifty-four gilded Tibetan bronzes to the Ethnographic Museum, fiscal regulations required that these objects should be appraised at their market value. To ensure that this assessment should correspond to the actual market situation at that time, an expert from outside the museum was approached for advice. Experts in this field are rather thin on the ground in the ‘low countries’ but they do exist, and indeed, some are outstanding in their expertise. Such a one is Marcel Nies. He is well at home with the day-to-day realities of the oriental art trade and is a connoisseur of sculptures from India, the Himalayas and South-East Asia. When we first looked at the objects that made up the bequest, a number of them were immediately conspicuous for their quality and originality. Closer scrutiny confirmed this impression. We became fascinated by the insinuating images of figures such as the Dakini (cat. no. 75) and the Buddhakapala (cat. no. 80). We made brief comparative studies with sculptures from other collections. And the longer we studied the other collections, the more we were gripped by the idea of doing something based on high quality bronzes from the Indian cultural area.
Since the opening of the Ethnographic Museum to the public in 1988, there has been a display of Indian, Nepalese, Tibetan, and Tibeto-Chinese bronzes in the Asia department on the second floor. It is chiefly made up of objects that were acquired by the museum in the previous century through donations and bequests. The display was arranged at that time with the intention of explaining the Buddhist trikaya system of adibuddhas, dhyanibuddhas and manushibuddhas with the sculptures then available. The missing figures in the system were represented by drawings. This led more than once to visitors spontaneously coming to show us figures from their own collections. And sometimes, when it did indeed have a place in the scheme, the sculpture was bought for our collection, or sometimes it was donated to the museum. In this way we gradually came to know a number of collectors. Some had been ‘Friends of the Ethnographic Museum’ for many years and were thus already old acquaintances. Like Mrs L. Verleyen-De Meester, who made a donation of sixteen Himalayan bronzes to the museum in 1993. Together with a number of collector friends from the Antwerp area, she and her late husband had already loaned objects to earlier exhibitions of art from Tibet.
From his own professional experience Marcel Nies knew of quite a number of collectors, both in Belgium and further afield. With the idea of a possible future exhibition, we began to browse the collections of museums and of well known, lesser known, and unknown collectors with whom we were acquainted. The more we did so, the greater the potential of the bronzes became. Eventually it became so large that we were obliged to impose some limits on our quest. And that was a good thing, as gradually we found ourselves in the luxurious position of really being able to pursue our aim of assembling only the very highest quality. After much deliberation we arrived at some firm criteria. We restricted the proposed ‘Indian cultural area’ to India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Tibet, and the so-called Tibeto-Chinese bronzes (bronzes made in China for Tibetan Lamaist patrons). South-East Asia would not be considered. The accent should be on divine and human images—thus no ritual objects or architectural elements. In principle, the production period was not limited, but in practice most of the objects proved to have made between the ninth and the eighteenth centuries. All the bronzes should come exclusively from Belgian and Dutch collections. And we would make no distinction between museum and private collections. There was, in effect, but one principal requirement, and that was quality.
I had already known Marcel Nies for some years and it had repeatedly proved that on the question of oriental art, and certainly art from the Indian cultural area, we were often on the same wavelength as regards quality and aesthetics. The formidable expressivity, the enormous refinement, and the more deeply embedded aesthetic and spiritual qualities enraptured us both. On not a few occasions, on the arrival of some new acquisition, we had lengthy discussions about the intrinsic value of good art and it always struck me how accurately Marcel Nies could pinpoint and describe the special characteristics and qualities of the piece. In the knowledge that museum people, private researchers, and dealers have in principle a good deal of insight to offer each other, it became for us a fascinating quest for the best bronzes from the Indian cultural area in Belgian and Dutch collections. The result can be seen in this exhibition.
It was of course not the intention to aim for completeness in any particular area. For all kinds of reasons certain collections were never examined, if only because we were not aware of them all. Nor was it the idea to bring together in this exhibition pieces from every period, every major production centre, and every style of the Indian cultural area. And it was certainly not the intention to strive for completeness in representing the various divine pantheons. We were guided first and foremost by the general quality of the pieces. Often there was a great temptation to include a sculpture because of some original detail or some particular anecdotal reason. But we consistently remained true to the criteria we had ourselves imposed. Besides, masterworks always speak for themselves through successful design, correct proportion and inner expressivity. To this, in the case of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain sculptures, must be added the art of rendering inner tranquillity and detachment, in contrast to the figures of protector deities, which are more extrovert and dynamic.
We know from our experience of guiding museum visitors that some of them, when first introduced to bronzes from India and the Himalayas, are distracted by the surprising depiction of figures with multiple arms, legs, and heads. Intellectually interpreted, these figures are judged as irrational and a certain aloofness from them occurs. Others become so fascinated by certain details that their appreciation of the sculpture as a whole is sometimes lost. In both cases the best remedy is to show an example of the highest quality. In fact that applies to every kind of art but many believe that oriental works of art need, almost by definition, a great degree of foreknowledge. Naturally it is interesting to know the context, iconography, and philosophy behind the images, but for this exhibition we had resolved that the visitor, even without prior knowledge, should be touched by the aesthetic quality of the figure in its totality. It was our conviction that in this way the inner expressivity of sculptures of such high quality would be manifest; that they would gradually yield up the secrets of their details. And the details can be everywhere—in the eyes, the hands, the ornaments, the garments… The more one studies the figures in close-up, the more one is lost in wonder at the artists’ ability to render all these details in so harmonious a way, often having no more than a couple of square centimetres in which to do so. It is our great hope that every visitor, whatever their background knowledge, will enjoy this selection, and that in the course of the visit he or she will experience a sense of something both universal and eternal. That was our starting point and our goal.
ESSAY: Cast for Eternity: Essay by Marcel Nies
all text & images © 2005 The authors, the photographers and the Ethnographic Museum, Antwerp