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Reflections on Amy Heller’s Early Himalayan Art
by Melissa Kerin, Ph.D.

December 29, 2008

(click on the small image for full screen image with captions.)

With upwards of 60 exhibitions and collections catalogues on Himalayan art published internationally since 1970, this genre has proven to be the most prevalent and well supported venue for addressing Himalayan material culture. [1] Over the course of this period the contents and conventions of catalogues have developed and changed. No longer solely directed by connoisseurship and taxonomic interests, many catalogues of the last decade have attempted to address a spectrum of more substantial art historical issues. Within the last five years alone, the production of major theme-based, multi-authored catalogues addressing cultural and historic concerns in relation to Himalayan material culture have drastically changed the course of catalogue-culture in this field. [2] In the shadow of these recently produced tomes, smaller works that similarly attempt to deal with cultural and art historical issues while showcasing a designated group of Himalayan art objects might fail to receive due recognition. Dr. Amy Heller’s handsomely produced 175-page catalogue, Early Himalayan Art, while not an example of the massive, multi-authored undertaking of late, is indeed a volume of great significance. It documents a single and very important collection of Himalayan art, from the University of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, and it does so while exploring larger issues pertaining to aesthetic sharing and stylistic development.

The majority of the 61 objects that Heller treats are dated between the 9th and 12th centuries, explaining the volume’s emphasis on “early” Himalayan art. Her introduction, “Tracing the Development of Early Himalayan Sculpture,” outlines many of the cultural interactions that affected the production of art, and in particular sculpture, in the Himalayan region between the 7th and 15th centuries. Heller convincingly demonstrates how commercial corridors and political interactions served to suture together seemingly disparate regions, creating fertile ground for artistic sharing. [3]

Throughout this introduction, Heller usefully refers to objects in the catalogue, helping the reader place these objects within their greater historical and cultural matrices. In at least one instance, however, the cited object’s relevance to the discussion is not fully explained, in either the introduction or in the text of the catalogue entry. This is the case on page 25, when the author discusses the importation of local stylistic trends from Central Asia into Central Tibet, referencing catalogue entry 41. When one turns to this entry, which features a sculpture from West Tibet, however, there is no clear connection to the discussion in the introduction. This case, though, is very much the exception to the rule. In general, the essay provides the lay reader with the necessary background for understanding the basic elements of the political, religious, and economic factors that affected Himalayan culture and artistic production.

Following the introduction are the 61 object entries, all of which are accompanied by crisp photographic reproductions, frequently including untraditional and very useful views of the objects’ backs and sides. Of these 61 objects, only three are in a media other than stone or metal: an 11th century wooden bookcover (39), a 10th-11th century wooden sculpture (44), and a circa 15th century thangka (61). The catalogue entries are vaguely organized according to region and at times dynastic epochs. This organizational scheme is not initially transparent to this reader, who would have appreciated an explanation of the material’s arrangement in the catalogue’s introduction. Nonetheless, I have come to understand the catalogue’s layout in the following way. The first section is dedicated to Nepalese objects. The next part pertains to Tibetan kingdoms of the 7th-10th centuries, which overlaps considerably with the Chinese material. The last discernable grouping of objects focuses on Tibetan material of the 10th century onwards.

Object 34

Heller’s individual catalogue essays are very informative, especially her stylistic analyses and visual comparisons to other sculptures from various collections, as well as to pieces still in situ. Her methodological approach to the material evidence serves to remind one of the fundamental importance of formal analysis. Particularly interesting are entries that address hybridized styles between China and Tibet, as well as among West Tibet, Nepal, and India. One of the most stimulating set of such objects is a number of metal amulets (“tokcha”) and sculpture from circa the 7th-9th centuries. Heller’s analysis of objects 15, 16, 22, 25, 28, and 34, for instance, highlights stylistic and iconographic resonances with material from Dunhuang and Yunnan (Nanzhao kingdom), as well as pre-Buddhist Tibetan tomb sites in Qinghai. Some of these entries are the best argued and well supported essays in the catalogue.


Object 31

A second group of objects addresses hybrid stylistic forms combining Western Tibetan, Kashimri, and Newar aesthetics, which, as Heller points out, can also include Pala stylistic features. Particularly cogent examples of this interaction are found in catalogue entries 29, 31, 36, 38, 41, and 44. In these essays Heller deciphers the various visual elements of the sculptures in order to determine their places and periods of production. This is often a tricky endeavor as her entry for image 31, a metal sculpture featuring a standing Buddha, reveals. Heller suggests—based on a reading of the material evidence, such as the bend in its proper right thumb, inlay work of the eyes and lips, the structure of the face, use of incised lines, and modeling of the sculpture—that this sculpture embodies a “fusion” of Kashmiri sculptural techniques and Newar aesthetic traditions, which came together in the West Tibetan kingdom of Guge. While an astute reading of the object, this reader would have liked to see mentioned that this object is rather unique for that period. For instance, the design of the monastic robe, the figure’s full hips, thick thighs and forearms do not conform to known aesthetic conventions (based on extant material evidence) of West Tibet from the 10th–12th centuries.

Throughout the text of these catalogue entries, Heller rightly emphasizes that Himalayan artistic transactions were the result of a complex process of artists incorporating various elements of stylistic trends into existing visual vocabularies and further reformulating them. This is an important point to keep in mind because too often the Himalayan art historical discourse revolves around “foreign influence” (Pala, Kashmiri, etc.) and “domestic reception.” While this reviewer did not always agree with Heller’s conclusions, I did appreciate Heller’s method of analysis and the manner in which she accounts for important factors such as the peripatetic nature of artisans, formation of provincial ateliers, permeability of borders, and portability of artistic objects. This ground-up approach to style is a critical corrective to some recent scholarship that has sought to define stylistic categories through textual or verbal accounts rather than by the visual material evidence. [4]

Though they hardly impact upon the quality of her work, a few minor distractions in the volume should be pointed out. In the second paragraph of the introduction the author mentions that this collection has a temporal range of the seventh to the fourteenth centuries, though the catalogue in fact includes a thankga from the fifteenth century. Unfortunately, the map on page 12 did not include the temple site of Keru (or Kachu), which Heller references in the Introduction. Some readers may be bothered by the few photographs in the introduction that are noticeably out-of-focus (figs. 7, 9, 14). Though blurry, these field photographs still serve their intended purpose of providing a fuller cultural context. On another note, the caption on page 32 for figure 18 reads: “Painted clay Buddha Vairocana figure at Tabo temple, Tibet, c. 1042.” Tabo village, however, is not located in Tibet, but in the Spiti Valley of northwestern India. Finally, there is some inconsistency regarding the capitalization of the adjective “western” as it is used in the regional and stylistic designation of “Western Tibet” or “Western Himalaya” (see, for instance, pages 116, 118, 126, 127, 150). This discrepancy points to larger issues about how regional styles are addressed in Himalayan art historical scholarship. In other publications, one will find the same inconsistency with regard to “central” versus “Central” Tibet.

Object 12

The catalogue might also have benefited from several additions. An index certainly would have been useful, as would a listing of previous publications of objects in the catalogue. Heller’s footnotes do often contain this previous publication information, but not always explicitly. These citations are, of course, useful to the specialist who is interested in culling all possible resources for certain object types or styles. Some of the catalogue essays would have also benefitted from additional citations and references. One such example can be found on page 62, where Heller writes: “The use of gilt copper and inset cabochon stone, the graceful modeling, and the serene expression of this image are characteristic of the early Malla period.” This reader is left curious as to what extent these elements are distinctive to the early Malla period and what bodies of material she might consult for comparanda. [5] Similarly, Heller makes unsupported comments with regard to object 12, a metal sculpture purportedly from Khasa. On page 68 Heller writes: “The prominent urna, whether cast in relief or a jewel such as an inset turquoise, is one of several stylistic elements which suggest a provenance from the Khasa kingdom in western Nepal.” While this and other stylistic features that Heller identifies as characterizing Khasa sculpture are potentially wonderful contributions to the field, this reader would have liked more citations for these insights. [6] This dearth of references is perhaps less of a shortcoming on the part of the catalogue’s author and serves more as an index of a perennial difficulty in assessing Nepalese art (see footnote 5). More scholarly work needs to be carried out and published that might help to hone Nepalese stylistic distinctions and to articulate the characteristic features of styles and sub-styles. Given the limited body of published work, therefore, perhaps it may have been best for Heller to address the newness of this defined sub-style of Newar sculpture and to couch her findings as potential characteristics that may help to further refine aspects of this sub-style.

These minor quibbles aside, Heller’s essays demonstrate her expertise in the field of Himalayan art. Further, she has done a wonderful job of bringing her readers’ attentions to the Ashmolean Museum’s collection of early Himalayan art, a stunning and still-young collection. [7] Ultimately, Heller makes what could be an esoteric topic accessible to the lay reader, while also addressing critical issues such as stylistic developments, iconographic adaptations, and cultural exchanges that the academic reader will be encouraged to see treated within the catalogue genre.


1. Though all of these catalogues are not listed in the attached bibliography, one can easily find them through an electronic catalogue. Please note this number does not include the scores of auction house catalogues published during this same period.

2. See for instance, John Huntington and Dina Bangdel, Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art, Columbus and Chicago: Columbus Museum of Art and Serindia Publications, 2003; Rob Linrothe and Jeff Watt, Demonic Divine: Himalayan Art and Beyond, New York and Chicago: Rubin Museum of Art and Serindia Publications, 2004; Rob Linrothe, Ed. Holy Madness: Portraits of Tantric Siddhas, New York and Chicago: Rubin Museum of Art and Serindia Publications, 2006; Uwe Bräutigam and Jeong-Hee Lee-Kalish. (Eds.) Tibet: Klöster Öffnen ihre Schatzkammern, Munich: Hirmer, 2006.

3. It should be noted that this general, but well articulated essay is a redaction of another essay written by Heller that appeared in the German catalogue, Tibet: Klöster Öffnen ihre Schatzkammern. An English translation of this essay, “Tracing the Reception and Adaptation of Foreign esthetic elements in Tibetan sculpture,” is available on at

4. See for instance David Jackson, “Lama Yeshe Jamyang of Nyurla, Ladakh: The Last Painter of the ’Bri gung Tradition.” Tibet Journal 27, nos. 1–2 (Spring–Summer 2002): 153–76; Jackson, “Painting Styles in the Rubin Collection: Identifications and Clarifications.” Himalayan Art Resource (cited November 2008); available from In this article Jackson takes issue with the stylistic assessments of several paintings published in the Worlds of Transformation catalogue. Jackson’s argumentation about style—which at times is rather circular, see for instance page 2 regarding his discussions of Dbus ris and ’Bri gung painting traditions—is based on textual sources, not visual ones. As other scholars have appropriately shown, it is not always possible or useful to map textual accounts of style onto extant images (see Erberto LoBue, “Sculptural Styles According to Pema Karpo” in Tibetan Art: Towards a Definition of Style. Ed Jane Case Singer ad Philip Denwood.London: Laurence King Publishing, 1997: 242-253). While Tibetan texts have provided useful information about artistic trends and insights into style, they are no substitute for engaging and analyzing the visual evidence itself.

5. Part of what contributes to generalized writing on Nepal’s stylistic periods is the vague, though well established and widely accepted, terminology. Stylistic nomenclature is predominantly defined according to Nepal’s major dynastic periods, such as the Licchavi (300-879), Transitional (879-1200), Early Malla (1200-1482), Late Malla (1482-1786) and Shah (1769-2008). Heller does highlight recent efforts in refining these rather vast categories, such as the distinction between objects originating from the Khasa (Yatse) kingdom of the northwestern reaches of Nepal and the early Malla kingdom of the Katmandu Valley. As I mention in this essay, further efforts at nuancing Nepal’s stylistic categories are greatly needed.

6. Heller does mention the work of Ian Alsop in support of some the characteristics she associates with Khasa sculptures. See Ian Alsop, “Metal Sculpture of the Khasa Mallas,” in Casey and Denwood, eds., Tibetan Art: Towards a Definition of Style, London: 1997 (68-79). Alsop, however, does not include some of the characteristics that Heller cites as indicators of the Khasa style.

7. 44 of the catalogue’s 61 objects were acquired after 1995.

Works Cited:

Amy Heller, Early Himalayan Art, Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2008.

Alsop, Ian. “Metal Sculpture of the Khasa Mallas,” in Casey and Denwood, eds., Tibetan Art: Towards a Definition of Style, London: 1997 (68-79).

Bräutigam, Uwe and Jeong-Hee Lee-Kalish. (Eds.) Tibet: Klöster Öffnen ihre Schatzkammern. Munich: Hirmer, 2006.

Huntington, John and Dina Bangdel, Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art, Columbus and Chicago: Columbus Museum of Art and Serindia Publications, 2003;

Jackson, David. A History of Tibetan Painting: The Great Tibetan Painters and Their Traditions. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenscheften, 1996.

-----. “Painting Styles in the Rubin Collection: Identifications and Clarifications.” Himalayan Art Resource (cited November 2008); available from

-----. “Lama Yeshe Jamyang of Nyurla, Ladakh: The Last Painter of the ’Bri gung Tradition.” Tibet Journal 27, nos. 1–2 (Spring–Summer 2002): 153–76.

Linrothe, Rob and Jeff Watt, Demonic Divine: Himalayan Art and Beyond. New York and Chicago: Rubin Museum of Art and Serindia Publications, 2004.

Linrothe, Rob. (Ed.) Holy Madness: Portraits of Tantric Siddhas. New York and Chicago: Rubin Museum of Art and Serindia Publications, 2006.

Lo Bue, Erberto. “Sculptural Styles According to Pema Karpo” in Tibetan Art: Towards a Definition of Style. Ed Jane Case Singer ad Philip Denwood.London: Laurence King Publishing, 1997: 242-253

Rhie, Marylin and Robert Thurman. Worlds of Transformation: Tibetan Art of Wisdom and Compassion. New York: Tibet House and Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, 1999. | articles