| exhibitions

TIBET: Treasures from Tibetan monasteries

19th August to 26th November 2006:
A unique Tibet exhibition in the Villa Hügel, Essen, Germany

Click here to go to the exhibition on the Villa Hügel site



The Villa Hügel in Essen, once the residence of the Krupp family, has made itself a nationwide reputation amongst the cultural institutions of North-Rhine Westphalia. Besides presenting important works by old masters it has attracted the attention of the general public with its major cultural and historical projects. One of its focal points is the art and culture of Central Asia and the Far East.

Against the background of this tradition the Kulturstiftung Ruhr made it possible to visitors to familiarise themselves with a particularly fascinating culture – Tibet and its almost unknown monastic treasures. From 19th August to 26th November 2006 the Villa Hügel will be showing a large number of old religious artworks from the treasuries of Tibetan monasteries. Some of these works date back 1500 years and the majority have never before left Tibet; all of which makes this not only a unique event but also a world première. When the exhibition closes in Essen there are plans for it to be taken over by the "Staatliche Museen" in Berlin.

Over the last few years Tibetan art from Western collections has been presented in a considerable number of exhibitions in Europe. Two major exhibitions – "Tesori del Tibet“ in Milan (1994) and "Tibet - Treasures from the Roof of the World“ in Santa Ana (2003), a mobile exhibition which was shown all over the USA for two years until 2005 – also contained treasures from collections in and around Lhasa. But never before have religious and cultural objects from a variety of Tibetan monasteries and a provincial museum in Central Tibet (i.e. outside the capital of Lhasa) been shown in an exhibition.

The most important loans for the exhibition at the Villa Hügel come from the Potala palace in Lhasa, the former summer palace of the Dalai Lamas – Norbulingka –, the Tibet Museum and the Yarlung Museum in Tsethang, in addition to the monasteries of Sakya, Tashi Lhunpo, Palkhor Chode in Gyantse, Shalu and Mindroling.

The first steps on the road towards implementing the Tibet exhibition in the Villa Hügel began more than three years ago. After the Kulturstiftung Ruhr had decided to present art which is still held in Tibet for the first time in Germany, contact was initially made with the Chinese embassy in Berlin in its role as representative of the autonomous region of Tibet in Germany. The embassy signalised its willingness to support the project and established contact with the Tibetan cultural authorities. There followed four journeys by delegations from the Kulturstiftung Ruhr to Tibet; journeys which were full of extraordinary experiences and encounters for the team around Professor Dr. Jeong-hee Lee-Kalisch, Professor of the Far East department of the Art History Institute at the Free University of Berlin and curator of the exhibition.

The first point of interest was fieldwork, i.e. the study of local Buddhist culture, the structures of museums and similar institutions, and the attitude of Tibetans to sacred art. But another driving force behind the exhausting expeditions was the search for hidden treasures. This yielded rich fruits. For the vast amount of objects which the team was allowed to view in museums, palaces and monasteries were quite simply fascinating on account of their outstanding quality. The quest for new discoveries and fresh research results quickly dissolved, however, at the meetings with the humble monks and abbots in the monasteries and their devout disciples. The team quickly realised that much patience and time would be required – perhaps even a lifetime – to really become acquainted with this little known terrain.

The team was all the more delighted with the generous spirit of cooperation shown by the abbots in the major monasteries of Tibet. Although the principle of an art exhibition and the related consciousness of autonomous art is alien to their culture they were fascinated by the idea of making their monastic treasures accessible to the general public in the West. They regarded the exhibition, as it were, as an opportunity to conduct a cultural and spiritual mission. Out of respect for their faith and their gentle and simultaneously dynamic religion, the delegation made a conscious decision not to borrow cults object which are deeply linked with the everyday religious context of monastic rituals.

Around 150 exhibits arrived in Essen; from life-size sculptures to paintings and multifaceted mandalas, shrines, temple decorations and altar equipment. Fire gilded figures, minutely painted and embroidered scroll illustrations, silk wall hangings, bejewelled altar equipment, illuminated manuscripts with artistically carved book covers and precious shrines reveal Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, teachers, meditation and protective deities, and heavenly travellers in a huge number of widely different forms and symbols, The works are outstanding for their aesthetic qualities and impressive splendour. The oldest exhibit is a roughly thirty-centimetre high sitting Shakyamuni Buddha made of bronze, which dates back to 473 A.D. The most recent exhibits were made at the start of the 20th century. One of the focal points of the exhibition– and certainly also one of its high points – is a group of sculptures whose vividness and perfection defies comparison: ten almost life-size portraits by the masters of the Sakya school dating back to the early 16th century. Further highlights include a huge sculpture of the thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara, Bodhisattva full of limitless compassion, an exceptionally well-preserved illuminated manuscript from the 11th century, and "thangkas", highly colourful, textile scroll paintings. All these works, mostly by anonymous artists, were created not only in Tibet, but also in India, Nepal, Burma, Kashmir und China – regions with which Tibet had lively relationships.

In this way visitors will be able to grasp the broad range of artistic styles in Tibet more easily. At the same time the Villa Hügel wants the project to provide an insight into the culture of Tibet. In order to do justice to both these aspects and to the extraordinary generosity of the donors, the exhibition is called "Tibet – artistic treasures from Tibetan monasteries". The title is not only a literal reference to the value and beauty of the artistic treasures, but also a symbolic reference to the exhibits as objects of refuge, which are referred to as "precious treasures" or "jewels" in the Sutra tradition. The visible presentation of the precious objects is intended to throw a light on the invisible spiritual aspects of these "jewels".

Tibetan art history is inseparably linked with the spiritual and religious history of the country on the “roof of the world”, a name which, to the inhabitants of Western countries, whose philosophies are shot through with the idea of reason, has an almost magic feel and which is generally regarded as a symbol of secret knowledge about the meaning and ultimate aim of existence. There are good reasons for this. In scarcely any other country in the world is the conviction of the rightness and spiritual power of faith for all time, so deeply and constantly rooted in the consciousness of its inhabitants as it is in Tibet. Buddhism is the substance of Tibetan identity, and every single artistic creation has always been an expression of this attitude to life.

Even today the exhibits still serve as ritual and cult objects in the monasteries of Tibet, and are held in awe by lay people and clerics alike. The believer who meditates on the portraits of the Buddhas and deities is striving to develop an infinite empathy with all living creatures and thereby to experience his or her own Buddha nature. Thus all art works are regarded as valuable aids on the path to enlightenment. The exhibition is, therefore, not merely a presentation of highly valuable and beautiful artistic treasures, but also of the cultural and spiritual legacy of a self-assured people.

In order to present all the many different aspects of Tibetan art as effectively as possible and to give a basic idea of how Buddhism is reflected in art, the exhibition has been arranged in five main thematic sections. At the centre are the ten figurative sculptures by the masters of the Sakya school. They document the tradition of one of the eight major meditation systems which were brought from India to Tibet between the 8th and 12th century. A further theme is devoted to monastic life and the huge amount of Buddhist deities and teachers. In their function as deeply symbolic objects, mandalas link the macrocosm of the universe with the microcosm of human experience. In the exhibition they represent Tantric Buddhism. Visitors to the exhibition can get an insight into everyday religious practices from a collection of insignia and personal utensils belonging to the religious leaders of Tibet. These include shrines and altar equipment, ritual and consecratory objects, temple decorations, musical instruments and dancing masks. The final section of the exhibition is devoted to Tibetan medicine whose total approach is closely linked to the culture and religion of the country.

The particular merit of the exhibition is to further our knowledge of Tibetan art, which hitherto has primarily been based on exhibits in private collections in the West, by extending our attention to those works which have remained in Tibet and thereby throwing light on their spiritual background. In addition the exhibition has resulted in a considerable amount of pioneering academic work. Many of the exhibits shown here have been unpublicised to date and have been subjected to a thorough process of academic study for the first time. They have been collated, deciphered, ordered chronologically and interpreted – a process which serves to protect a unique treasury of art and also to conserve a highly significant cultural legacy.

A comprehensive 680 page, richly illustrated catalogue (30.00 €) documents the exhibition in the Villa Hügel. It starts with a section of essays, in which well-known academics from Europe, Tibet and America provide an introduction to art and culture in Tibet. In the catalogue section itself, the exhibits, like the exhibition itself, are divided into five major thematic areas according to the iconography and function of the artworks. The articles in the catalogue are fundamentally the joint work of teams of academics from the specific areas of Tibetology, Indology, South-Asian and East-Asian art history and Buddhist studies.

Sanskrit names and terms have been anglicised.


Click here to go to the exhibition on the Villa Hügel site

TIBET: Treasures from Tibetan monasteries | exhibitions