|INTENT, IN TENTS AND INTENSE
from Ann Shaftel
The concept of Original Artistic Intent is difficult
to apply to Tibetan thangkas. Thangkas are composite objects produced by
painters and tailors with differing intents, skills and training. Iconographic
specifications, regional and doctrinal differences in style, changes in
form from harsh treatment and altered mountings all complicate the issue.
A thangka is a complicated, composite three-dimensional
object consisting of: a picture panel which is painted or embroidered,
a textile mounting; and one or more of the following: a silk cover, leather
corners, wooden dowels at the top and bottom and metal or wooden decorative
knobs on the bottom dowel.
Can you say that there was an artist who had a
prevailing artistic vision over the entire composition? Rarely. Is the
thangka which you are examining in your laboratory today in its original
form? Probably not.
What is the purpose of a thangka, what use was
it originally intended for? Thangkas are intended to serve as a record
of, and guide for contemplative experience. For example, you might be instructed
by your teacher to imagine yourself as a specific figure in a specific
setting. You could use a thangka as a reference for the details of posture,
attitude, colour, clothing. etc., of a figure located in a field, or in
a palace, possibly surrounded by many other figures of meditation teachers,
your family, etc..
In this way, thangkas are intended to convey iconographic
information in a pictorial manner. A text of the same meditation would
supply similar details in written descriptive form.
Does the concept of artistic intent apply to thangkas?
Only rarely do thangkas express the personal vision or creativity of the
painter, and for that reason thangka painters have generally remained anonymous
as have the tailors who made their mountings. This anonymity can be found
in many other cultures.
There are, however, exceptions to this anonymity.
Rarely, eminent teachers will create a thangka to express their own insight
and experience. This type of thangka comes from a traditionally trained
meditation master and artist who creates a new arrangement of forms to
convey his insight so that his students may benefit from it. Other exceptions
exist where master painters have signed their work somewhere in the composition.
The vast majority of anonymously created thangkas,
however, have taken shape as a scientific arrangement of content, colour
and proportion, all of which follow a prescribed set of rules. These rules,
however, differ by denomination, geographical region and style. The Conservator
is left with the responsibility of caring for religious objects that usually
carry neither the names of the artists, nor information about their technique,
date or provenance. But we do know that the intent of the artist was to
convey iconographic information.
There is a vast amount of iconographic information
provided in thangkas, some of it literally spelled out for you. If you
look closely, many thangkas spell identification of figures and scenes
in formal and delicately rendered scripts. In damaged sections of thangkas
where paint layers are missing, letters which indicate the master painter's
choice of colour are sometimes visible. These letters were not intended
to be part of the final compostion and should not be confused with the
former. But given the breadth and variety of the iconography of Indian
and Tibetan Buddhism, it is virtually impossible to extrapolate the information
that would be required to fill in figures that are missing or to complete
the sacred objects that the figures hold in their hands. Where inpainting
is required, the definition and clarification of artistic intent is a complex
Since even indigenous Tibetan scholars trained
in the iconographic details of Buddhist deities generally would not presume
to know the iconography associated with every deity, it is unlikely that
most Conservators could guess the identity and details of unfamiliar figures.
In this care, speculation as to the artist's intent tends to be a particularly
In the twenty five years during which I have been
working with thangkas, I have chosen never to guess, calculate or presume
to identify of missing iconographic facts. To do so would, in my experience,
contravene both the ethics that are required of professional Conservators
and the integrity of the objects that have been entrusted to us. Even a
subtle change in colour alters the message of an icon.
For example, a particular shade of the colour
green indicates effective activity, while a white often indicates peacefulness
and unassailable compassion. It is significant therefore if the same form
of a feminine figure is rendered in green or white.
Is the colour you see before you the colour which
the artist intended for you to see? Sometimes water damage (yak-hide glue
is susceptible to water damage) washes away several fine layers of pigment
on final paint layers or shading layers. This damage exposes either underdrawing
or flat colours which the artist never wanted you to see. Although some
details may be present, unless the artist has also left a notation as to
the specific colour (sometimes revealed by paint loss), an error would
be made if the Conservator were to reconstruct something in an inappropriate
Often, a combination of water-damage, greasy butter
lamp soot and smoky incense grit permanently alters the original colours.
Evidence of this is often seen at the edges where a mounting has protected
the original colours.
In Tents - How Tradition Contributed To
Damage was particularly likely given the tendency
of Tibetans to travel long distances in harsh conditions. Thangkas were
important articles of the tent culture of nomadic monastic groups in medieval
Tibet. It was not unusual for a group of scholars, yogins and priests to
travel by yak to distant regions, set up tents, unroll the thangkas and
serve the local people by teaching before moving on to another area.
This was good for the people but intense for the
thangkas! Rolling and unrolling was, and still is, unavoidably damaging
for thangkas. Rough handling and damp walls damaged both the paintings
and their mountings, in medieval Tibet and today as well. I have studied
the handling of thangkas today in existing traditional monastic settings.
I was invited by the Abbot of a major monastery on the Tibetan border to
work with the monks on proper care and handling of their thangkas. During
the year, according to religious holidays of the lunar cycle, specific
thangkas are removed from storage, unrolled, hung up in damp and smoky
shrine halls, and then taken down, stacked for rerolling and placed back
in storage. Storage consisted of airless tin trunks designed to protect
thangkas from rodents. The trunks smelled of bacterialogical activity.
The monks in this monastery value their thangkas.
But rolling and unrolling combined with rough handling and poor storage
constantly damages their treasured thangkas.
Now if you are feeling that the subtleties of
colour and iconography are overwhelming, we can continue on to style and
technique! If you feel that the original artists were working by a set
of rules to which you have little access, let us reinforce that tense feeling
by looking at the range of traditional styles and painting techniques which
the original artists were guided by. Then we will continue on to discuss
the mountings which were made by tailors who worked by a completely different
set of guidelines.
Basic painting technique differs with regional
style, training of the artist and the funding available to purchase gold,
expensive pigments and so on. Also with the number of students or assistants
the master painter employed.
Did the artist contour areas of iconographic and
non-iconographic detail (such as sky or grass) with wet shading, dry shading
or a combination of the two techniques? The Conservator would have to study
thangka painting technique to understand. A good way to recognize these
techniques is by learning to paint thangkas or by studying incomplete thangka
Did the artist apply many fine layers of paint
one upon the other, or one heavy layer? Regional styles differ in the technique
of paint application.
If the paint layers are lost and damaged, can
the Conservator judge the artist's intent from the surrounding areas? Should
the Conservator tone in lost areas of non-iconographic detail? Private
collectors and dealers, for example, often request a Conservator to inpaint
all damaged areas.
Although some of these questions are standard
conservation issues, they are further complicated when religious and iconographic
message must be respected and maintained.
Thangkas are not only paintings. Their textile
mountings are very important. When dealing with the mountings, a new set
of questions arises. Did the artist of the painting have any control over
the style and proportions of the mountings which surround the painting?
Was the original choice of mountings that of the patron or that of the
tailor? Is the tailor to be considered in a discussion of artist's intent?
Was the painting created in one part of Tibet and framed in another part
of Tibet, China or Northern India? Did the silk come from China or the
Middle East along active trade routes? Is the mounting done in a different
style, technique and aesthetic from those of the painting?
Is the silk brocade mounting currently part of
this thangka in fact the original mounting for this picture panel, or could
it be the third or fourth replacement? The answer to this last question
can often be found on the edges of the support where several row of stitch
holes can indicate that the mounting has been changed.
Does the mounting obscure significant sections
of the painting? Tailors have been known to sew mountings with a window
so small that it covers important iconographic and aesthetically relevant
sections of the painting composition. The form of the mounting therefore
may alter the artist's intent by obscuring details significant to the iconography
and aesthetics of the painting.
The conservation treatment of a thangka is a complex
process that reflects the complexity of the original composite object.
All of the issues raised above must be evaluated in deciding on the appropriate
treatment for a specific thangka.
For example, a Conservator must look carefully
for any exposed colour notations and not confuse them with iconographic
lettering on the final paint layers. A Conservator must evaluate what regional
and stylistic techniques were used in producing the painting and mounting
and also look for damage from past handling. And finally, the Conservator
must examine the current mounting to determine its relation to the painting
and document whether it covers significant sections of the painting.
In summary, thangkas are complicated composite
objects which are designed to communicate iconographic ideas in a beautiful
and practical form. A thangka in your laboratory or collection may be the
production of many painters and tailors with differing intents, and differing
skills and training. The textile mounting may have a completely different
style, date and region of origin from those of the painting.
Pure, single artistic intent is lost through a
combination of inconographic specifications, regional and doctrinal differences
in style, changes in form subsequent to the original creation and many
years of harsh treatment.
The Author is indebted to the late Vajracarya,
the Venerable Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, the late H.E. Jamgon Kongtrul,
Rinpoche, and to Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso, Rinpoche.
Copyright © 1993 by Ann Shaftel
Ann Shaftel is an Elected Fellow of the
American Institute for Conservation and the International Institute for
Conservation. She has published and lectured on thangkas and served as
consultant and conservator for monastic and museum collections for the
past 25 years. She holds an MSc in Conservation from Winterthur (1978),
an MA in Oriental Art History from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
(1972), and a BA from Oberlin College (1969). She also studied at UNESCO-ICCROM.
She apprenticed to Tibetan master painters for 15 years.