Exhibition Inquisition

The stuff you look at, but don't see.

Divine Demons: Wraithful Deities in Buddhist Art

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Norton Simon Museum

The “Fierce deities with bared teeth, flame-like tongues, and wicked expressions” of this exhibition are contained to a small concise space, but the show itself is rich and meaningful.  The show is unavoidable because of where it is located.  At the bottom of the staircase down to the Asian galleries of the Norton Simon, there it is: a nice little alcove of a space, nicely tucked away.

Can’t miss this exhibition

Can’t miss this exhibition

Only approximately 20 works make up the exhibition, most of them are small-scale and necessitate a closer, intimate inspection.  The Norton Simon has also done an amazing job with the education of this show.  There is a large wall text which nicely explains the items in the exhibition:

“These powerful figures also destroy demons and inner obstacles to enlightenment, such as greed and anger. Their frightening appearance belie the good deeds they perform in protecting individual devotees, monasteries and Buddhist doctrine…In the photo below, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, holding a ritual thunderbolt and bell, performs an initiation ceremony seated in front of a large appliquéd image depicting wrathful gods.”

This wall text was very informative, though some sentences were constructed awkwardly. The mention of the Dalai Lama seemed to be a reference to something from Tibetan culture which perhaps was somewhat recognizable the audience of museum.  Along with the introductory wall text, every item in the exhibition had an accompanying wall label with an educational paragraph

Interesting to me was the color chosen in this room.  The medium-tone blue paint was too-odd-to-be-a-coincidence similar to the blue-colored walls in LACMA’s Tibetan galleries.  To be fare the color was located elsewhere in that level of the museum, but I’m curious as to why this color is so popular in being partnered with Tibetan art.

Blue on blue, nice frames

Blue on blue, nice frames

The museum has provided two small, wooden, yet comfortable benches in the small space. The only medium not present in the small exhibition was stone sculpture, but these works were displayed right outside this space, and were all very large.  The show was focused on the close inspection of small intimate objects.

Show and tell of Buddhist treasures

Show and tell of Buddhist treasures

The exhibition was strikingly symmetrical.  The C-shaped exhibition was reflective on left and right.  Along the right wall were watercolors and small sculptures.  One watercolor was framed in a blue mat and ark wood frame, which matched another watercolor across the room which made me think that the works might have been acquired by the same time, or come from the same place.

It's in the details: flames and skulls, very rock & roll

It's in the details: flames and skulls, very rock & roll

The display case along this wall contained six objects.  The objects are made from a wide range of medium, from different times, but all from Tibet.  An accompanying diagram to the right of the case provided the labels for these objects as well as more educational information.  This small case was like a treasure chest full of precious objects. The workmanship and the details were beautiful in this case, including the carving of a conch shell, and the small inlaid eyes of a skull.

Chakrasamuara: decapitated-head necklaces are so in right now

Chakrasamuara: decapitated-head necklaces are so in right now

Another example of small scale details was in another small plexiglass display case.  The small bronze sculpture of Chakrasamuara & Vajravarchi (China, lat 18th c.) invited close inspection.  The wall text described in detail the gruesome nature of the details: “Each of Chakrasamuara’s four faces has a fierce expression, a fierce eye and a skull tiara. In addition he wears garlands of skulls and severed heads and in his 12 arms holds various attributes: a lasso, and arrows, as well as a thunderbolt and bell.”  This description encouraged further investigation of the piece, were those really garlands of heads draped around the figures neck?—Why yes there were, isn’t that precious…

Mandala at the center of the universe / exhibition

Mandala at the center of the universe / exhibition

This work led to the central (in terms of location) work of the exhibition.  The Mandala of Chakrasamuara (Nepal, Kathmandu, 1648) is a large painting featuring the same demonic character as the sculpture directly to the right.  Again, a beautiful description accompanies: “surrounding the palace are eight graveyards, separated by stylized waves representing rivers. These charnel grounds…” All of the wording of these texts is very vivid, and helps to explain not only what we are seeing, but also utilizing colorful language which achieves a grim effect integral to this installation examining violence and demons.

From the prop shop?—No, from the Norton Simon

From the prop shop?—No, from the Norton Simon

Speaking of violence, the case to the left of the Mandala painting holds some sensational objects, which honestly look like props from a Hollywood movie.  The case with ritual weapons holds a Ritual Staff or Club (Tibet 20th c.) and a Ritual Axe (Tibet 20th c.).  These objects finalize and literalize the exhibition’s theme of violence.

Orange is the new white box

Orange is the new white box

Among the hall of blue were accent colors.  Three items were distinguished by their special mounting in the exhibition.  A wooden ritual sword from Tibet, a bronze sculpture of Hayagriva, and a mask of Bhairara were displayed differently from the rest of the works in the room.  All of them were displayed in specially made shadow boxes.  The frames clearly had been made specially for this exhibition because they were made to look like they were attached to the walls permanently, and painted the same blue color.  However, the accent was the orange color used on the interiors of these frames.  But why the bright orange color? To admit the first thing I thought of when I saw the color in this context was that it was the color of Buddhist monastic robes (which could be seen in the images of the Dalai Lama in the exhibition). The orange accents did a lot to subtly highlight these works.

Diagram of back wall, thanks Microsoft paint

Diagram of back wall, thanks Microsoft paint

These objects fit nicely into the symmetry of the exhibition.  All in all the small show was informative and beautiful, showing that even topics of violence can be beautiful.

– H.I.

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