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Leading Collection of Tibetan Buddhist Art in the West to be Presented to the Public for the First Time

NEW YORK, NY.- One of the most complete and textured collections of Tibetan Buddhist art in private hands will be presented to the public for the first time this winter through an exhibition at the Freer + Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and documented in a related book, A Shrine for Tibet: The Alice S. Kandell Collection, by Marilyn M. Rhie and Robert A.F. Thurman. The objects in the collection—dating from the 13th through 19th-centuries—will be installed in the gallery as they would have been in a Tibetan shrine room.

The collection, built by Dr. Alice S. Kandell of New York, is one of the foremost and most comprehensive collections of Tibetan Buddhist art in the West. It comprises hundreds of Buddhist works of art and ritual and cultural objects predominantly from Tibet. The collection is currently installed in a shrine room in Dr. Kandell’s apartment as it would have existed in a Buddhist temple or in the home of a prominent family in Tibet. The shrine has been made available for worship to lamas and Buddhist monks and many of the objects have been blessed by the Dalai Lama.

The collection represents the full spectrum of Tibetan Buddhist art and includes Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and deities as well as prayer wheels, musical instruments, and lamps that burned yak butter for illumination. The art is all the more exceptional because of its quality and condition: the Buddhas have their original base, with their prayer scrolls and gems intact. Each of the tangka has its original brocade, finials and rod.

“For the past several decades, I have been able to display these works of art together in a room in my home as they would have been experienced in a Tibetan shrine, as a complete and living entity created over generations and centuries,” said Dr. Kandell. “Seen together, the deities, bronzes, paintings, and ritual objects create a powerful organic and spiritual experience. However, I have only displayed them in my home.

“I have always wanted to offer the same joy and fulfillment that I have gotten from this shrine room to others, so I am delighted that the Smithsonian Institution is helping to present the shrine in a way that retains its integrity.

“The works of art contained in the shrine are part of the culture and life of the Tibet. They belong to the Tibetan people and as such belong to the artistic and cultural heritage of the world. I am pleased that the Tibetan people will now have access to a small piece of the world that they have lost and that the world at large will have a chance to share it.”

Dr. Kandell, who lives in New York, became interested in Tibetan Buddhist art after visiting the formerly independent nation of Sikkim. Her first visit, as Dr. Kandell notes in 'A Shrine for Tibet', was a revelation: “…nothing could have prepared me for the overwhelming beauty of the Sikkimese religion, culture, art, and people.”

Sikkim and Tibet
While studying at Harvard University, Dr. Kandell traveled to Sikkim to attend the coronation of Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal, whose wife, Hope Cooke, was a close friend of Dr. Kandell. Following her initial visit, Dr. Kandell returned repeatedly to the small mountainous kingdom, which is nestled within the Himalayas and shared borders with Nepal to the west, Tibet to the north, Bhutan to the east, and India to the south. Although roughly the same size of the state of Delaware, Sikkim’s topography ranges from lush, tropical-climate valleys to alpine ranges that include Kangchenjuga, the world’s third-highest peak at 28,170 feet. During her travels, Dr. Kandell also ventured to Nepal and to Tibet, which remains under the control of China.

The King of Sikkim was profoundly aware that relatively few photographs existed that documented the culture, life, and monuments of the region. At the request of the Chogyal, or King, Dr. Kandell embarked on a project to photograph nearly every aspect of Sikkimese life, from its spectacular mountain ranges and villages to its towns and cities. In working on the project, Dr. Kandell returned to Sikkim several times and visited most areas of the country.

Dr. Kandell took over 10,000 photographs of Sikkim and its people. She subsequently published two books about Sikkim. 'Mountaintop Kingdom: Sikkim' (WW Norton), with Charlotte and Harrison Salisbury, included many of Dr. Kandell’s photographs. Dr. Kandell was also the author and photographer for 'Sikkim, the Hidden Kingdom' (Doubleday). Dr. Kandell’s photographs constitute the world’s most complete photographic record of the independent Kingdom of Sikkim before it was absorbed into India in 1975.

The Collection and Exhibition
Dr. Kandell started collecting Himalyan art during her first visit to Sikkim and continued while pursuing her doctorate in psychology and starting a family. She began collecting Tibetan Buddhist art on a modest scale commensurate with her status as a student and also gave lectures on Buddhist art, Sikkim, and Tibet in New York and across the United States. One was attended, unknown to Dr. Kandell, by Philip Rudko, a serious collector of Tibetan art for over 40 years and a Russian Orthodox monk living in the United States. Mr. Rudko had acquired works of art from a small group of affluent Tibetan families who emigrated to the United States after 1959 on the condition that the works remain together in a spiritual setting.

In 1994, Dr. Kandell acquired the bulk of Mr. Rudko’s collection and merged it with her own. Mr. Rudko has since acted as Dr. Kandell’s curator.

Earlier this decade, Dr. Kandell created the shrine room in her apartment for her ever-growing collection. “They were made as works of devotion, and I wanted to display them as they would have been displayed in a Tibetan shrine,” she said.

Where art exhibited in museums or homes is typically spread out with space around each object and arranged by date, iconography, or geographic region, works of art in shrines are arranged in hierarchies, where the Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and deities are presented on tiers that reflect their level of importance. In an authentic arrangement of a Buddhist shrine, enlightened figures reside on upper tiers while those still seeking enlightenment are placed below them. Ritual objects are placed on the lowest of the three levels.

Dr. Kandell’s collection contains numerous examples of the three objects essential to a Tibetan Buddhist shrine: the figural sculptures that represent the Buddha’s body, the sutra texts that represent his speech, and the stupas that represent his mind. Ancient stupas are monuments of earth and stone. Small-scale stupas that are found in shrines include symbols that represent the earth, water, fire, air, and space or consciousness.

The walls of Dr. Kandell’s shrine room are covered with tangka, or paintings on fabric that could easily be rolled and moved. The central imagery of tangkas are Buddhas or deities, who appear within silk brocade that frames the edge of the paintings. The brocade represents a doorway, or the passage from the material world to that of enlightenment. As Dr. Thurman notes in 'A Shrine for Tibet', “Tibetans regard a shrine in a technical way as a doorway into the enlightened world, a laboratory in which the structure of that world is designed, and a refuge in which it is enjoyed and brought into the ordinary world to be shared with suffering beings.”

Dr. Kandell’s collection also incorporates ritual and cultural objects: serving bowls for offerings, a butter churn once used to make the Yak butter that fueled lamps, musical instruments made of bones (in the Buddhist view, rebirth and death are inextricably linked until a soul has achieved enlightenment as reaches Nirvana) and other materials, deity crowns made of silver and gilt with coral and turquoise inserts, prayer wheels, vessels of immortality, small, portable shrines of various materials, barley containers, altar tables, offering chests, rosaries, and jewels.

The Kandell Collection will be installed in the Freer + Sackler Galleries in a shrine room that measures approximately 16 by 20 feet and is designed specifically for the exhibition, "The Tibetan Shrine from the Alice S. Kandell Collection", which will be on view from March 13 to July 18, 2010. As in Dr. Kandell’s shrine room, the Freer + Sackler Galleries will not present the art in the standard art historical/museum framework: divided up by date, iconography or geographic region. Instead it will be presented as an organic entity and living shrine. The exhibition is a centerpiece of “In the Realm of the Buddha,” a celebration of Tibetan Buddhist art and related programs that the galleries will present in the spring and summer of 2010.

'A Shrine for Tibet: The Alice S. Kandell Collection'
The collection is also presented in a new book, 'A Shrine for Tibet: The Alice S. Kandell Collection, by Marylin Rhie and Robert A.F. Thurman (Tibet House in association with Overlook Duckworth) to be published in spring 2010. Heavily illustrated with photography by John Bigelow Taylor, the 299-page book explores the history of the Tibetan shrine and its use in Tibetan life during the past 1,000 years. It focuses on the aesthetic and artistic development of Tibetan Buddhist art from the 15th-century – a period of artistic flowering akin to Europe’s Renaissance – through the 18th-century.

Dr. Rhie is the Jessie Wells Post Professor of Art and East Asian Studies at Smith College and has written extensively on Buddhist art. She has published extensively and co-authored the catalogue for the milestone exhibition, Wisdom and Compassion (Tibet House 1991) with Professor Thurman.

Dr. Thurman is Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, where he heads the Center for Buddhist Studies. An ordained Buddhist, Mr. Thurman has published extensively on Tibetan culture and philosophy and Buddhist practices as well as Buddhist art.

Freer + Sackler Galleries | A Shrine for Tibet | Marilyn M. Rhie | Robert A.F. Thurman | Dr. Alice S. Kandell |

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