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Blanton exhibit features rare Tibetan Buddhist art

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Delicate fabric Tibbetan Buddhist mandalas were recently conserved and are now on exhibit for the first time in the exhibit “Into the Sacred City” at the Blanton Museum of Art.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of “Into the Sacred City,” an exhibit of Tibetan Buddhist sacred objects now on view at the Blanton Museum of Art, is the back story of the man who collected the items in the 1930s.

Theos Bernard — an American scholar of Buddhism and yoga and the self-proclaimed “first white Lama” — was among the few Westerners to gain permission to enter the sacred sites in the Tibetan city of Lhasa, a place central to Tibetan Buddhism. At the time, the then-independent Tibetan government maintained a strong isolationist policy, only selectively permitting outsiders access to its temples and religious rituals.

Bernard spent several months in Lhasa in 1937, during which time he took thousands of photographs and shot some 20,000 feet of 16 mm film. Through his lenses, Bernard recorded Tibetan society and culture before the country was taken over by the Chinese in the 1950s and irrevocably changed by Mao Zedong’s communist government.

In addition to all the photo documentation, Bernard also amassed a collection of statues, mandalas, paintings, traditional clothing and other artifacts.

From that collection — and now on view to the public for the first time — are five painted mandalas and three thangkas that date from the 15th to 20th centuries.

The delicate and fragile items were recently conserved and have only now been made ready for public display. Julia M. White, senior curator of Asian art at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, organized the exhibition exclusively for the Blanton.

Rendered in a variety of means, mandalas are elaborate concentric diagrams used as meditation guides and as means of representing the Buddhist religious cosmos. Thangkas — usually a combination of painting and embroidery on silk — are scrolls designed to be Buddhist teaching aids to early nomadic Tibetans.

Vividly colored and rich in exquisite detail, the manadalas and thangkas on exhibit are indeed gorgeous and fascinating.

But it’s the 20-minute collage of Bernard’s recently restored film footage that screens continuously in a back gallery that’s perhaps the most compelling feature of the exhibit.

Public rituals and parades, the unfurling of a giant thangka, a woodblock printing shop and scenes of temples and city life in Lhasa provide a rare glimpse into a now-gone cultural era. Some of the film is shot in color, unusual for the time and revealing in its detail, particularly in the stunning traditional outfits worn by Buddhist monks.

After his visit to Tibet, the charismatic Bernard went on to create a public following based on what many contemporary scholars now consider to be highly embellished tales. Yet Bernard nevertheless whetted the appetite of an America counterculture that was curious about Eastern philosophies and religious practices. In 1947, Bernard vanished in northern India during another journey, presumably a victim of the region’s political violence.

Some of his stories may have been spun, but Bernard’s collection and photo-documentation remain fascinating.

“Into the Sacred City: Tibetan Buddhist Deities from the Theos Bernard Collection”