Looking Back on the Art of Tibetan Leader Situ Panchen

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A new exhibit at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is highlighting the work of a 18th-century Tibetan religious leader and artist, famous not only for his revival of Tibetan art styles but also for the insider's view that his writings provide modern scholars.

Because most Tibetan artists of the period toiled anonymously in monasteries little recognized for their work, and because there are very few historical documents in extant, the study of Tibetan art, has long had its limitations.

The exhibition, “Lama, Patron, Artist: The Great Situ Panchen,” however, focuses on the remarkable life of  Situ Panchen (1700-1774), whose life as a revered Buddhist leader and artist, is well documented in a number of autobiographies and diaries.

Situ Panchen was recognized as a Lama, or teacher, of the Karma Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism at an early age. Even as a child and before he was given any formal training, he painted. When he was older, he founded the Palpung Buddhist monastery in Derge, Tibet, where he instructed young Buddhist students in the arts and religion. Well-educated, well-traveled (he journeyed to Nepal in 1723), Situ Panchen made vast contributions to 18th-century Tibetan art, medicine and diplomacy.

“The fact that he was both a prominent patron and artist but also a major religious figure means we have all his autobiographies, and diaries, and also monastic histories of his monastic seat,” said Karl Debrecezeny, a curator of New York City's Rubin Museum of Art, a co-sponsor with the Sackler of the exhibition. “We have really rich textual material to draw from, his own words, as well as those of his contemporaries.”

The exhibit is based on new research conducted by a leading scholar of Tibetan culture and history, David Jackson, also of the Rubin. Jackson and Debreczeny used the Situ Panchen's painting as historical documents, cross-referencing the works with passages in the artist's diaries and journals. A number of Chinese paintings in the Freer-Sackler collection and on view in the exhibition contributed to the scholars' study of the 18th-century Tibetan leader and artist.

“It’s not just Tibetans looking to Chinese art." Debreczeny says. "You also have this tradition going on in the Chinese court at the exact same time drawing on Tibetan art, and that’s a major distinction."

The artist is credited with reviving a 16th-century tradition of the Tibetan encampment style, a traveling monastic community of monks and skilled artists and artisans.  The style combines Indian-inspired human figures with the Chinese blue-green style, which focuses on lush blue and green landscapes.

Panchen began to paint in this style himself, and is the artist of some of the works in the exhibit. But he was even more skilled at designing works of art, Debrecezeny says. He organized artist workshops in his monastery to teach his disciples the style, which often included painting landscapes using the dry tip of a brush to form layers of small dots. He then composed artworks or sets of paintings, dictating to his students while they painted.

“The study of Tibetan art is quite young, compared to Italian renaissance or impressionism,” he says. “This material is new and very few scholars in the past have worked from primary sources. It’s ground breaking."

Lama Patron Artist: The Great Situ Panchen runs through July 18 at the Sackler Gallery of Art, 1050 Independence Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C.

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