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Parting the Curtain: Asian Art Revealed

Tibetan and Buddhist Ritual Arts: The Bernard-Murray Tibetan Collection


Film of Theos Bernard’s 1937 journey to Tibet (frame enlargement); 16mm film transferred to DVD; 20 min.; PFA Collection.

The American adventurer Theos Bernard collected thangkas (Buddhist religious paintings), books, and sculptures on a 1937 journey to Tibet, where he participated in festivals and studied Tantric Buddhism. His journals, films, photographs, and art collection, now housed at UC Berkeley, are considered an important record of pre-Communist Tibet. Items from Bernard’s collections make up a key section of Parting the Curtain, now on view in Gallery 4.

Perhaps the most unique material on view is a twenty-minute selection of footage from the Bernard film archive assembled by PFA Film Collection Curator Mona Nagai, for which I have provided commentary. Drawn from literally miles of film, this short production features a portion of Bernard’s documentation of artisans, dancers, monks, and ordinary people involved in their daily activities.

Included in the film is rare footage of the removal of an enormous thangka several stories high from the exterior wall of a temple, leaving little doubt about the involvement of the local populations in ritual programs. Bernard documents dancers performing for large gatherings of monks and laypeople, capturing the participants both in their polished dance moves and in the awkward moments prior to performing. Equally absorbing is his documentation of the painting of a thangka, as the camera captures an artisan adding the finishing touches to a painting similar to one in Parting the Curtain. The complete process of printing the sacred scriptures known as sutras is covered in some detail, highlighting the many-tiered process of cutting into the wood block, preparing the ink, the assembly-line-style printing, and the use of the sutras by chanting monks.

Although most of the film appears to have been shot by Bernard himself, there are several brief images of Bernard in his role as organizer of the expedition as well as his participation in the recitation of sutras. The footage in the exhibition represents only a small percentage of the vast resources held in this important collection.

A selection of objects from Bernard’s collection of Buddhist art is also on view in Gallery 4; some of these, as well as other significant sections of the collection, are in need of conservation and preservation. The Berkeley Art Museum will host a major exhibition of this collection in a few years, allowing time for the conservation and organizing efforts of several University departments. (Parts of the collection are also housed on campus at the East Asian Library, the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, and the Bancroft Library.) If you would like to contribute to the ongoing conservation of film or artworks from the Bernard-Murray Tibetan Collection, please contact Elisa Isaacson, BAM/PFA director of development, at (510) 642-5187 or isaacson@berkeley.edu.

Julia M. White
Senior Curator of Asian Art