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Parting the Curtain: Asian Art Revealed

June 27, 2007 - July 20, 2008

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Unknown artist, Tibet: Dakini, Skywalker, 19th century; gilt bronze; long-term loan from a private collection.

“Asian art” is not one but many diverse expressions of culture, religion, and aesthetics. The broad geographical range of Asia, from the subcontinent of India to the islands of Japan, captures enormous diversity in people as well as artistic production. Understanding elements of this vast territory through its arts is one of the goals of the current installation in Gallery 4, which is divided into five sections exploring specific avenues of artistic endeavor in South and East Asia: The Literati Tradition: Scholarly Pursuits in China and Japan; Art for the Afterlife: Chinese Tomb Culture; Ideals of Beauty in India; Tibetan and Buddhist Ritual Arts: The Bernard-Murray Tibetan Collection; and Buddhist Imagery of India and Tibet.

Chinese paintings, the backbone of the collection, are on view alongside a selection of Japanese paintings and woodblock prints. The installation places traditional arts of the scholar gentleman in juxtaposition with newer works by the avant-garde artist Xu Bing, challenging the viewer to see what is new in the old and what is old in the new.

The exhibition also showcases the museum’s astounding collection of early Chinese tomb material, ranging from beautifully crafted storage pots of the Neolithic period (10,000–2100 BCE), with their swirling abstract designs, to guardian figures of the Tang (618–907 CE). A group of bronze vessels highlights the significant role of ancestor worship in early Chinese history.

A noteworthy addition to the new installation is a selection of Tibetan material from the Bernard-Murray Tibetan Collection that was recently gifted to UC Berkeley. This will be the first major presentation of thangkas (religious paintings), ritual objects, and film clips from this extensive collection, which is held jointly by BAM/PFA, the Bancroft Library, and the Hearst Museum. The adventurer Theos Bernard collected the material on a 1939 journey to Tibet, where he participated in festivals and studied Tantric Buddhism. His journals, films, photographs, and art collection are considered an important record of pre-Communist Tibet. An anonymous private collector has also loaned complementary Tibetan material, allowing for an expanded view of Buddhist arts.

Julia M. White
Senior Curator of Asian Art