For more than a thousand years, Tibetan artists have played a key role in the cultural life of Tibet. From designs for painted furniture to elaborate murals in religious buildings, their efforts have permeated virtually every facet of life on the Tibetan plateau. The vast majority of surviving artworks created before the mid-20th century are dedicated to the depiction of religious subjects, with the main forms being thangka, distemper paintings on cloth, Tibetan Buddhist wall paintings, and small statues in bronze, or large ones in clay, stucco or wood. They were commissioned by religious establishments or by pious individuals for use within the practice of Tibetan Buddhism and were manufactured in large workshops by monks and lay artists, who are mostly unknown.
Mahayana Buddhist Influence
As Mahayana Buddhism emerged as a separate school in the 4th century AD, it emphasized the role of bodhisattvas, compassionate beings who forgo their personal escape to nirvana in order to assist others. From an early time, various bodhisattvas were also subjects of statuary art. Tibetan Buddhism, as an offspring of Mahayana Buddhism, inherited this tradition.
Tibetan Buddhism contains Tantric Buddhism, also known as Vajrayana Buddhism for its common symbolism of the vajra, the diamond thunderbolt (known in Tibetan as the dorje). Most of the typical Tibetan Buddhist art can be seen as part of the practice of tantra. A surprising aspect of Tantric Buddhism is the common representation of wrathful deities, often depicted with angry faces, circles of flame, or with the skulls of the dead that can be used to conquer the negative attitudes of the practitioner.
The indigenous shamanistic religion of the Himalayas is known as Bön. Bon contributes a pantheon of local tutelary deities to Tibetan art. In Tibetan temples (known as lhakhang), statues of the Buddha or Padmasambhava are often paired with statues of the tutelary deity of the district who often appears angry or dark. These gods once inflicted harm and sickness on the local citizens but after the arrival of Padmasambhava these negative forces have been subdued and now must serve Buddha.
Traditional Visual Art
Rock Paintings: Over 5000 rock paintings in the cliffs and caves in the middle and upper reaches of Yarlung Tsangpo River remained undiscovered until the latter part of the 20th century. The earliest rock paintings, created around 3000 years ago, are symbols sculpted in single thick lines. The subject matter includes herding, hunting, fighting, dancing and religious activities related to Tibet’s indigenous religion, Bon.
Murals: Murals illustrating religious teachings, historical events, legends, myths and the social life of Tibetans ornament the walls, ceilings and passages of Tibetan temples and palaces. Some early murals are devoted to Bon, but most are of religious figures, such as Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, or Buddhist masters. Murals also depict significant historical events and persons, such as the ancient Tibetan kings. Some murals feature the social life of Tibetans.
Thangka: It is a painted or embroidered Buddhist banner which was hung in a monastery or over a family altar and occasionally carried by monks in ceremonial processions. It can be rolled up when not required for display, and is sometimes called a scroll-painting. These thangka served as important teaching tools depicting the life of the Buddha, various influential lamas and other deities and bodhisattvas.
Mandalas are commonly used by tantric Buddhists as an aid to meditation, and also represent the entire Universe, which is traditionally depicted with Mount Meru as the axis mundi in the center, surrounded by the continents.
Surviving Pre-Buddhist carved stone pillars from the seventh to ninth centuries are decorated with Chinese, Central Asian, and Indian motifs and also a stone lion showing traces of Persian influence. The technique of casting figures in bronze and other metals entered Tibet from Nepal and India. Tibetan artists gradually developed their own styles and began to depict their own lamas and teachers as well as the vast pantheon of Buddhas, gods, and goddesses inherited from India.
Modern Tibetan Art
Tibet’s vibrant modern art scene exhibits three artistic tendencies. Some artists have returned to the traditionalist styles of their forefathers, painting thangka (religious scroll paintings) that retain the iconographic and aesthetic qualities of earlier work. Others follow a ‘middle way’ combining lessons from the art of the past with motifs and techniques that reflect Tibet’s modernity. Another group is inventing a completely new type of Tibetan painting which draws inspiration from contemporary art movements in Asia and the West to produce radical, even avant-garde, works. All three approaches are to some extent engaged in a dialogue with the past and with the works of Tibetan artists of previous centuries.