The Monk-Part II


From the advent of man’s tenure on this earth he has sought to create. Why?  We obviously don’t know for certain. Did he create instinctively, in response to his wonder with the world around him?  Perhaps she-in those earliest days- could not even articulate a reason for doing so. Perhaps her urge to create was as instinctive as her urge to hunt or mate.

Whatever the reason, the urge to pay homage to the world and it’s creator far predates “civilized society.”  Stonehenge and Easter Island being two early examples.

Throughout history, man’s urge to glorify his world, and it’s creators, was not only recognized as important but vital to their soul.  Charles Alexander Eastman-  a Native American physician, writer, national lecturer, and reformer who was of Santee Dakota and Anglo-American ancestry wrote that:

In the life of the Indian there was only one inevitable duty,—the duty of prayer—the daily recognition of the Unseen and Eternal. His daily devotions were more necessary to him than daily food. ..Every act of his life is, in a very real sense, a religious act. He recognizes the spirit in all creation, and believes that he draws from it spiritual power.

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Across the world, and thousands of years prio to Eastman’s ancestors giving praise to the creator, the neanderthals painted the caves of modern day France and Spain. These primative acts of creation, of course, occurred during a time when  the neanderthal’s very day to day survival was not to be taken for granted. In fact, throughout history, men of all races and cultures have devoted tremendous effort and resources to create art, when logic dictates that their time could have been better spent in more pedestrian chores- such as increasing the harvest or hunting or building better shelters.

In my youth of I read with endless fascination the books of the explorer Richard Halliburton. His two volume set, The Book of Marvels documented man’s incessant need to not only wander every corner of the globe,as well as man’s universal need to create.

From the ancient Hindi towers of Mudra to the beauty of Mount St Michel in Normandy; from the palaces of Knossos in Crete to the sole surviving tower of Babylon, Halliburton’s narratives fired my imagination. Even before I was old enough to form the question, I realized that I was taken not only by the beauty of the works Halliburton considered, but that I was equally intrigued by man’s need to create such works.

From the earliest times, I wanted, needed to know why? As I grew the power of that question has never lost it’s stranglehold upon my imagination. Why?

Once, in my late thirties, I was in the Chicago Art institute. In an exhibit entitled Himalaya-which was assembled to consider works created by artists in the Himalayas over some thousand year period. In walking through this exhibit, I came upon a bronze sculpture in a glass case.  The object which stopped me literally dead in my tracks. The sculpture was a three foot tall  bronze painted Tibetan and/or Nepalese Monk in seated meditation. It sat with lively eyes and curtained flowing robes. It’s hands and long slender fingers were formed in a sacred mudra. A slight knowing smile played upon his face. It looked through me as I entered the room. It seemed to be alive; it demanded and commanded  my attention.

Because I came upon this creature late in the day- upon on the last day of the exhibit- I had only ten minutes to spend with him. I looked long and hard at the sculpture. A six hundred year old sculpture which depicted a man of obvious wisdom and intelligence. The sculpture not only caught the likeness of this man  who had been dead for centuries, but also captured his spirit and personality as well. Though the sculpture was made of metal- it seemed fluid, the robes were deeply pleated and soft, The hands detailed, the eyes piercing.

Who created this work? I wondered.

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I stood taking in the power of the work, amazed by the handiwork of an artist who clearly was working under difficult conditions with limited resources. Where does one get the materials, the tools, to create such a work in 15th century Nepal?

A guard chased me from the exhibit. I went to the gift shop and bought the catalog in the hope of learning something about the sculpture and it’s creator. The catalog allowed only that the sculpture appeared only as a loan from an an anonymous source- and contained no history- no provenance. The creator was unknown.

I left the exhibit, but the monk did not leave my mind. It burned a hole in my imagination as no other work of art ever had.

To make a very long and convoluted story somewhat shorter, I followed the exhibit to its next and last stop in Washington DC at the Smithsonian’s Freerer and Sackler Museum of Asain Arts. I studied the monk there, one cold Saturday morning, for a long time. I tried to learn more.

I asked to see the curator. This, I was told, was impossible. I was given to an assistant who was not pleased at the the thought of entertaining the questions of a mere taxpayer. She seemed to know that I, at least at that time,, much like the monk,. held no history, no provenance, no special title.

She told me curtly that there was no additional information to be had about the work and that she was not aware of any additional sources which might provide any information and that the identity of the anonymous donor could not be divulged under any circumstances and that there could be no waiver of the ban against photographing the monk.

All this occurred in the early days of digital photography. Given this fact, I went to a Staples in the heart of DC and bought a small serviceable point and shoot camera. I went back to the exhibit the next day and surreptitiously photographed the monk. He did not voice any objection.

The museum guard, in coming upon me as I was completing my work, however, was most unamused and told me in no uncertain tone that I could not photograph anything in the exhibit and must leave immediately. Having obtained what I needed, I feigned ignorance and left.

I attempted to search other resources at the various libraries of the Smithsonian, but left no wiser. Back home I went through the library of the Cincinnati Art Museum and learned a little of Tibetan art. Some months later in the used book stores of Ann Arbor, I bought a slew of books on Asian art. I studied them and came no closer to answering the question of who created the monk.

In fact, the more I studied, the faster the questions inside my headed multiplied.

What was life like in fifteenth century Tibet? Where did the materials come from? How was the statue constructed. Was it constructed by one or more people. Where and why was it sculpted, for what purpose?

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Why has man always sought to create, often in spite of himself, often in the face of common sense? Or, as one review of the show noted: “‘Himalayas An Aesthetic Adventure,” provides viewers with visual evidence of the spiritual aspirations of those who, over millennia, have defied the physical hardships of an arduous mountain terrain to express their soaring creative spirit. This is the first exhibition on a grand scale of art representing the entire region of the Himalaya Mountains-the rooftop of the world-bringing together 187 works of Buddhist and Hindu art created between the 5th and 19th centuries.’

So why go to-what had to amount to tremendous time trouble and expense to create such work as the monk in a place where survival had to be a daily challenge, especially in fifteenth century Tibet?

Pratapaditya Pal, the show’s curator- in the show’s catalogue- attempted to provide some insight by writing: : “… the primary purpose an image serves is to provide the viewer with a glimpse of the divine in a tangible form. The forms themselves are visions of mystics and saints, poets, and seers…. [The artist’s] aim was to express truth (satyam), beauty (sundaram), and the auspicious (sivam)” (pp. 17, 19).”

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I tried to imagine the average American placing the need to express truth, beauty or the auspicious above their own personal comfort;  elevating truth, beauty and the auspicious above the need for another cheeseburger, giving up a Sunday afternoon worshiping the sacred cult of the NFL in order to create a work of beauty.

I could not get there. The more I contemplated the topic, the more inspiring the story became., slowly I came to learn about the production of sculpture in this time and place.

Victor Cassidy in writing of the Himalaya exhibit noted that,: “Himalayas art was made by temple artists who often belonged to a family whose senior member did the most challenging work while apprentices painted in the corners. Major pieces could take years to finish. The paint, applied with a brush, was made from ground pigment mixed with gum Arabic. Himalayas sculptures are lost wax castings. Elaborate works were made in pieces and assembled. Dr. Pal says that the Himalayas artists had a more advanced metallurgy than their counterparts in Europe.”

Another thought nagged me. If the need to create was so universal, throughout time and space- if art was ubiquitous throughout all cultures, all over the world-, why have these efforts throughout man’s history so often failed to receive the same degree of respect as other products created by man- such as goods created by farmers or craftsmen.

From almost the very minute that man as a life form as existed upon this earth, he has expressed- sometimes at great effort and expense, his need to create, to document to share. Elizabeth Kolbert in her great New Yorker Piece in considering man’s first known efforts at visual arts- in the form of cave paintings at Dordogne wrote:

…Grotte des Combarelles, is a long, very narrow cave that zigzags through a limestone cliff.  Hundreds of feet in, the walls of the cave are covered with engravings—a mammoth curling its trunk, a wild horse lifting its head, a reindeer leaning forward, apparently to drink. …when the etchings were originally created, some twelve or thirteen thousand years ago, the only way to gain access to the site would have been to crawl, and the only way to see in the absolute dark would have been to carry fire. As I crept along through the gloom, past engravings of wisent and aurochs and woolly rhinos, it occurred to me that I really had no clue what would drive someone to wriggle through a pitch-black tunnel to cover the walls with images that only another, similarly driven soul would see. Yet it also struck me that so much of what is distinctively human was here on display—creativity, daring, “madness.” And then there were the animals pictured on the walls—the aurochs and mammoths and rhinos. These were the beasts that Paleolithic Europeans had hunted, and then, one by one, as with the Neanderthals, obliterated. ♦ Elizabeth Kolbert -Sleeping with the Enemy.