Kathryn Selig Brown is an Independent Curator and Tibetan art specialist. A former curator at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, she has curated more than a dozen exhibitions, written numerous articles and exhibition catalogues, and lectured widely, including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago. In this interview, she discusses her process for selecting the works for the exhibition Protecting Wisdom: Tibetan Book Covers from the MacLean Collection and the significance of the Prajnaparamita Sutra in Tibetan Buddhism, and she shares stories of her travels to Lhasa. Interview by Jacqueline Chao, Curator of Asian Art at the Crow Collection of Asian Art.
JC: For the exhibition Protecting Wisdom: Tibetan Book Covers from the MacLean Collection, can you tell us a bit about your process for selecting the works on display, and how they relate to your own research interests?
KSB: I tried to pick a broad selection so that viewers could see different styles and types of imagery and decoration as well as seven hundred years of artistic invention. I didn’t realize it when I first started researching the topic, but the book covers with inscriptions are those rare art objects that have an accessible backstory. Buddhist and Hindu objects were not commissioned in a vacuum, and as the book covers’ inscriptions provided information about their production and patronage, they fell into my area of interest, which is the contextualization and the intersection of ritual use and connoisseurship.
JC: Can you expand on the Prajnaparamita Sutra and its place in Tibetan Buddhism – it figures so frequently among the book cover subjects in this exhibition.
KSB: The Prajnaparamita Sutra (“Perfection of Wisdom” in Sanskrit) contains practical instructions on how enlightenment is realized. In Tibet, this sutra is so important; it is called the Yum chen mo, or “Great Mother.” It is known as “the Mother” because the sutra itself says that it is mother of all buddhas and bodhisattvas. Copies are found not only in every temple, but also on the altars of wealthy families.
Many different versions of the Prajnaparamita Sutra exist, although these vary in length more than in the essential message. The most common, the Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita, is 8,000 verses and requires only one volume but other versions, including ones with 25,000 and 100,000 verses, require three to a dozen or more volumes. Inscriptions on two of the book covers in the exhibition reveal that one was made for a 20,000-verse version and the other for a 100,000-verse version.
The goddess Prajnaparamita, who often appears on covers for the sutra, is the anthropomorphized image of the transcendental wisdom that is the subject of the sutra. She is usually depicted with four arms, one of which holds a copy of the sutra.
JC: There are traces of color on many of the book covers. Would they have been highly colorful when presented, like much of what we see in Tibetan painting?
KSB: They were either highly colorful or gilded and highlighted with colors made from ground minerals and other natural substances. Traces of paint can be seen under magnification on many of the now-blank areas. An inscription from a 14th-century book cover in the exhibition says it best:
“Made from precious gold of unequalled radiance, the paint blazes like a fire, like a red offering cake, like [a sun] without eclipse, like melted gold, emanating light-rays like the gold from the Jambu river, ornamented with all kinds of colors and utterly beautiful.”
JC: Can you share any stories from your past travels to Tibet? Particularly, any special and memorable experiences?
KSB: I first tried to travel to Tibet in the fall of 1987, from Nepal, but that was just when all foreigners were asked to leave Tibet and the borders were closed. Six months later I was in Beijing when I heard Tibet had been reopened to foreigners, so I got on a train heading west. Three days later I was in Xining in western China where I organized a bunch of travelers like myself and hired a bus and a Public Security Bureau official and drove south and west four days to Lhasa. We were caught in a sand storm and had to dig out our van, but otherwise the trip was uneventful. At the border we were told that we were the second group to be let into Tibet.
Six years later, I knew it would be difficult to do my doctoral research in Tibet as sites and temples could be shut down with no warning. So I chose a topic that I could research outside Tibet – handprints and footprints in Tibetan art (which I eventually turned into the exhibition, “Eternal Presence,” which toured three U.S. museums). I ended up living for a few months in Dharamsala, India, researching in the library there and interviewing all the lamas I could. The Tibetan government-in-exile is based in Dharamsala, and the Dalai Lama lives there when not traveling the world.
Protecting Wisdom: Tibetan Book Covers from the MacLean Collection is on view at the Crow Collection of Asian Art through August 14, 2016.