Reviewed by Bobbie Leigh
Just as painted Russian icons are not intended to be solely artistic representations of saints, but objects of meditation and veneration, mandalas — at least for the initiated — are magic windows, pathways to the deepest possible Buddhist understandings of the cosmos and the self. The 70 staggeringly beautiful mandalas in the Rubin Museum of Art (RMA) show, "Mandala: The Perfect Circle," are among the rarest in the world. Some are from the Rubin's own collection, others from the Met, the Musee Guimet in Paris, and private collections.
In simplest terms, the Buddha taught that life is perpetual suffering. The only way to be liberated from human suffering is to set aside desire, to be liberated from human wants and needs, and achieve a state of enlightenment or Buddhahood. As Dr. Martin Brauen chief curator at the RMA says, the tradition teaches that the Buddha is within us, but we have to find it. He also emphasizes that Buddhahood is no easy ideal. In fact, it's immensely complicated, requiring a devoted teacher and disciple involved in lifelong practices leading to enlightenment.
"The basic teaching is that one has to control his or her emotions, not get angry about stupid things, feel compassion for others. It's a complicated path to achieve that through mandala exercises," says Brauen.
For the casual visitor to this intriguing exhibition, it's helpful to recall one of the differences between Christian and Buddhist ideologies. A Christian will never say in contemplation of a religious painting or icon, "I am Christ," but only as Paul writes, that Christ lives within him or her. Yet a Buddhist who uses the mandala as an aid to meditation and inspiration, recognizes that he or she can ultimately realize the Buddha within him or herself, released from suffering for the benefit of all human beings.
Amitayus Mandala. Tibet; ca. 14th century, Courtesy Rubin Museum of Art
The museum has wisely included four computer-generated explanations of the strict geometrical basis of mandalas created by wizards at Cornell and Zurich Universities to satisfy the mathematically minded. Basically, mandalas are concentric circles within squares, squares within circles, six-pronged stars, or inverted crossed triangles. In some, a central figure often entwined with a partner is placed in the middle of the central disk, surrounded by a panoply of deities. It's tempting to think what a gifted math teacher could do with the concept, making simple mandalas with rulers and compasses in geometric compositions.
As for the exhibition, you may have to be a Buddhist scholar to understand who's who in the bewildering pantheon of Buddhist deities, but for the rest of us, the mandalas are works of art that dazzle the eye with their sumptuous yellows, reds, greens, and blues, dancing deities, hungry ghosts and menacing demons reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch.
Yama Dharmaraja Mandala. Tibet; 18th century. Courtesy Rubin Museum of Art
Among the 70 paintings, sculptures, and computer animations on view, are centuries-old instruction books for monks, reliquaries, and amulets. The oldest mandala dates from the 8th c. Loaned by the Guimet (one of the great museums of Asian art and not to be missed if you are in Paris), the painting was discovered in the caves of Dunhuang, a Silk Road town at the edge of the Gobi desert in Northwest China. The most recent is a contemporary sculpture on loan from New York's Tibet House. Decorated with criss-crossed yarns in geometric patterns, it is a modern interpretation of the traditional mandala palace. As a rule, according to Dr. Brauen, one basic form of the mandala can be understood as an architectural floorplan as well as an elevation of a palace, a home to various gods and goddesses. And as Brauen suggests, the term "mandala" can also be a visual manifestation of the entire cosmos.
"The Cosmos Offering Mandala," an 18th c bronze and gold sculpture from Northern China, and one of the highlights of the show, is in effect a miniature cosmos, crowned by Mt. Meru, the sacred center of the Buddhist universe, surrounded by dancing deities and religious artifacts. One of the most visually complicated is a 15th c Tibetan painting whose central deity is a green faced deity entwined with his dancing consort, surrounded by eight goddesses in the central disk and many more beyond that. From Mongolia, 17th or early 18th c, is a surprisingly delicate sculpture of a lotus flower with eight petals. It looks like gold but is actually a gilt copper alloy. The central figures who sit within the open petals are couple in a tender sexual embrace surrounded by five deities. When closed, the lotus leaves enfold the mandala to form a beautifully shaped globe an example of some superb engineering as well as fine craft.
All of the various deities, auspicious symbols, and celestial assemblies in this collection of rare mandalas allow the visitor to witness another culture and another way of visualizing our world. They also represent an art form that we rarely have the privilege of seeing.
"Mandala: The Perfect Circle: is on view through January 11, 2010. It is the first of three shows whose aim is to explore the different ways that the universe has been visually represented. The second in the series, "The Red Book of C. G, Jung, Creation of a New Cosmology, " is on view October 7, 2009 to January 25, 2010. The third, opening December 11, 2009 and on view through May 10, 2010 is "Visions of the Cosmos: From Milky Ocean to Black Hole.
Rubin Museum of Art, 17th Street at 7th Avenue, New York, NY
BOBBIE LEIGH has written for many national publications
including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures.
Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.