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Androgynous Form of Shiva and Parvati
Nepal, ca. 1000

Bodhisattva Maitreya, the Future Buddha
Nepal, 9th century

Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi
Nepal, 1350-1400

Three Bodhisattvas
West Tibet, Guge, 11th century

Preaching Buddha
India, Jammu and Kashmir, 8th century

Mahasiddha Virupa
Central or West Tibet, ca. 1475

Trowo Tsochog Khagying and Khala Dugmo
Central Tibet, ca. 1300

Milarepa on Mount Kailash
Eastern Tibet (?), ca. 1500
Stairway to Heaven
by Victor M. Cassidy

Called "a stairway to heaven" by Kalidasa, the Indian poet who flourished in the 4th century AD, the Himalayas stretch for 1,800 miles from Afghanistan in the west to India's Arunachal Pradesh in the east and define the northern boundary of the Indian subcontinent. Two major religions -- Hinduism and Buddhism -- are practiced in the region Everyone reverences the spectacular Himalayas.

From April 5 to August 17, the Art Institute of Chicago is presenting "Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure," an exhibition of more than 200 works of religious art from the 5th through the 19th centuries. Included are temple sculptures of stone and wood; bronzes embellished with inlaid gemstones, gilding and paint; and a huge selection of paintings on cloth, palm leaf, paper and wood. Much of this work comes from private collections and more than half has never been seen in public before.

Pioneering Scholarship
Dr. Pratapaditya Pal, the visiting curator who organized "Himalayas" for the Art Institute, is a pioneer scholar of Himalayas art. He explains that this art was little known prior to the 1960s because few outsiders visited the inaccessible, politically unstable Himalayan region. During the 1960s and '70s, people began trekking to Nepal. Tibetans fled Communist persecution, often bringing objects from temples that the Red Guard had destroyed. Pal and other art historians have spent the past 35 years studying Himalayas art to identify the deities and events depicted, date the work, and place it in historic and religious context.

Pal states that the goal of this exhibition is "not simply to analyze iconographic content or provide religious context." This has been done elsewhere. Instead, each object "has been carefully selected principally for its esthetic excellence."

"Himalayas" is, thus, a show of artwork that was chosen for its beauty. It succeeds so completely that we do not know where to begin praising it. In every single respect -- freshness of the work, historic and religious importance, esthetic excellence, explanatory materials, the catalogue and the installation -- "Himalayas" is as good as it gets. We will not see another exhibition like this in our lifetimes and very few that we see will be so electrifying. "Himalayas" travels to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., in October for a three-month stay. Make a special trip to see it. See it more than once. Buy and read the catalogue.

"Himalayas" challenges us. The profusely detailed art can weary the eye. Narratives in the work spring from unfamiliar religious and iconographic traditions. We struggle to understand them and the nuances elude us. But as we achieve a degree of comfort with this work, we perceive the artist behind each piece, his humanity, and his religious passion. In the end, "Himalayas" is not about geography, faith or art, but the human heart.

Art of Nepal
"Himalayas" is organized along geographic lines. The first work we see comes from the Kathmandu Valley, which is the major cultural center of Nepal and the source of most Nepali art.

Androgynous Form of Shiva and Parvati (ca. 1000), a copper alloy sculpture, is an astonishing tour de force by an artist whose name we will never know. Shiva, one of the three primary deities of Hinduism, is the destroyer of the universe and time. We see him united in one body with his wife Parvati. Shiva, on the left, has a man's wider shoulder, heavier arm, smaller hips and shorter dhoti, while Parvati on the right has a different hairstyle, softer features, a breast, slimmer arms, wider hips and a longer garment. The sexual characteristics of husband and wife are perfectly defined, yet this sculpture is an entirety -- and one of the finest pieces in the show.

Bodhisattva Maitreya, the Future Buddha, a 9th-century copper alloy sculpture, is unusual because the Buddha is seated instead of standing and looking downward instead of outward. Maitreya's hands make the gesture of preaching and the robe clings to his body in orderly folds, revealing the shapes of his legs. The robe is so light and transparent that it seems almost to move. This work bespeaks profound calm.

Betty Seid, research associate in the department of Asian art, told us that priests dress metal sculptures of the Buddha and other deities in silk garments and place them in the temple. The faithful often throw offerings at the gods, spattering their costumes. At the end of the day, the priests remove the sculptures from the temple, undress and clean them, and put them away for the night. They get a fresh costume on the next day.

Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi (1350-1400), a copper sculpture with gilding and semiprecious stones, shows a Buddhist god embracing his wife as their feet trample two four-armed Hindu deities. Vajravahari throws her right leg around her husband's waist in a position from the Kama Sutra. A bone apron hangs over her buttocks.

The many images of sexual embrace in Himalayas art (something we don't see in Christian art) bespeak the spiritual importance of dissolving the male-female duality through a blissful union. According to Seid, monks viewed these works in monasteries, testing themselves as they sought to control their sexual instincts. Libidinous monks enjoyed women in the name of spiritual practice.

Jammu and Kashmir
The second part of "Himalayas" presents art from Jammu and Kashmir, the Western Himalayas and West Tibet. This work is tougher than the Nepali art, clearly conceived and organized with superb handling of detail. Three Bodhisattvas (11th century) is a triumphant brass sculpture decorated with copper, silver and gilding. Three crowned bodhisattvas, garbed in elegant dhotis that fall in rhythmic folds, stand on lotus platforms, which are supported by entangled lotus roots with tiny figures moving among them.

Beneath the lotus platforms is a tripartite base decorated with lions and celestial nymphs offering their adoration through dance. A frame surrounds the bodhisattvas. On its sides are elephants, ganders and heroes on horseback holding swords. At the top of the frame is a mask face surmounted by stylized clouds. All this rococo riot of detail is so carefully scaled and integrated that we see the bodhisattvas first and slowly discover the decorations.

Preaching Buddha (8th century), a copper alloy sculpture, communicates great calm despite its elaborate detail. The seated Buddha wears a garment that seems transparent. Its folds make rhythmic lines on his chest and limbs. He holds his hands and unnaturally long fingers in a teaching position.

The Buddha sits on a cushion decorated with two geese facing each other. A semicircular carpet fringed with bells hangs below the platform that supports this cushion. A pair of decorative lions supports the platform. Beneath the lions is a lotus and under that is a base with a rock motif. As with the bodhisattvas, the artist focuses our attention on the religious content of the piece. Later, we notice the decoration.

Central and Eastern Tibet
The largest group of objects in "Himalayas" comes from central Tibet, largely a Buddhist area with some followers of the Bon religion. Tibetan paintings (thangkas) seem more familiar to us because the Himalayan artists solved their pictorial problems in much the same way that European artists did. Paintings with scenes from a life are organized into little boxes. Some paintings present Buddha with subsidiary deities much as Western paintings show Christ or the Madonna with saints, kings, and donors. In the best Tibetan thangkas, the artist follows the iconographic rules, but may stretch them to the limit and add something personal to the work.

Madasiddha Virupa (1225-50) shows the man who founded a Buddhist meditational system. According to tradition, Virupa was drinking in a tavern, did not want to quit or pay his bill, so he reached up and stopped the sun to lengthen the afternoon. This Tibetan Falstaff leans on one elbow as his feet seem to stick out of the painting. He's half-drunk now and ready for more. His disciple is also in a party mood. Around this scene is a frame with rock-like forms, gods in lunettes, trees, deer and other animals.

Surrounding Virupa are 82 vignettes, each with one or two carefully drawn figures. We do not know exactly what is happening in each vignette, but we see men and women, alone, in pairs, and with animals talking, working and dancing. This piece, with its air of celebration, humanizes a religious figure in much the same way that the Greeks gave their gods human frailties.

Trowo Tsochog Khagying and Khala Dugmo (ca. 1300) bursts with life and humor. In the center we see Trowo Tsochog Khagying, a god in the pantheon of the Bon religion whose name means "wrathful one, supreme lord towering in the sky." His wife Khala Dugmo ("furious lady of the sky") embraces him. On all four sides of the couple are Bon divinities, human and non-human fighters, dancers, lovers, animals and more. These figures are meticulously drawn and colored and contained in squares and rectangles. A glowing red background unifies the composition.

Milarepa on Mount Kailash (ca. 1500) is one of the few paintings in "Himalayas" that represents the mountains. Milarepa (1040-1123), a singing saint, is seated with attendants before Mount Kailash in western Tibet. We see three snowy peaks with stylized foothills and stylized clouds. Beneath Milarepa is a narrative scene with men on horseback, a tiger and deer-like animals including one with two heads.

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.

VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.