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This winter the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University is putting under the microscope the question “What is the impact when one culture acquires the sacred objects of another?” with the exhibition “Collecting Paradise: Buddhist Art of Kashmir and Its Legacies.”

Free and open to the public from Jan. 13 through April 12, this Main Gallery exhibition takes a penetrating look at how Buddhist art from Kashmir and the Western Himalayas has traveled across centuries and borders – first within the region and later to the U.S. and Europe – raising questions about cultural impact
and the varying motivations behind modes of collecting.

“Collecting Paradise” features Buddhist objects, including manuscripts, paintings and sculptures in ivory, metal and wood, dating from the 7th to 17th centuries. With 44 objects, the exhibition presents an original and innovative look at art from the region of Kashmir and the Western Himalayas, as well as how it has been “collected” over time.

The exhibition was curated by a leading scholar in the field, Robert Linrothe, associate professor of art history in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, with the support of Christian Luczanits, the David L. Snellgrove senior lecturer in Tibetan and Buddhist Art at The School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

“‘Collecting Paradise’ is the most ambitious exhibition in the Block’s history, and we are very grateful to the National Endowment for the Arts for recognizing its significance,” said Lisa Corrin, director of the Block Museum.

A companion exhibition, “Collecting Culture: Himalaya through the Lens,” in the Alsdorf Gallery, further examines the impact of centuries of collecting in the region.

Co-curated by Kathleen Bickford Berzock, the Block’s associate director of curatorial affairs, and Dr. Linrothe, “Collecting Culture” looks critically at U.S. and European engagement in the Himalayas beginning in the mid-19th century through lenses such as photography, cartography, natural science and ethnography. It reflects on the ways Westerners have perceived, defined and acquired the Himalayas, raising questions about what is gained and what is lost when objects are removed from their intended cultural context.

“Collecting Culture” presents the expeditions of four individuals from the late 1920s through the 1940s – Italian scholar Giuseppe Tucci; American zoologist Walter Koelz, who worked with Thakur Rup Chand, his Indian partner and guide; and Northwestern University professor William McGovern.

“With these exhibitions, we are raising questions that a university museum is uniquely capable of addressing – specifically, the complex issues surrounding the origins of an object and how its meaning can shift with context. Through a dynamic schedule of free public programs this winter, we will present audiences with unique opportunities to consider and examine these questions,” Ms. Corrin said.

“Collecting Paradise” brings together works from The Art Institute of Chicago, the Asia Society (New York City), the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Kansas City, MO), the Rubin Museum of Art (New York City), the St. Louis Art Museum, the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropological Archaeology, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and four private collections.

After its premiere at the Block, “Collecting Paradise” will travel to the Rubin Museum of Art, the foremost museum of Himalayan art in the U.S.

The Intricate History of Art and Culture in Kashmir and the Western Himalayas

From the 7th to 11th centuries, Kashmir – a lush valley connected to the Silk Road – was a wealthy center of transcultural trade, culture and religion. Beginning in the 10th century, Buddhists in the Western Himalayas traveled to Kashmir to acquire, preserve and emulate its sophisticated art.

Kashmiri artists also accepted invitations to travel to the Western Himalayas during this period to work with and teach local artists. The distinctive workmanship of the “Kashmiri style” became integrated into the identity of Tibetan Buddhism in this period and experi-enced a revival in the Western Himalayas in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Centuries later, beginning in the 1900s, artworks from Kashmir and the Western Himalayas became prized acquisitions for collections in the U.S. and Europe. Western explorers, scholars and travelers removed these works – often surreptitiously – from their places of origin. Today many of these works remain in public and private collections.