“Tibet, The Sacred Realm: Photographs 1880–1950”

Rice Museum

This impressive photographic exhibition was directed by Michael E. Hoffman and coordinated by Martha Chahroudi for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it first opened. I saw it beautifully installed here; it will open at the Asia Society in New York on March 1. It is a major exhibition in several ways: as ethnological documentation of a high culture, with roots in antiquity, which, eerily, ended in our own time; as material providing insight into the history of religion, laying bare its processes of diffusion, selection, and recombination; as exquisite pure photography of landscape, portrait, and street.

The cultural situation that the exhibition both arises from and participates in is complex. In the early centuries A.D., Tibet was a primitive culture in the arc of nomadic herding cultures extending from Africa to Siberia, and had closest affinities with Central Asian groups. Yet, possibly under Han Chinese influence, it showed signs of becoming what might be termed a primitive high culture, more comparable to the Maya, for example, than to the Plains Indians of North America. Then, in the 7th century, Songtsan Gampo, an ambitious tribal chief, unified the various tribal units by conquest and established a single law for them all; seeking to replace tribal loyalties with national ones, he introduced a new religion to replace the various tribal forms of North and Central Asian shamanism then in place. Unlike the uncontrollably independent and pluralistic shamanic activity, the new religion would be one with the emerging state. Buddhist teachers were invited from India to Tibet, and a remarkable fusion of cultural elements took place. Lamaism, the new, Tibetan form of Buddhism, preserved but redefined the form and style of shamanism. The result—plainly seen in the photographs—is a semiotic marvel, like a griffin or a chimera but on the stage of history rather than imagination. A theocracy, like ancient Egypt or Sumer, Tibet under Lamaism developed a hieratic ceremonial aspect comparable to the pomp and splendor of Roman Catholicism or of the religion of Montezuma. In effect, three levels of cultural elements were fused into a living unity.

These photographs, collected from many institutional archives, represent a fourth level of cultural semiotics—etic, or extratribal, observation by diplomats, explorers, and scientists, mostly British, who imposed varying projections on the material. The famous Western Buddhist Alexandra David-Néel lived in Tibet from 1914 to 1924, mostly in Lamaist monasteries; inspired by religious practice, her photographs are usually hieratically frontal portraits which confer dignity and express reverence. Her Lama subjects are not seen as ordinary people but as instantiations of a timeless dharma. The explorer prince Henri d’Orléans, who passed through Tibet in 1890, left a very different view of his Tibetan subject matter; usually oblique, alive, nonfrontal, barely posed, his photographs express the movement and vulnerability of the moment. Leslie Weir, a lieutenant colonel in the British Indian Army, went to Lhasa on government business in 1930 and 1932. His revealingly critical portrait of the 13th Dalai Lama, his action study of the famous monks’ debates, his classical architectural studies of the Potala palace—these are among the sharpest and most penetrating works in the exhibition. John Claude White, a British engineer, spent 21 years in the Himalayas on various administrative assignments, and his landscape photographs preserve the uncanny vastness and otherness of Tibet’s snow-swept immensities. Sir George Taylor, a botanist, did research on Tibetan plant life in 1938; his landscapes, exquisite in the number and gradation of grays, present human activity in a setting of the natural sublime. A delicate hugeness flows silently through these spaces. The hieratic architecture of Tibet is sparingly but beautifully preserved in the exhibition; few buildings have been better served by photography than the Potala palace in the intense portraits by David-Néel, Weir, and White. Overall, the through-the-keyhole insights that these and other photographers provide into the religious, social, and personal life of pre-conquest Tibet are priceless.

In 1950 China annexed Tibet, and in 1959 most of the Lamas became refugees after fomenting an unsuccessful revolt. Of perhaps 200,000 Lamas in Tibet before 1950, about a thousand remain there. Some of the refugees, of course, have come our way, and this is the fifth level of the event: old Tibet coming to land in the New World. The purveyors of Tibetan dharma claim not to be surprised at this; an old Tibetan prophecy, they say, declares, “When the iron bird flies in the sky, the dharma will move to the West.” The dharma brings with it a myth of preconquest Tibet as a kind of golden-age society, and there is little critical photography in this show, little that seeks to get beneath the ceremonial facade and the landscape roundabout. The exhibition, and probably the photographers themselves, have contributed to maintaining an essentially mythic and pious view of Tibetan culture. Though social critics must be skeptical, wondering whose benefit such a myth serves, this exhibition will satisfy the believers.

Thomas McEvilley