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The world’s largest museum of surviving Tibetan painting goes online

Shelley and Donald Rubin’s website invites contributions from museums, collectors, and scholars

Tibet’s rich cultural heritage of Buddhist paintings and sculpture has been at risk since Mao Zedong’s tanks invaded the Himalayan kingdom in 1951 and his troops launched a systematic attack on Tibetan religion, art and language. The Cultural Revolution of 1966 renewed Chinese attempts to stamp out Tibetan culture. Today only a handful of Buddhist monasteries in Tibet preserve their painted icons, or thangkas, which portray in rich hues, complex compositions and elaborate iconography the teachings inherent in Buddhist texts. More thangkas survive in Western collections. They were smuggled out of Tibet by local art dealers who bought them from monks with the explicit permission of Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Now Shelley and Donald Rubin, through their eponymous foundation, have created a virtual museum of Tibetan art at www.tibetart.com in an attempt to pool together all the Tibetan art that survives in the West. It includes over 1,000 thangkas drawn from their own collection and from a dozen other private and museum collections.

Speaking to The Art Newspaper Mr Rubin said, “The site is a way of saving as much of Tibetan art and culture as we possibly can. We want to make it available free of charge to anybody who is interested in seeing it.”

The Rubins themselves collect thangkas with a view to assembling a great range of iconography. Each thangka represents a Buddhist ritual practice within a particular lineage of the four main schools of Buddhism. Some represent practices that still exist, handed down from teacher to teacher; for some practices no initiated teacher survives, so the icons are a valuable record of Buddhist teaching.

At www.tibetart.com, paintings can be found by searching by date, central figure, lineage or affiliation. The central figure in each thangka is identified with an iconographic description. Tibetan art scholars around the world have been given passwords to access the website and add to these descriptions. A section of the website provides temporary exhibitions. At the time of going to press these were: Nepalese paintings; Bonpo paintings (a particular Buddhist sect); photographs of ancient Tibet; and recent photos of Tibet.

Mr Rubin’s goal is eventually to make the website as inclusive as possible: “We’ll put the images—painting for now, and eventually sculpture—of any willing collector or museum online. Most museums show less than 1% of their collection. There is a little museum in Erie, Pennsylvania that has ninety Tibetan paintings and we are giving them a small grant to have them photographed. None of them are currently on display. They were donated by a couple of local collectors, and the museum does not know what to do with them, so we are putting them on the site.”

The Rubins also have plans to establish, by 2002, a permanent institution in New York City devoted to exhibiting and conserving Himalayan art, specifically the art of Tibet.

The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, is displaying sixty paintings from the Rubin collection until 26 March and 200 paintings from their Foundation are included in Worlds of transformation: Tibetan art of wisdom and compassion, by Marilyn Rhie of Smith College and Robert Thurman of Columbia University (Tibet House).

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The world’s largest museum of Tibetan painting'