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Curator Conversation: Tantra in Buddhist Art

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Curator Conversation: Tantra in Buddhist Art

The Eastern religious practice of Tantra emphasizing ritual, meditation, and visualization is the subject of the second exhibition in the museum’s new Focus Gallery. Tantra in Buddhist Art features twenty works of art that illustrate the spiritual practices of Tantra in the Buddhist context and document its spread across Asia from the seventh to 17th centuries. Inspiration for this exhibition began with a magnificent piece from a bequest to the museum. Hevajra (c. 1200) was part of a gift from John and Maxeen Flower and is the defining piece of Tantra in Buddhist Art. We spoke with Sonya Rhie Quintanilla, the George P. Bickford Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art, about how she built the exhibition around Hevajra and the history of Tantric Buddhism. 

In 2011, the Cleveland Museum of Art received a bequest of eighteen prime objects of Indian and Southeast Asian art from the estate of John Flower, President emeritus of Cleveland State University, and his wife, artist and collector Maxeen Stone Flower. Their gift included many stunning works of art that spanned centuries, regions and types of art. Quintanilla chose to focus on one signature piece from the Flower bequest because of its pristine condition, rarity and relevance to the history of Tantra. In this exhibition, she seeks to educate visitors on the tenets of Tantric Buddhism and its spread across Southeast Asia through these select works of Tantric art.

Hevajra “is really an extraordinary work,” says Quintanilla. “It is a signature piece of tantric art from Cambodia. There are very few of these that survive and those that do survive are in very bad condition.” Tantric Buddhism is a private, devotional practice and many of its religious pieces were small and easily melted down for their bronze. Hevajra, however, is in such rare, good condition, scholars needed to be absolutely sure that it was authentic. The piece’s perfection caused some scholars to question its authenticity. How could all of the implements still be intact? Furthermore, the surface corrosion is abnormal. “We had to do a lot of research and testing on it until we finally learned that it was buried in northern Thailand, in a clay pot that had filled with water, which had kept it protected.” Quintanilla says. “Metallurgical analysis and special pre-dose thermoluminescence testing have corroborated the art historian’s stylistic hunches and have proven beyond doubt that it was made around 1200 A.D.”

Tantra refers to a system of esoteric techniques used for attaining enlightenment more quickly than can be accomplished within conventional social or religious structures. Through intense training and skill in yoga, visualization and tantric rituals, followers can accelerate their path to enlightenment. Tantric practices are based on the idea that visualization is a powerful way to control the mind—the goal is to remove the obstacles that get in the way of achieving enlightenment, such as anger, jealousy, or fear.

Tantra in Buddhist ArtThe exhibition’s signature bronze sculpture depicts the enlightened being Hevajra—or a Tantric form of a Buddha. Hevajra is one of number of enlightened beings in Tantra who appeared to select yogis in visions and explained the practices needed to achieve enlightenment in one lifetime. Those yogis recorded what they learned in texts called tantras and passed down the teachings to disciples. “It is very important to have clear lineages for tantric practices that extend back directly to one yogi who had the vision from an enlightened being” notes Quintanilla.

With Hevajra as a starting object, Dr. Quintanilla chose the surrounding pieces according to the chronology and geography of the development of tantric Buddhism. The pieces illustrate Tantra’s spread from India to Cambodia, through Southeast Asia and up through Nepal, Tibet, China, and Japan.

Some of the most important surviving works in the history of tantric Buddhist art are in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art and are highlighted in this innovative focus exhibition. Tantra in Buddhist Art is on view through Sunday, September 15, 2013.

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