Block Museum shines spotlight on Kashmir art in new exhibit

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For the Sun-Times

When Lisa Corrin took over as director of Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art in February 2012, one of the proposals on the table concerned a small study show focused on the little-known art of Kashmir.

Corrin was so taken with the idea that she decided to considerably enlarge the scope of the undertaking, turning it into not the biggest but what she is calling the most ambitious exhibition in the museum’s history.

‘COLLECTING PARADISE: BUDDHIST ART OF KASHMIR AND ITS LEGACIES’ When: Jan. 13-April 19 Where: Northwestern University, Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston Admission: Free Info: (847) 491-4000;

“It really resonated for me,” she said. “I felt it was really, really important that we expand the exhibition and do the ideas justice by being more ambitious in our thinking.”

Titled “Collecting Paradise: Buddhist Art of Kashmir and Its Legacies,” the show contains 44 paintings, manuscripts and sculptures in ivory, metal and wood from the 7th to 17th centuries. The objects are on loan from major Asian collections, including those at such institutions as the Cleveland Museum of Art, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., and Asia Society in New York City.

In addition, it is the first Block exhibition to tour in eight years. The show is traveling to the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, an institution focused on the art of the Himalayas that provided significant loans to the offering and shared some of the costs.

“When the scholarship is landmark,” Corrin said, “and there’s a sense that a greater number of people should be exposed to the material, we make every effort to come up with the resources and form the partnerships that will enable us to do that.”

Kashmir is best known today as a northwestern region of South Asia that roughly straddles the borders of India and Pakistan. The two countries have long disputed the territorial boundaries, and often violent clashes break out between them, including recent fighting that forced thousands to flee their homes.

Until the mid-19th century, Kashmir referred to the valley between the Himalayan and Pir Panjal mountain ranges. It was once a powerful autonomous Hindu and Buddhist region, especially in the 8th and 9th centuries, when it exerted significant religious and cultural influence on Central Asia, especially the nearby Western Himalayas.

When Kashmir came under Muslim rule in the 14th century, much of the region’s Buddhist art and even some of its artists were transferred to the Western Himalayas, which continued to emulate and build on Kashmiri artistic styles for several subsequent centuries.

One facet of this exhibition is to simply showcase the complementary Buddhist objects from these two regions, which are sometimes included in larger exhibitions of Asian art but rarely are spotlighted on their own.

“The objects, I have to say, are just dynamite pieces,” said Robert Linrothe, an associate professor of art history at Northwestern University. “They sustain any kind of looking, whether it’s aesthetic, religious or historical. They’re really quite impressive objects.”

Linrothe, who is serving as the curator for this exhibition, has made more than 20 trips to the Western Himalayas and is one of the world’s leading experts on the Buddhist art of this area.

In addition, he wants in this show and a subsidiary one, “Collecting Culture: Himalaya through the Lens,” to tell a larger story of collecting: Both how pilgrims and others from the Western Himalayas collected and preserved the art of Kashmir but also a second, more pernicious tale of how Western collectors subsequently acquired the art.

“So, the title of the exhibition, ‘Collecting Paradise,’ is in a double sense,” Linrothe said.

According to him, Western collectors sometimes bullied and corrupted monks in the Western Himalayas into selling – often at night – what for Buddhists are consecrated objects, and many of these pieces later found their way into museum collections.

“I’m certainly not saying that any of these have been stolen,” Linrothe said, “This is not a sensationalist kind of [assertion that] ‘These should be returned’ or anything like that. It’s just that they [these acquisitions] are kind of slippery, and they’re the kind of thing that is generally not looked at in the light of day.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.

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