(ECNS) -- Thangka, once called “Oriental Oil Painting” in the West, has been passed down on Tibet’s snowy plateau for more than 1,000 years. This art form, focuses on drawing scenes within square inches. Thangka is very close to Western oil painting in its processes, with its artistic forms and techniques influenced not only by Indian and Nepalese painting styles, but also deeply by Tang Dynasty painting styles and landscape painting in the Central Plains. Liu Yang, an associate professor in Tibet University’s College of Art, recently gave China News Service’s East-West Quest an exclusive interview.
China News Service: Why is thangka, which is full of mystery, widely sought-after by collectors?
Liu: Thangka is mysterious because people don’t know enough about it. It is divided into hand-painted and non-hand-painted. Hand-painted thangka is actually a scroll painting with agate, coral, cinnabar and other natural precious minerals as pigments, painted on cloth curtains and framed with colored satin. The theme is mainly religion, involving history, politics, economy, culture, folklore, secular life and other fields, and thus thangka is called the “encyclopedia of Tibetan Culture.”
Traditional thangka integrates all of Tibetan culture, including history, landscape, culture, Tibetan medicine, astronomy, the calendar, etc. As a concrete embodiment of traditional skillful craftsmanship [technology], it has high artistic appreciation value and collection value.
After thangka was selected for on China’s National Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2006, it was more sought-after by amateurs in China and abroad. In 2014, Liu Yiqian, a Chinese collector, bought an embroidered thangka of the Emperor Yongle in the Ming Dynasty for HKD 348 million [$44.3 million], a record for the auction amount of thangka so far, making this art form quickly become the focus of attention.
Thangka painting, one of the most distinctive types of Chinese painting, is also one of the most important and distinctive painting forms in Tibet. Today, people can see many thangka cultural relics with a history of thousands of years in the Potala Palace, the Tibet Museum or temples with their colors still bright and dazzling.
Why does thangka not fade easily? Thangka has a unique side in paintings all over the world: it is made from gold, silver and other precious stones, all of which come from natural plants and minerals. In addition, the painter’s color-matching ratio, coloring techniques and other techniques make its pigments very firm, and they don’t fall off easily. In addition, the preservation method is also very important. People in Tibet think that offering thangka is very sacred, and they are very careful in keeping it. The scroll is easy to carry, which is very suitable for people in Tibet, who lived a nomadic life in ancient times. It is taken out and displayed on the special occasions only.
CNS: Westerners once called thangka “Oriental Oil Painting.” What is the difference between its artistic expression and oil painting?
Liu: Thangka’s form of expression and painting process are very close to oil painting. For example, before thangka painting, it is necessary to stretch, glue and polish the canvas. When making drafts, it is necessary to use charcoal strips or pencils to outline lines on canvas and color the back. Hence, some Westerners who had just come into contact with thangka called thangka “Oriental Oil Painting.”
Thangka has different aesthetic characteristics from traditional Chinese painting and oil painting, with not only basic aesthetics of image modeling, but also symbolism and aestheticism.
It is well known that Anduo Qiangba, a famous Tibetan thangka painter in Tibet in the 20th century, was the first chairman of the Artists Association of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Adhering to the thick, fine and gorgeous style of thangka art in Tibet and drawing lessons from the essence of Western school of realistic painting, he created a unique Tibetan traditional realistic painting, ushering in a new chapter in the innovation and development of Tibetan traditional painting.
He often painted goddesses, most often Green Tara. The goddess image he created not only shows the artistic characteristics of the Western Renaissance but also integrates the understanding. Anduo believed that to develop Tibetan painting art, it is necessary to break through the limitations of traditional Buddha painting. Otherwise, it can only stand still. He boldly reformed the proportion and expression methods of Sakyamuni and Tara depicted in his works, making the statues and expressions of Buddha and Tara more natural and in line with modern aesthetic taste.
CNS: How does thangka witness the history of Sino-Tibetan exchanges? How do its painting elements interact with traditional Chinese painting to form its own characteristics?
Liu: In the history of Chinese civilization, all ethnic groups have made common progress and development through exchanges, communication and blending. The inheritance and development of thangka have absorbed the essence of all ethnic cultures.
In terms of artistic form, thangka skills are influenced by Tang Dynasty painting style. The green landscape style of the Central Plains is continuously integrated into thangka paintings. Later, thangka also absorbed many rules and techniques of mainland landscape painting and traditional Chinese realistic painting. For example, the clouds in the sky embrace; the rocks on the ground rise and fall; the Bodhisattva in heaven sit on floating clouds, and the characters on the earth walk in the green landscape, thus making the overall layout lively and layered. “Goddess,” a thangka scroll painting from the 14th century, is the earliest existing painting created by using Chinese landscape painting techniques in an all-around way. Among them, turquoise rocks, stylized clouds and dense leaves are obviously inspired by Chinese style, with the spatial composition level being very coherent.
Inland culture and Tibetan culture are mutually integrated. As early as the Tubo Dynasty, Confucius’s fame spread far and wide to Tibet, along with the cultural exchanges between the Tang Dynasty and the Tubo Dynasty, and was recognized by Tibetan people. In thangka’s “God Becomes Confucius Wang (A Child with Extraordinary Power)” in the Qing Dynasty, Confucius, as a moral sage of Confucianism, was transformed by Tibetan people into a tribute Jeb [King in Tibet] of “saint, divinity and king.” In Tibetan Buddhism, Jeb is regarded as a disciple or incarnation of Manjusri. Although the two images are different physically, the image of Confucius is identified and transformed based on the needs of the cultural tradition of the Tibetan nation and their imagination.
This also shows the influence of Central Plains culture on thangka content in history. As a Tibetan encyclopedia, thangka records and spreads through its drawings. It is a witness to the cultural exchange and integration between China and Tibet. From the perspective of the historical process, Tibetan culture has been an inseparable and important part of Chinese culture since ancient times. Especially before it was influenced by Buddhism, Tibetan culture was compatible with Central Plains culture in many fields.
Among them, there are many biographies related to Songtsen Gampo, and the Biography of Songtsen Gampo, which exists in the Potala Palace, depicts in detail the story of Songtsen Gampo proposing to Princess Wencheng and building Jokhang Temple. After the temple’s completion, Songtsen Gampo and Princess Wencheng personally planted willow trees outside the temple gate; that is the famous “Willow of the Tang Dynasty.” Tibetan people love this willow tree very much, regarding it as a token of the closeness of Tibetan and Chinese people, and deify it. It is said that the tree was born from the hair of the statue of Sakyamuni, which Princess Wencheng brought to Tubo. This thangka clearly records “The Willow of the Tang Dynasty” and “Tang-Tibetan Alliance Tablet,” which is also a witness to the friendly exchanges between China and Tibet.
CNS: Now thangka painting has entered the classroom and has a complete inheritance system. In the process of inheritance and innovation, what other modern expressions are there in thangka?
Liu: The inheritance of traditional Tibetan thangka art is basically a family and master-apprentice pattern, which has lasted for thousands of years. Since the end of last century, thangka art education has officially entered the classrooms of colleges and universities in Tibet, merging with the modern education mode. Tibet University was the first university in China to offer a thangka major, and its training level for students has gradually transitioned from junior college and undergraduate to postgraduate and doctoral students.
Nowadays, thangka art instruction has also been introduced into middle-school art classes, which is a brand-new attempt and pioneering undertaking. It can enable students to encounter and understand traditional Tibetan art as soon as possible and broaden the thinking of artistic creation, thus playing a positive role in improving students’ comprehensive artistic ability.
The integration of cultures has brought innovation and development. Innovating thangka is a challenge to every artist. Through bold imagination and a free combination of thangka elements, the new life and customs in Tibet are expressed by using various expressive skills of thangka painting and highly generalized artistic techniques, thus forming a unique artistic style in which truth, beauty and goodness are ubiquitous, which we call “new thangka.”
The “new thangka” is traditional and modern, instructive for the present and the future. Combining art education with folk art and seeking the integration of folk art, contemporary art and real life is an important way to promote the development of thangka education. Today, people should inherit the cultural heritage left by their ancestors more actively, with a broader mind and diversified ideas.
Telling the Tibetan story to the world in modern language shows cross-cultural significance. Under the concept of great art, passing down the spirit of thangka art, keeping pace with the times, changing the concepts and methods of art education, focusing on communication and discussion, and actively carrying out educational innovation can lay the foundation for thangka art to rise to the peak of the world art.
By ZHAO Yan
(Translated by CHEN Long)