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The Courtauld | Salvage and Selvage: An Art Historian’s Misadventures Sponsoring Thangka Remounting in Western Himalayan Village Shrines

October 14, 2021 @ 12:00 pm - 2:00 pm

“Salvage and Selvage: An Art Historian’s Misadventures Sponsoring Thangka Remounting in Western Himalayan Village Shrines”
Although monastic and palace shrines have the most splendid holdings, they can also be the most complicated for an outsider like myself to study and document. Layers of bureaucracy often must be negotiated, and distrust and suspicion that the researcher is somehow financially benefiting can develop. Those in charge may even fear that publication may attract thieves. Advantage only flows to the outsider. My talk is about a different model of mutual benefit I have been fortunate to develop in conversation with long-standing contacts there. After many years of engagement with a prominent family in Zangskar, a few private individuals with surprisingly rich family shrines have appealed to me for help in understanding the date and provenance of their family treasures, and for financial aid in renovating their sanctuaries. In the summer of 2018, I completed the first of the three such projects focused on the reordering of shrines in which the paintings and sculptures range in age from the 15th to the 18th century. The sculpture tend to need nothing more than appropriate supports, and paintings were also generally in relatively good condition, but the cloth mountings and wooden hanging dowls tend to be dilapidated and place the physical integrity of the paintings at risk. I engaged a local monk who specializes in mounting paintings for some of the major monasteries in the area (and larger region) to come with me to direct the work. After consultations with local authorities, I selected cloth that seemed historically appropriate to the time of origin, rather than to contemporary tastes—this was one of the hardest parts and required acquiring samples elsewhere, sending them for approval and then arranging to transport the bulk of the cloth. Other requisites we were able to acquire in local markets. A team of us trekked to a remote village (over a 17,000 foot pass) with the supplies loaded on horses. After a prayerful deconsecration, a local friend and I worked together with the monk-specialist at the hamlet remounting the paintings. This gave me unfettered access to the fronts and backs of the paintings, which allowed us to document inscriptions and reconstitute sets of paintings that had become dissociated. With the help of other learned locals, we discovered that a few of the paintings were made by a revered, innovative, and regionally famous artist-abbot of the Dzonkhul monastery in Zangskar, an eighteenth-century artist named Zhedpa Dorje whose work I have been documenting in both Ladakh and Zangskar. The owner and his family and neighbours were delighted with the outcome, generating good will along with some art historical surprises including a group of gold- and silver-background paintings, which I will share in this talk.
Rob Linrothe is Associate Professor and former Chair of the Department of Art History at Northwestern University. Linrothe’s research is mainly based on fieldwork in Ladakh and Zangskar. He earned a Ph.D. in Art History from the University of Chicago. Linrothe’s dissertation became Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art (1999). In 2016–17 he was a Senior Fellow of the American Institute of Indian Studies doing fieldwork in eastern India on 8th to 13th century sculpture in Bihar, West Bengal and Odisha. Recent books are Seeing Into Stone: Pre-Buddhist Petroglyphs and Zangskar’s Early Inhabitants (2016) and Collecting Paradise: Buddhist Art of Kashmir and its Legacies (2015) (with contributions by Melissa Kerin and Christian Luczanits). His latest book, Reenchantment: Masterworks of Sculpture in Village Temples of Bihar and Orissa, is being released this fall.
Organised by Dr Stephen Whiteman (The Courtauld), Dr Austin Nevin (The Courtauld) and Professor Sussan Babaie (The Courtauld).
Organised in collaboration with the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation Centre for Buddhist Art and Conservation.
The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Centre for Buddhist Art and Conservation at The Courtauld was established by a generous endowment in 2012 from the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation.