STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
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Art Museum visitors can now discover a new appreciation for India, Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia and Iran/Persia.
Closed to the public for nearly two years, the 7,000-square-foot, second-floor South Asian Art Galleries have undergone their first comprehensive renovation in 40 years, according to Timothy Rub, the George D. Widener director and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Major updates include new lighting, flooring (oak and terrazzo instead of painted cement), central vistas, digital interactive kiosks and videos — one of the most notable is “Disruption as Rapture,” a site-specific video animation by Pakistani-born artist Shahzia Sikander inspired by the museum’s rare 18th century Sufi manuscript “Gulshan-i-Ishq (Rose Garden of Love).”
Also, windows have been covered to allow light-sensitive works, such as textiles and paintings on paper, to be interspersed with sculptures, offering fresh perspectives on more than 2,000 years of artistic expression, faith and culture of a large cross-section of South Asia.
New information is revealed about the collection’s centerpiece, the south Indian Pillared Temple Hall from the city of Madurai. A part of the Art Museum’s collection since the museum was located at Fairmount Park’s Memorial Hall, scholars had been stumped as to where the Temple Hall, which dates to about 1560, could have stood in Madurai. Curatorial research debunked the 1940s theory that it came from deep within a temple complex. As a new video shows, it was actually an exterior celebratory space in front of the central Krishna-Vishnu temple in the compound of Madana Gopala Swamy.
So how did these huge granite carvings come to the Philadelphia Museum of Art? Adeline Pepper Gibson, a member of a wealthy Philadelphia family that served as a nurse during World War I, found them among piles of rubble and purchased them from temple authorities in 1912. The family gave them to the museum after Gibson’s death in 1919, and according to the museum, it’s the only pre-modern Indian temple architecture outside of South Asia.
“She would be extremely thrilled to see this exhibition,” commented Susan Pepper Treadway, the director of the Henry Foundation for Botanical Research in Gladwyne, whose aunt was related to Gibson.
The newly reinstalled South Asian Art Galleries are organized by themes. Some explore broad, universal themes in South Asian art, while others focus on a single concept or create an immersive environment. There are around 180 total works on view, some for the first time, including architectural elements, miniature paintings, ceramics and archival photography.
“Ninety percent of what you’re seeing is a part of another object in some way,” said Darielle Mason, the museum’s Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art. Here’s a sample:
Spiritual Paths in Himalayan Art
This slice of Nepal, Tibet and Mongolia includes an elaborate altar — composed of 76 pieces — that was originally built into the wall of a Tibetan home; a 14-foot-long Nepalese scroll featuring details of a pilgrimage through the Kathmandu valley; a monumental gilded sculpture from Mongolia of a Buddhist goddess; and a grinning, masklike face of the god Bhairava that spurted sanctified beer during festivals to bless the people of Kathmandu.
Art and the Divine
An examination of how artists represented themes of worship, nature, reincarnation and enlightenment, especially in works made for the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain faiths. Stone sculptures representing deities and teachers are interspersed with small metal images, watercolor paintings and textiles glittering with gold details.
Artistic Traditions across Southeast Asia
Filled with stone and bronze sculptures, textiles and ceramics from Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia, this room illustrates the breadth of Southeast Asia’s artistic traditions from the 700s to the 1900s. Among the Buddhist and Hindu deities occupying the space is an eighth century Thai sculpture of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
Art, Power and Status
Textiles, paintings and carvings made for kings, courtiers and others with wealth and influence, offering examples of the role art historically played in the politics and economics of South Asia.
Tying it together is a photographic mural reproducing a nearly complete wall of one of the temples at Khajuraho in northern India. Through mounted small sculptures on the wall, the gallery demonstrates how ornamental pieces might have looked when attached to Hindu and Jain monuments for which they were originally made.
According to Mason, the Art Museum’s complete South Asian art collection has grown to nearly 5,000 objects — 10 times what it was in the 1870s. The plan, according to a press release, is to rotate light-sensitive and smaller works between every few months and once a year. Larger works will remain in place longer, but their presentation will change by switching the smaller pieces nearby, mixing in contemporary works and new commissions.
Something else that’s new is the museum’s entire South Asian collection can be viewed online. Enhanced features allow you to browse by subject, or filter by date, medium, geography and classification.