Pictorial Relationships in Tibetan Thangka Painting and Furniture, Part II: Animals

Ahmanson Building, Level 4
June 1, 2013–May 4, 2014

This special installation is the second part of a twofold presentation examining the conceptual and compositional variances between the subjects of Tibetan thangkas and the paintings that adorn Tibetan furniture. The elaborate and often esoteric imagery of Tibetan thangkas, manuscript illustrations, and murals is generally paralleled in the painted decoration on the exterior of Tibetan furniture, especially trunks and cabinets. However, the furniture has an expanded repertoire of subject matter that is crucial to understanding the totality and range of dramatic expression in Tibetan art. 

In formal Tibetan Buddhist painting, deities and important religious teachers are the primary subjects; various animals, flowers, and auspicious symbols are depicted as minor elements of the larger composition. Some have religious or cultural significance, like the snow lion, often depicted as a vehicle for the transportation of a deity, a throne support for an enlightened being, or a playful companion. Other animals are imbued with symbolic meaning, such as dragons, symbolizing the possession of mystical treasures, or tigers, emblematic of advanced spiritual powers. 

With furniture, though, Tibetan artists were much freer to express their individual creativity. They would often enlarge, enliven, and combine subsidiary elements, such as animals and flowers, to serve as the primary subject, or to create protective designs on certain types of cabinets used in religious ceremonies.

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Image: Unknown, Trunk with Tiger (Detail), 19th–20th century, Wood with mineral pigments; brass fittings, 36 x 54 x 20 in. (91.44 x 137.16 x 50.8 cm), Gift of the 2010 Collectors Committee, M.2010.82.1.