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Bríd Caitrin Arthur. Visions of Lhasa: Exploring Tibetan Monument Paintings

Sometime in the 18th century, a curious artistic genre began to appear in Tibet: these were paintings that featured not abstract and formalized Buddhist concepts but the actual, ‘real-world’ buildings and sites that are the sacred centres of Tibetan Buddhism—places such as Tibet’s famous monasteries, historic stupas, hallowed sites and, most frequently, the holy city of Lhasa (Fig. 1). These works, painted by indigenous artists in a wide variety of styles, are stunning in their map-like level of detail, and demonstrate to the viewer how the buildings and landscapes that comprised Tibet’s holy sites were seen and understood in the past. Despite their high visual appeal and potential ability to reveal much in terms of art and culture, Tibetan monument paintings have received minimal scholarly attention and have not been analysed as a group. Bringing the Lhasa monument paintings together in the present exhibition at the Rubin Museum of Art allows for comparative analysis across the entire genre, giving insight into what these works are and how they operate visually, and perhaps even shedding light on where they came from and how they were used. This article, which is based on my doctoral dissertation (Arthur, 2015), provides an introduction to the genre, highlighting its basic characteristics, its artistic programme and, briefly, its historical and cultural context. 

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