At the Rubin Museum, East Meets West in the Land of Death

In pairing fairly emblematic works from two distinct systems of faith, the curator of ‘Death Is Not The End’ seeks to ‘highlight a universal common ground’ around what comes after life.

Via the Rubin Museum of Art; photo by David De Armas
‘A Table Decorated With Dancing Skeletons,’ Tibet, 18th century. Via the Rubin Museum of Art; photo by David De Armas

God, we have been told, is in the details, but isn’t the same true of his nemesis? A cursory internet search shows that the modernist architect Mies Van Der Rohe is attributed as the primary source for both versions of the truism. Don’t forget, too, that a former House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, ever the political animal, cited both the satanic and the heavenly as being ingrained within the finer points of legislation. The otherworldly has its hands in everything.

At the preview for “Death Is Not The End,” a recently opened exhibition at the Rubin Museum of Art, the museum’s senior curator of Himalayan art, Elena Pakhoutova, repeatedly insisted that the pieces warranted “looking carefully” as they contain “wonderful details.” Wonderful for whom, I wondered? The folks undergoing unspeakable deprivations toward the bottom right of “The Last Judgment,” a 16th-century oil-on-panel by a follower of Heironyous Bosch, surely would beg to differ.

What, you might ask, is a follower of Bosch doing in a museum dedicated to Himalayan art? He’s not the only Western interloper at the Rubin. There’s Michelangelo — or, anyway, an engraving by Martino Rota of the Sistine Chapel’s altar wall — as well as the eponymous Maestro Geometrico, the Flemish sculptor Pietro Francavilla, and an anonymous North European painter whose canvas “A Woman Divided into Two, Representing Life and Death” makes swift work of the title dichotomy.

The European pieces are juxtaposed, with no small sense of measure or consequence, with paintings, sculptures, and decorative objects from Tibetan Buddhist culture. The aforementioned “The Last Judgment”? It’s paired with “Peaceful and Wrathful Deities of the Bardo Tibet” (18th-19th century), the handiwork of an anonymous but hugely inventive artisan. Notwithstanding stylistic conventions that render its myriad figures cartoonish, at least to contemporary eyes, the painting contains scenes grisly enough to have given the heebie-jeebies not only to that Bosch follower, but to Bosch himself.

In pairing fairly emblematic works from two distinct systems of faith, Ms. Pakhoutova seeks to “highlight a universal common ground … around the sometimes challenging or uncomfortable topic of what comes after life.” Forget, for a moment, the encroachment of our mortality and the myriad issues attendant to it. Consider, instead, the kindness at the center of the curator’s intent. Is it just me, or is there something distinctly holistic — dare one say, Buddhist — about such a tack?

Dismiss humanist nostrums as old school blather if you’d like, but context counts for something. In a culture as fractured and fractious as our own, an avowal of understanding is rare and to be commended. Too many members of our curatorial classes are telling us that art is something to be ashamed of, that it offers a subterfuge for our failings rather than an embodiment of our aspirations. Indulging nihilism is easy; reaching out, hard. “Death Is Not The End” is, in a roundabout way, a vote for optimism.

Which isn’t to say that Old Nick or his equivalent isn’t a concern. Under a section of the exhibition titled “Fear of Death,” you’ll find a diminutive sculpture, made primarily from wood, titled “Yama Dharmaraja” (circa 19th century). The size of the piece belies its ferocity. A deity of variegated nature and purpose, Yama Dharmaraja is, in this instance, up to no good. Festooned with human skulls, human heads, and snakes, he is depicted trampling on a woman all the while gesturing in an operatic manner. Did I mention that his backside is in front?

Pace Ms. Pakhoutova, the details of “Yama Dharmaraja” are wonderful, the piece having been choreographed with a dramatic sense of counterpoint and contoured with impressive facility. Pace Ms. Pelosi, any object that makes deviltry this fetching has been touched by more benign powers. The rest of “Death Is Not The End” is peppered with similar riches, being a remarkably expansive exhibition in which even the smallest moments reverberate with wit, gravity, and purpose.

The New York Sun

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