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Black Hat Eccentric (Review)

Review of The Black Hat Eccentric: Artistic Visions of the Tenth Karmapa, by Karl Debreczeny

M. Maria Przyjemska
Bonn University

Karl Debreczeny; with contributions by Ian A. Alsop, David P. Jackson and Irmgard Mengele. The Black Hat Eccentric: Artistic Visions of the Tenth Karmapa. New York: Rubin Museum of Art & Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012. 320 pp., 275 color illus. $75,00 hard. ISBN 978-0-9772131-0-8. DDC: 759.9515

This ten-chapter volume was published in connection with an exhibition at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York (March 2 through July 30, 2012) curated by the main author of the book, Karl Debreczeny. However, it is much more than an exhibition catalogue; this book provides not only an outstanding selection of specimens ample enough to get acquainted with the 10th Karmapa hierarch Chöying Dorje (Chos dbyings rdo rje, 1604-1674) as an artist; it also elaborates on his tumultuous life, and as such, it is rich in historical references especially to Eastern Tibetan borderland regions.

   This long-awaited volume is one of the very few available monographs which focus on the activity of a single Tibetan artist. This is no coincidence, as the 10th Karmapa’s art is so individualistic that it offers a unique opportunity to discuss the place of the author in Tibetan art; all the more interesting in the case of this particularly eccentric artist, whose life was just as unconventional as his art.

   The first chapter by Irmgard Mengele devoted to describing Chöying Dorje’s life, basing on different autobiographical and biographical sources, is also a fairly detailed account of the Karmapa’s artistic career. What makes Mengele’s account especially fascinating is the fact that the information she selected add up to a refreshingly human presentation of the high incarnate. Unlike the baroque and hagiographic style of the typical Tibetan rnam thar, this selection of biographic events not only communicates details of the Karmapa’s private life and everyday predicaments, but even his hardships – a practice otherwise rare, notwithstanding the sinner-becomes-saint tales, since it is the adversities of an already saintly protagonist that the reader is informed about.

   Actually, already several facts of Chöying Dorje’s difficult life, as they are known today, call for a more realistic presentation. In the 10th Karmapa’s childhood, his education was withheld by a powerful local monk-ruler, who exerted control over the young incarnate in hope of financial gain. Later Chöying Dorje was separated from his guru, 6th Shamar (Zhwa dmar, 1584-1630) and had to endure the great political turmoil and war of the 1640s that he barely escaped alive. The attack of the Quoxot armies caused the Karmapa to flee into exile to the Naxi realm of Lijiang (’Jang sa tham) in the Sino-Tibetan borderlands, presently in the Yunnan province. Even if Chöying Dorje was honored there by the local ruler, he undertook a strenuous and perilous incognito journey to the northern area of Golok (mGo log) to find the next Shamar incarnation. On his return to Lijang, Chöying Dorje adapted the local customs and took up family life. All of these events present an image of an unconventional life which coined an unconventional artist.

   In Mengele’s account, especially striking are the passages that relate the Karmapa’s hardships along the way to Golok, which read more like a travelogue of an explorer journeying through uncharted territories - than the life story of a Tibetan saint. Mengele achieved this effect largely through extracting personal elements from Chöying Dorje’s autobiographic works, where he relates on his hunger, disorientation, falling prey to local robbers, pausing his journey to heal his wounded feet, etc.

   The map on pp. 30-31, even if not particularly comprehensive, does not only serve as a supplement to the biography that helps in envisioning the Karmapa’s itinerant life, but also depicts the connections between the different parts of the Tibetan cultural world and its spheres of influence like Lijiang. It is important in that it illustrates the cultural centers in the “artificially peripheral” areas of Eastern Tibet.

   However comprehensive the historical analysis of Chöying Dorje’s life story - not just in Mengele’s contribution, but also in the following chapters by Debreczeny - the circumstances of the Karmapa’s flight from Central Tibet and his return are only briefly indicated. Thus, apart from a pithy description of the crucial events in 1642, several important political issues concerning the Karmapa’s exiled existence remain unaddressed. For instance, do the sources available mention Chöying Dorje’s invitation to visit the 5th Dalai Lama at the end of the former’s life? What about the Karmapa’s position as a favorite at the Mu court in Lijiang and at the same time, the main rival in Central Tibet?

   The chapters 2-9 of The Black Hat Eccentric focus on Chöying Dorje’s artistic development and on his impact. Even if encouraged by his teacher, the incarnate began a serious study of the Menri (sMan ris) style of painting, he never stuck by any convention. The 10th Karmapa’s idiosyncratic manner developed through his exploration of Tibetan, Chinese and Kashmiri styles and according to his visionary experiences. His individualism makes him one of the most original masters known to the history of Tibetan art; albeit he is often regarded the precursor or reviver of the Gardri (sGar bris) school of painting. Debreczeny elucidates the inconsistencies in both dating the New Gardri and discusses the inadequacies of assigning Chöying Dorje to a particular style, frequent in Tibetan historiography. For Debreczeny, the Karmapa’s art ultimately escapes all conventions.

   The study of Chöying Dorje’s works opens an inevitable discussion on authorship in Tibetan art, Indeed, the groundbreaking feature of Chöying Dorje’s paintings and sculptures is that the artist is in the foreground in many ways. Adapting this personal perspective allows for a more comprehensive investigation of Chöying Dorje’s unique style, carried out by Debreczeny and his contributors with the consideration of social, historical and religious aspects. For instance, Debreczeny does not miss the political background of the Karmapa’s art; he argues that the artist’s stylistic radicalism may have also been a way to oppose the prevalent style of his era, the Menri school, the official painting style of the Central Tibetan regime, which greatly persecuted Chöying Dorje’s religious tradition as well as himself personally. Debreczeny moreover explains the Karmapa’s individual artistic idiom, which contained many rural and idyllic elements and developed by way of imitating and romanticizing past styles, as a tactic of removal from the difficult life situation of the artist.

   The first chapters of the volume contain a few minor errors (factual, bibliographic and translation problems), which are unavoidable in a work of this length; therefore, they will not be enumerated here.

   The work introduces several topics worthy of further investigation, for instance the oral histories of the famous black hat of the Karmapas pertaining to the time of Chöying Dorje, passed on in the Lijiang local tradition. What is more, since this local revival reveals traits known from other samples of the contemporary Buddhist revival in Eastern Tibet as a consciously constructed phenomenon, it might also be of interest to future scholars to investigate the dynamics of continuity and innovation on the ground in more depth.

   Among the final chapters of The Black Hat Eccentric are contributions by Alsop and Jackson, which constitute a dialogue with earlier writings on the 10th Karmapa’s sculptures. Alsop proposes the attribution of authorship of statues previously understood as anonymous Yarlung art to Chöying Dorje; Jackson comments on how translation problems that arise when studying the Karmapa’s art may obscure the understanding of its historical, technological, doctrinal and stylistic aspects.

   The Black Hat Eccentric mirrors the richness of the 10th Karmapa’s groundbreaking art and of his unusual life. As such, it is a valuable publication not only for the scholars of Tibetan art, but also for historians and for those devoted to the study of Tibetan religions in their historical context.

Citation: M. Maria Przyjemska. Review of Debreczeny, Karl, Ian A. Alsop, David Paul Jackson, and Irmgard Mengele. The Black Hat Eccentric: Artistic Visions of the Tenth Karmapa. Indologica, Rezensionen. Oktober, 2012.

Bildquelle: University of Washington Press

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Black Hat Eccentric (Review) von M. Maria Przyjemska steht unter einer Creative Commons Namensnennung - Nicht-kommerziell - Weitergabe unter gleichen Bedingungen 3.0 Unported Lizenz.