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Bhutan’s Extraordinary Wall Paintings

Bhutan has paintings that are exquisite in quality and technically sophisticated, according to experts, who also said that the paintings that date back from the 16th to 19th centuries, were largely unknown and unrecorded in the west.

Specialists from the Courtauld Institute in London were given access to the rare paintings in an effort to preserve ancient wall paintings by the Department of Culture.

“The wall paintings are absolutely stunning. Some of the earlier examples, especially, are extraordinary,” Professor David Park from the Courtauld, was quoted in The Observer, a leading daily newspaper in the UK.

The Director of the Department of Culture, Dorji Tshering, said that the 3-year project, which ended in 2010, was initiated to preserve the ancient wall paintings. The experts studied what kind of material, coating and how many times they were repainted to preserve the art, according to Dorji Tshering.

The Observer reported that the experts were astonished by the unexpected rich, jewel-like quality of some of the paintings in such remote settings. One of the experts described their techniques in the west and spoke of being overawed by the miniaturist detail, achieved through a unique layering of colours and coatings.

The spectacular paintings seen by the British experts include paintings from the Dzongs and monasteries, the most important of which includes the Tamshing monastery in Bumthang.

“Its wall paintings are among the earliest in Bhutan, and are intimately associated with one of the most revered figures in Bhutanese Buddhism, the saint Pema Lingpa. The paintings can be dated precisely to his time at Tamshing, between 1501 and 1506, and they include his portrait,” according to The Observer.

Another site the experts were given access was the rich selection of paintings in the Tango monastery, dedicated to Tenzin Rabgye, whose personal chamber was painted with rich pigments and gold by the finest artists.

“Although the paintings are largely sacred in subject and are restricted to religious worship, the Bhutanese have looked to the Courtauld’s expertise to ensure the paintings’ preservation for posterity,” the experts were quoted in the newspaper. “Some of the buildings in which they have survived have been damaged over the centuries by fires and floods. In a harsh natural environment, gradual deterioration takes its toll on the susceptible materials that constitute the paintings.”

The Courtauld study will lead to an understanding of how the art deteriorates and how it can be preserved. “An alarming number of Buddhist wall paintings in India and Tibet have been irreversibly damaged by well-meaning but disastrous cleaning,” one of the researchers, Rickerby, told The Observer. “Bhutan’s isolationist past protected its cultural heritage from such dangers, but the opening up of the country means that such risks cannot now be ignored.”

Until now, no one had a clear idea of how many paintings existed, let alone their condition, date or significance Rickerby said. “Their significance and quality deserve far wider recognition.”

The research was collaboration between the Courtauld and Bhutan’s Department of Culture, through funding from an anonymous US benefactor. The last stage of fieldwork and scientific analysis has just ended.

The team will publish a report as a benchmark for future study and conservation. The department will also discuss extending the collaboration period.

Original story by KUENSEL.

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