Himalayan Art Resources (HAR) is the world’s largest educational resource for Himalayan art and iconography. Existing entirely as an online collection, HAR has catalogued and uploaded over 60,000 images in the 15 years since the organization was started. Founded in 1997 by Donald and Shelley Rubin, who were looking for a way to display their private collection of Himalayan art in order to ensure that their pieces wouldn’t languish forgotten in the basement of some art museum HAR has grown from 625 pieces to tens of thousands, and today has partnerships with over 100 institutions, museums, and art foundations.
The director and chief curator of HAR is Himalayan art scholar Jeff Watt, the founding curator of the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City and a longtime Tibetan Buddhist practitioner. (Tricycle online readers might recognize Watt as the author of our weekly blog feature “Himalayan Buddhist Art 101.”) The sheer number of images that HAR has been able to locate, identify, and put online with extensive accompanying information—a feat possible solely because the technological advancements of the last 20 years—has put HAR in a unique position to revolutionize the way that the world views, studies, and understands Himalayan art.
—Emma Varvaloucas, Associate Editor
Himalayan Art Resources (HAR) isn’t merely an online museum or collection of Himalayan art. What are you? HAR is a service organization. Our mission is not only to record all of the Tibetan and Himalayan style art that we can find—everything that’s in museums and private collections around the world—but also to make it available for educational purposes: for art history, the general study of art, and for religious studies.
Another one of our missions is to raise up the Himalayan style of art to the world stage. Greek, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Roman, Mayan, Aztec, Indian, Korean, Japanese—these are all considered to be great world art cultures. But people have not discussed Himalayan art in the same way. For Tibetan art especially, since 1959 it’s been treated as handicraft, because it’s all based on politics and the refugee culture—if you have a handicraft society, you can reach out and get funding from foreign countries. There’s been a downplaying of art in favor of political concerns, which is, I think, actually a disservice to those cultures. Along with that, there’s a serious problem with the attitudes of a lot of Buddhist teachers from the region, because they’re focused on the religion more than the art. If you ask any kind of question about art, it’s diverted to iconography and religion, and then to “It’s all emptiness, it’s all impermanent. It doesn’t matter.” When in fact it does matter.
We’re also like a clearinghouse for Buddhist iconography around the world, for knowing what the proper iconography is and for identifying the iconography accurately. Iconography, in fact, has always been my biggest issue, because in many museums and art catalogues, much of it is identified incorrectly. Even if you bring iconography to a lama from a certain tradition and show them a deity from another tradition, they won’t necessarily know what’s going on.
One of the greatest advantages of HAR is that since the collection is virtual, it’s also unlimited. So you can look at the art on a massive scale and much more easily understand its context, or learn things about Himalayan culture by identifying trends across the art. Yes. Without the Internet, HAR can’t exist in that way—you would be left with nothing but card catalogues. With those, there’s no access to all the other images that are in museums and collections around the world. Without digital photography, too, we wouldn’t be able to add so many new collections and numbers of images to the HAR site each year.
Besides the Internet and digital photography, what other technology is going on behind the scenes that helps HAR accomplish what it does? One of the best back-end functionalities on the HAR site is the ability to put painting sets back together. Half or more of all Himalayan art is made in sets of paintings. So maybe you have, from one set, a couple of paintings in Europe, one or two you found in Asia, one on the East Coast, one on the West Coast, one in the Met [New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art], and one in the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art. The thing about sets is that most of the paintings, except for the central one, don’t have any of the sanctification and dedicatory verses written on the back. Without the main piece, you don’t know who the donor was, who the artist was, where it was made, or what the reason for the creation of the set was. So unless we know that a painting is from a set, we don’t know what we’re looking at for a lot of Himalayan art—and this leads to a lot of misinformation. But on the HAR site, any image immediately lets the viewer know when it is part of a set, so that the viewer can understand the piece in its greater context. We’re digitally putting the sets back together.
You mentioned that there’s a lot of misinformation about Himalayan art and that even the lamas don’t know how to identify iconography accurately. It sounds like there’s just not a whole lot known about Himalayan art in general, even within Himalayan Buddhist circles! One of the big problems in this field of Himalayan-style art is that it’s so new. Nobody yet has come up with acceptable terminology for Himalayan painting styles that account for different compositional types, regions, colors, and tastes, or can trace individual artists and their students. The Tibetans have their own terms, but they tend to keep it very simple, and definitions are not clearly given. And if you go to one side of Tibet, they’ll use the same term as the other side of Tibet to mean two opposite things. So the field is still in its infancy with regard to explaining the art and making it understandable to people who are unfamiliar with it. It’s difficult, because we have to come up with new terminology and new ways to look at it that actually make sense. HAR is a frontier organization in that way, because it’s not like we can follow the models of other websites and what other people have done. When people say to us, “How come you haven’t done this yet?” we have to say, “Well, it’s because nobody has done it yet!”
HAR is changing the way we study and understand Himalayan art. Is it affecting how we look at Himalayan religion as well—Tibetan Buddhism, for example? If you look at the common way that Tibetan Buddhism is presented, it is that there have been four schools from the beginning, the Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, and Gelug, and they’re all equal. But the art will tell you a different, more nuanced story. Some of the earliest paintings in Tibet are Kadampa. We can actually trace the development of schools—their popularity, their donors—throughout history by looking at the art that was commissioned. But this can only be done if you have a lot of art to look at.
Looking at the art can also make us rethink the religious oral tradition. For instance, there’s a particular hat that the Sakyas often wear, now called the Sakya hat. It’s a basic pandita hat—either pointed or slightly rounded, with long lappets [decorative flaps]. Except, with the Sakya hat, the lappets are folded over the top. The story is that Chögyal Pagpa started this trend in the 13th century. When he was doing rituals or giving teachings, the lappets would flop around and get in the way of him turning pages or using the vajra and bell. It is said that he told his servant to deal with this, and he just put them over the top and pinned them. It’s fine to have that as the oral history within the tradition. But if you look at the art, there’s not one image of the Sakya hat prior to the 17th century—the oral history doesn’t match the visual record of the culture. So you have to wonder.
You make HAR sound like Himalayan art detectives, putting clues together to solve a mystery. We’re doing that constantly, constantly. And it’s not possible without the Internet. It’s just not possible.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.