The fabled Himalayan country of Tibet, isolated for centuries from foreign influence, has long fascinated the world outside its seemingly impenetrable borders. In the early part of this century, a small number of adventurous Westerners--explorers, naturalists, mountain climbers, geologists, linguists, and diplomats--ventured over the immense Himalayas and photographed the little-known land whose Tantric Buddhist way of life remained unchanged from the Middle Ages until the Chinese conquest of 1959. This exhibition of some 180 photographs, most of which have never before been on public view, give a rare glimpse of the dramatic landscape of Tibet, the massive forts and monasteries that dominate its towns, its varied peoples, and the Buddhist rituals which form the basis of their spiritual life. While foreigners were generally free to travel through Tibet, the treacherous journey discouraged all but the very determined. Alexandra Davie-Néel, a French philosopher who became a practicing Buddhist, entered Tibet in 1914 and remained ten years, assimilating into the culture to a remarkable degree. She was accepted as a student in its most prestigious monasteries and became the first Western woman to enter and photograph the holy city of Lhasa. Charles Suydam Cutting, an explorer and naturalist, successfully petitioned the Dalai Lama and became the first American to enter Lhasa, in 1933. Austrian Heinrich Harrer was granted political asylum during the Second World War and became the Dalai Lama's official photographer of festivities. The explorers whose cameras recorded the breathtaking mountains and fertile valleys include Sven Anders Hedin, one of the most renowned explorers of central Asia and a highly regarded artist. The Museum was particularly fortunate to secure the loan of photographs by Sonam Wangfel Laden-La, a deeply religious Tibetan who served as a lay official for the Dalai Lama. Throughout his career, while acting as a liaison between his government and that of British India, he photographed and filmed ceremonial occasions, important customs, and the people of his native land. These rare, vintage photographs and silver prints of the sacred realm, on loan from major museums, archives, and private collections throughout the world, are exemplary of photography as a fine art. The photographs are supplemented by a group of tankas (religious paintings mounted on brocade), sculptures, and ritual objects from the Museum's collection. The exhibition was organized by Michael E. Hoffman, Advisor to the Stieglitz Center, with Martha Chahroudi, Assistant Curator. The fully illustrated catalogue which accompanies the exhibition contains a lyrical account of the traditional Tibetan way of life by Lobsang Lhalungpa, a former monk official, with a preface by the Dalai Lama. Martha Chahroudi has contributed biographies of the photographers. The catalogue is published in association with the Philadelphia Museum of Art by Aperture, Inc.
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Houston
Asia Society Galleries, New York