June 5, 2018

Tibetan Wood Block Prints

        Here are two nineteenth century Tibetan Buddhist broadsides printed from wood blocks.  The first is a complex scene, and so detailed it almost looks more like an engraving.  The tiny circles in the central light beam (if light beam it is) are the sort of thing that’s particularly fiddly to carve.  According to the description, this represents a wrathful manifestation of the bodhisattva Manjusri.  I don’t know anything about the iconography of Tibetan Buddhism, so I can look at this only as an image in its own right.  There are dragons in the clouds, shooting beams from their mouths, and an elephant and a lion among the attacking hordes.  Maybe it’s because I recently reread The Lord of the Rings, but the figures in the lower right, particularly, make me think of orcs.  To me it looks as if the heads of the spears transform into flowers as they enter the aura of the bodhisattva.  I have no idea whether this is what the artist intended to depict, but I love the idea!
        The second piece is somewhat simpler in style, just outlines, and arranged in a flatter, more schematic composition.  It represents Gautama Buddha under assault by the forces of ignorance.  I totally know how he feels.  The forces of ignorance are led by the demon Mara, whom I take to be the buffalo-horned monster.  Look at all those hands hemming the Buddha in with their clutching, busy demands, and the ranks of feet, their toes lined up like shark’s teeth.  The left feet (his left) stand upon a row of birds, and the right feet on a row of something that look to me like reptilian camels, but I’m guessing perhaps nagas?  The border of dragons and clouds is quite lovely.
        Wood block printing has, of course, been used for centuries all around the world for a wide variety of purposes.  I don’t know to what extent the anonymous artists who made these images thought of their own work as Art, and to what extent they thought of it more as graphic design, or even just recopying a standard iconography.  In any case, they are new to me, and I found it interesting to see one more different style of relief block printmaking.

[Pictures: Manjughos a, Tibetan Buddhist broadside, nineteenth century;
Gautama Buddha under assault by Mara, Tibetan Buddhist broadside, nineteenth century (Images from Yale University Beinecke Library).]

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