More on Bangladesh and the Mus ée Guimet

John C. Huntington huntington.2 at OSU.EDU
Mon Feb 11 17:36:26 UTC 2008

Dear list members,

I received the Guimet catalog on Masterpieces of the art of  
Bangladesh a week ago and spent some considerable time with it this  
past weekend. For interested colleagues on the list, I provide a  
brief review and, frankly, an appreciation of the catalog which fills  
a nagging gap in modern literature on Eastern Indic /Banglasdeshi art.
Chefs-d'oeuvre du delta du gange" collections des musées du Bangladesh
Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des Musés nationaux, et Musée Guimet,  
n.d. [2008]

Available at:

There is much to be said  the organizers of the exhibition and for  
the catalog and its authors.

Simply stated, it is a beautiful catalogue of a masterfully conceived  
exhibition of some of the most beautiful art in the world. Also, from  
a production standpoint, it is yet another high quality product of  
Éditions de la Réunion des Musés nationaux, who produce some of the  
most uniformly satisfying and beautiful catalogs anywhere in the world

The sections of it are:

Le pays
Les religions
Le patrimione
Catalogue (the main body of the works of art)

The first five sections, "Le pays" through "Le patrimonie,"  make an  
excellent introduction at a popular level to Bangladesh and its  
history with one unfortunate but understandable omission. Tantric  
Buddhism, which was very widespread and accounted for vast amounts of  
the Buddhist art surviving in Bangladesh is reduced to a partial  
paragraph (p 61) with a trivial introduction.

As for the rest of the catalog, I have only one criticism and that is  
probably my own idiosyncratic view—the catalog is primarily  
descriptive and appreciative with little in the way of technical or  
religious analysis. However, the authors of the Hindu entries are  
better at the latter. Probably because I have a very different  
approach to information dissemination in catalogues, I find the  
approach to the entries in the catalogue text rather mundane for me,  
but quite satisfactory at a "popular level" which is after all the  
point of a major national museum holding an exhibition. Thus, my  
scholarly disappointment at what the entries could have been can, and  
probably should, be dismissed.

More importantly, several works of art are new to the scholarly world  
at large and their presentation in the catalog is of critical  
interest. Of particular importance is the over life size bronze image  
of Vajrasattva from Mainamati. It is one of the very few large scale  
metal Pala period images know to have survived, the Sultanganj Buddha  
in the Birmingham Museum being the only other "intact" one that I am  
aware of. Yet these large scale metal images are well known to have  
existed (e.g., the Rajatarangini of Kalhana tells of Lalitaditya raja  
returning from the Eastern Indian raids with tons of copper and a  
large metal image of Buddha tied to the tusks of his elephant. The  
metal was then cast into a Brihad copper image for his caitya which  
we have calculated as possibly about 80 feet tall). to find an image  
of the scale of the Vajrasattva is a major view into the art forms of  
the day and, I suspect, an important comment on the rich economic  
patronage of the Tantric Buddhists in the Bengal region.

Beyond the several previously unpublished objects, the major  
scholarly value of the catalog resides in the absolutely glorious  
photographs by Thierry Ollivier. He was responsible for the imaging  
of the objects in the catalog proper, and each one is a true  
masterpiece of the art of object photography. With very few  
exceptions, I have seen and attempted to photograph virtually all of  
the objects in the exhibition so I can speak first hand to the  
difficulties involved. Ollivier has faced and overcome all of them  
and has set the standard for all such photographs in the future!

Yet the exhibition was not to be! I share the great regret that must  
be felt by the authors and participants in preparing the catalog must  
feel. Yet as my friend and colleague in the Circle of Bliss  
exhibition, Dr Stephen Markel, Curator of South Asian Art at the Los  
Angeles County Museum of Art, once advised: "Exhibitions come and go— 
the catalog of the exhibition is the lasting monument!"

John C. Huntington

John C. Huntington, Professor
(Buddhist Art and Methodologies)
Department of the History of Art
The Ohio State University
Columbus, OH, U.S.A.

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