Sort：Folk Fine Arts
Area：Sichuan Province; Tibet Autonomous Region
Thangka, seen in every monastery and family shrine in Tibetan areas in Southwest China"s Sichuan Province and Tibet Autonomous Region, is actually a kind of Tibetan scroll-banner painting and is a unique art form of Tibetan culture.
Thangka has been in vogue in Tibet for centuries. In Tibetan, thang means "unfolding" or "displaying," and thangka means "silk, satin, or cloth painting scroll." It is most often painted on scrolls or embroidered on wall hangings of silk or other cloth. Common at monasteries, lamas" residences, family halls for worshipping Buddha, and homes of Tibetan Buddhists, thangka is a mark of devotion toBuddhismand often serves as an object of worship.
Nobody knows where or when thangka originated, but compared with Tibetan painting, the history of thangka can be traced back to as early as the Tubo period (or rather the Songtsen Gampo period, around the 7th century), in a combination of Chinesescroll painting, Nepal painting, and Kashmir painting.
In the 7th century, Songtsen Gampo united the whole of Tibet, hence beginning a new period in Tibetan history. Later Songtsen Gampo married Nepalese Princess Chizun andTang Dynasty(618-907) Princess Wencheng, further strengthening the political, economic, and cultural connections between the Tibetan and the Han ethnic groups.
The two princesses came to Tibet with many Buddhist scriptures, architectural technology, laws and truths, medical scriptures, and many skilled artisans, greatly stimulating the development of Tibetan society, and especially flourishing the culture of Tibetan Buddhism. At that time, frescoes alone could not satisfy the need of those disciples. So another kind of art, Thangka -- easy to carry, hang, and collect --, appeared and became popular.
During the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), the Central Government adopted the system of approving Tibetan chieftains to strengthen control over Tibet. These methods contributed to the development of Tibetan society. The Ming and Qing dynasties saw a great progress in the development of thangka. In fact, most of the existing thangka were made during this period of thangka development, which had three characteristics: a larger number of thangka; the rise of different schools; and the existence of many painting organizations.
The content of thangka covers various subjects such as historical events, biographies, religious doctrines, Tibetan natural conditions and social customs, folklore, myths, and images of great deities and Buddhas.
The content also encompasses Jataka stories of the Buddha, and so on, involving politics, economy, history, religion, literature and art, social life, Tibetan astrology, pharmacology, theology, and many other aspects.
The structure of Tibetan thangka is precise, balanced, thick, and flexible. The painting methods are mainly bright color and line drawing.
Thangka always has a Buddhist theme, and the artists must follow the sacred laws for portraying gods and Buddhas. Passages from scriptures are written in vermilion on the back, and thangkas are always unsigned, so it is next to impossible to know the artist or age of ancient thangkas.
Thangkas are usually placed upright and are rectangular in shape. There are a few that deal with mandala (an imaginary place for gaining wisdom ) which are square. Cotton canvas and linen cloths are common fabrics on which pictures are painted with mineral and organic pigments (important thangkas use ground gold and gemstones as pigments). A typical thangka has a printed or embroidered picture mounted on a piece of colorful silk. A wooden stick is attached on the side from the bottom to the top to make it easier to hang and roll up.
To paint a thangka, an artist usually begins by stretching a piece of cotton cloth on a wooden frame along its sides. Then, a certain type of gesso (plaster) is spread over both the front and back of the canvas to block the holes and then scraped off to produce smooth surfaces.
Afterwards, some orienting lines are drawn to guide the sketching. By following a fixed proportion, the artist creates some roughly drawn images. The featured deity or saint occupies the center while other attendant deities or monks, comparatively smaller in size, surround the central figure and along the border.
Next is coloring. Painters apply pigments on the sketch, with black, green, red, yellow, and white as the basic colors used. All the colors are mixed with animal glue and ox bile to keep them bright. Shading is then done to produce better pictorial effects.
In the final stage, facial features and eyes are completed, but only after a ritual is held on a fixed day. After the artist finishes the details, the canvas is removed from the frame and mounted on a piece of brocaded silk. The wooden sticks are attached to the top and bottom of the silk. After a dust cover of gossamer silk is attached, the thangka is ready to be hung up.
Thangkas can be made using a wide variety of techniques: silk tapestry with cut designs, color printing, embroidery, brocade, appliqué, and pearl inlay. Therefore, there are various styles.
The common size of thangkas, with a scroll at the bottom, is usually 75 centimeters long and 50 centimeters wide. There is also the banner style, measuring is 1.1 meters long and about 3.5 meters wide.