'A deep spirituality and subtlety' inhabit Sri Lankan art, exhibit curator says

Courtesy of Cantor Arts Center Buddha

A seated Buddha from the Divided Kingdoms period (bronze, 14th-16th century) is on view through June 12 as part of the exhibit “Guardian of the Flame: The Art of Sri Lanka” at the Cantor Center for Visual Arts.

Photo courtesy of Cantor Arts Center Standing buddha

A standing Buddha from the Kandyan period (gilt bronze, 18th century) is on view through June 12 as part of the exhibit “Guardian of the Flame: The Art of Sri Lanka” at the Cantor Center for Visual Arts.

Two decades ago, John Listopad, curator for Asian art at the Cantor Arts Center, spent several months traveling and doing fieldwork in Sri Lanka, in search of influences on the development of Thai art, his specialty. Listopad left the island with a stock of adventure stories (he once was charged by an elephant while taking a shortcut through a rubber plantation on his motorcycle) and an enduring interest in Sri Lanka's Buddhist art.

The art has "has solemnity, a deep spirituality and subtlety—and humor," said the curator, who wrote essays for the catalog that accompanies the newly opened exhibit, Guardian of the Flame: The Art of Sri Lanka, on display at the Cantor Arts Center through June 12. The exhibit, which contains dozens of Buddha images dating from the 5th to 6th centuries through the 19th century and examples of reliquaries spanning 10 centuries, was organized by the Phoenix Museum of Art. The exhibit also contains rare palm-leaf manuscripts and manuscript covers from a private collection and is the first major exhibition in the United States to present the entire history of Sri Lankan art.

Included among the stone and bronze Buddha images are—as Listopad describes them in the understated manner of art curators—"a number of extremely fine" pieces, like a 2-foot-tall solid-bronze Buddha from the 18th-century highlands kingdom of Kandy and a 15th-century Buddha so exquisitely wrought it is almost certain to have been commissioned by royalty.

Virtually every Sri Lankan Buddhist household has an altar in front of a small statue of the Buddha, which serves not as a deity but as a reminder of his teachings, Listopad said. The size and quality of many of the Buddha images in the exhibit indicate that they were owned by "nobles of the court, large landowners or other people of substance," he said.

The tightly edited exhibit portrays art from four periods in Sri Lankan history and traces the effect that history and culture has had on artistic representation. Also included are interpretative labels that unlock the images' iconography—Sri Lankan artists followed detailed texts describing precisely every part of a Buddha image, including its physical proportions, garments, postures and gestures. (The "flame" in the exhibition's title refers to the siraspata, the "Flame of Enlightenment" arising from the top of the heads of Sri Lankan standing Buddha images.)

Although the art in the exhibit is aesthetically fine, "its richness revolves around the way it reveals the cross-cultural interplay over time," Listopad said. Images of the Hindu god Ganesh and Brahmanic deities show the influence of India and other South Asian countries on Sri Lankan culture and art. Visitors who devote some time to the exhibit will be able to "appreciate the changes in how religious expression is presented and the degree of cross-cultural exchange," he said.

On March 2, monks from Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma conducted a ceremonial blessing of the exhibit, which is being promoted in conjunction with the Sri Lankan Embassy. The monks chanted to "make Buddhist merit" for those who died in the tsunami last December, Listopad said.

Listopad will present a lecture about Sri Lankan art and the exhibit in the Cantor Center Auditorium at 1 p.m. on March 13. Exhibit information is available online at http://ccva.stanford.edu or by calling 723-4177.