Divine Demons: Wrathful Deities of Buddhist Art

Review

of an Exhibition

by Maraya Cornell

Published on July 12, 2010, Modified on November 19, 2010

  • Description:

    My friend Emily and I caught the exhibition “Divine Demons: Wrathful Deities of Buddhist Art” at the Norton Simon on a Saturday, just before it closed. For its dramatic title and its prominence on the Museum’s website, the exhibition of paintings and objects from Tibet was startlingly small and nondescript, all of it contained in an alcove-like room off the entrance to the Asian collections on the museum’s lower level.

    The paintings and objects in the exhibition were marvelous: magical, intricate, and steeped in symbolism. The labels told you a little bit of the stories behind them: that the dagger was actually modeled after a tent peg, that the squashed figures getting trampled by demons represented ignorance. The introductory text suggested that wrathful deities were appropriate for the harsh climate and hardscrabble life of a high mountain environment. But the way the pieces were displayed didn’t evoke a sense of magic or meaning. It felt like they were stuck in that alcove for convenience rather than placed there thoughtfully.

    I was excited about seeing this exhibit, and I would have liked to see some enthusiasm reflected in the way the objects were displayed. Perhaps if the room had some sort of entryway, something you had to step through, it would have felt like a differentiated place, and its smallness wouldn’t have mattered. Perhaps there could have been some contextual photographs, like the ones art museums seem to be using more often to show you where a statue or chunk of architectural detail might have originally been housed. Or maybe simply spacing the objects further apart would have done it.

    We saw another exhibition at the Norton Simon the same day: “Hiroshige: Visions of Japan.” Although the design for that exhibition is simple, there is a definite intention there that acknowledges the significance of the art — an intention that seemed to be lacking from the exhibition that drew me to the Norton Simon in the first place.

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