Pursuit of art in the Tibetan tradition has been the occupation of a lifetime for the British painter Robert Beer, writes Sajid Rizvi.
In this conversation first published in 1991, Robert Beer spoke to Sajid Rizvi, Publisher and Editor in Chief of Eastern Art Report, about his work and experiences. (Reproduced from Eastern Art Report print edition Vol III No. 1). Edited excerpts:
Sajid Rizvi. You’ve been painting for more than 20 years; how has your art evolved in this period?
Robert Beer. I was painting before I went to India in 1970. Already, at that time, I was interested in symbolic and religious paintings.
SR. In the western tradition?
RB. Yes, mainly from the Grail romances. I was inspired by the English writing. From that developed an interest in Indian and Buddhist art, and then Tibetan art.
SR. You haven’t gone back to the European tradition?
RB. No, not at all.
SR. Do you have any of your early paintings?
RB. No, they were all destroyed while I was away and the family had a big cleanout of the house. That I lost them was good anyway, because I would have done it myself!
SR. You don’t miss any?
RB. No, but I have a few half-completed drawings which show the level of my work in that period.
SR. How did you start painting in the Tibetan tradition?
RB. While I was in India, I studied and lived in Dharamsala with the great painter, Jampa-La, who eventually trained a few other westerners. I was one of his earliest western pupils, and the only one who has continued his work.
SR. Did he follow the style that you now have–in particular the precise drawings on which your thang-ka paintings are based?
RB. He didn’t, but then he was so overworked. He always seemed in a hurry to get things
Gomchen Oleshey in 1978 photo | Sajid Rizvi in conversation with Robert Beer
Gomchen Oleshey in a 1978 photo. Photo courtesy of Robert Beer
done very quickly. I started the iconographical work a few years later, when I met the Sherpa master painter, Gomchen Oleshey. He worked specifically in proportion, and from his actual drawings I made copies. Thereonward I became very serious about iconography.
SR. How is the Tibetan iconographical tradition different from the iconography of European or other eastern traditions–for instance, Russian, Byzantine, Coptic, etc.
RB. Their iconographical structures are far simpler. They only use certain classes of measures, whereas the Tibetan tradition uses a whole scale based on a cycle of twelve.
SR. Why a cycle of twelve? What’s the philosophy behind it?
RB. The 12 units are actually finger measures, the finger being the unit of measure. There are 12 units in the face–four from the base of the chin to the base of the nose, four from the base of the nose to between the eyebrows, and four from between the eyebrows to the hairline. Plus, astrologically, there are 12 suns in every year. The tallest group of figures is the Buddha, which measures 125 fingers. Then there are the Bodhisattvas, the major gods who measure 120, and the goddesses who measure 108; then the tall wrathful figures who measure 96, the humans who measure 84, and the small wrathful figures who are 72; other deities measure 60, and dwarf deities 48. So you have this whole scale, whereas in the western tradition, Leonardo da Vinci used one system of measure, 96 finger measures for a human representation, which came from the Greek tradition via Vitruvius.
SR. Do you feel that you have absorbed the Tibetan tradition?
RB. I feel that I am absorbing it, but it is such an enormous field. I’m only now beginning to become fluid. It was a struggle before, because I wanted to be more self-expressive. Now the desire for self-expression has become very quiet, and I find the finest fulfilment in my art as I practice it now.
SR. In the process have you also moved from one style to another?
RB. I notice a great change in my style, but I don’t think it is noticed by other people. The mind hasn’t changed, the precision hasn’t flagged, but the fluidity of the line has taken on more grace.
SR. Have you had a chance to visit Tibet?
RB. Yes, I went to Tibet three years ago.
SR. What was it like–being there after so many years of having embraced the art of Tibet?
RB. I was struck by how much wasn’t there. You travel through endless open land and it’s only when you stop that the local people point out where there used to be a mo nastery or a temple. So, it was very sad in that respect.
SR. Are any people in Tibet able to practice their arts and crafts?
RB. Yes, a few, including artists who returned from India during the relative openness of the early 1980s. You’d often find a very old painter with a few very young pupils–very similar to what you see in the monasteries. It’s as if a generation has gone missing. In the main cities, including the capital Lhasa, some art tradition has been preserved, but in other parts of Tibet much more has been destroyed.
SR. People outside Tibet may not understand what purpose does religious Tibetan art created abroad serve in the Tibetan society?
RB. The religious art falls into different groups. In my drawings, for example, the deities themselves are actual forms of meditational practice, and they are used for self-identification with one’s own Buddha nature.
SR. Do people who are attracted to your art eventually get drawn towards other aspects of Tibetan life, even Buddhism? Does your art or other Tibetan art inspire them to explore further?
RB. The art certainly does. I myself was attracted by the art; I identified far more with the art than with the religion originally. People are attracted as much by the colourfulness of Tibetan art as by the Buddhist philosophy, or by contact with lamas. They find that lamas have qualities which are rare nowadays.
SR. Your art has literally transformed your life, has it not?
RB. It helps to know what one can do anyway. My work has given me an endless insight. I am filled with a tremendous inspiration. It is a common assumption that Tibetan art is limited because it is repetitive, whereas the western tradition is self-expressive. But in my drawing and painting I find endless freedom.
SR. When do you decide a work remains a drawing and does not become a painting?
RB. Most of my work has been done for publishers, so to a large extent it’s conditioned by requests. Now I feel that the proper thing for me is to carry on with my work on iconography, because that is the strongest thing I can do.
SR. Do you find that the appreciation of Tibetan art still is confined to a specialised circle?
RB. It’s beginning to appeal to a wider circle. In the 1960s Tibetan art was popular because it was so colourful and so bizarre, though very few people had a real understanding of its symbolism. Now there is a more sophisticated understanding in evidence, especially amongst western Buddhists.
SR. Do you feel that Tibetan art has a future outside Tibet and that it can eventually influence the fate of Tibet?
RB. Oh, definitely, yes.
SR. In what way?
RB. An increasing number of people, in particular westerners, is interested in following this art form. I know of at least a dozen western practitioners of Tibetan art, whereas 10 years ago there were just one or two. Tibetan art has a great international reach, a symbolic richness which no other art tradition preserves. Every single detail on a deity has a symbolic meaning–even the bracelet, the earrings, the little scarves on the feet have their significance, and the tradition has been preserved. Tibetan texts containing this knowledge are being translated into English. It really is the most profound form of sacred art that I’ve come across. It’s been of great benefit to psychotherapists and to psychologists. Buddhism, the driving force behind this art, has been seen as a parallel to western psychology, but the two are quite different.
SR. So, eventually, this could affect the sacred art of other disciplines?
RB. Certainly, yes.
SR. Because if a work of art is so pregnant with meaning then it’s bound to inspire artists of other disciplines who want to reach similar depths in their own work?
RB. Right. There are a few painters of Russian icons that I know in Britain. Russian iconography involves a study similar to that for Tibetan art, but the two differ in terms of the religious background. Russian iconography is not so accessible yet as Tibetan art. It doesn’t have the popular deities, it has the popular saints.
SR. And Tibetan art is more structured, more profound and perhaps far reaching?
RB. Somewhat far reaching, because it’s a product of 1200 years’ work in Tibet and, previous to that, the tradition kept alive in India.
SR. Do you see yourself going on painting, or aiming in a different direction?
RB. I see myself carrying on and doing my work on iconography till I feel that it is fulfilled.
SR. How much more can you refine you work? Where can you go from here?
RB. The refining is a feeling that the image takes on more life. Whereas my early work was more like a cartoon, now it has a living quality. Looking at one of my paintings gives me a sense of extreme peace. Does that make sense?
SR. Yes, it does, I’m just considering the implications for the uninitiated. A lay viewer of your art, unfamiliar with its symbolism, may wonder why you have images in which–I’m putting it in crude terms–bigger people seem to be trampling on smaller people. What is the significance, and how is that supposed to evoke a feeling of peace?
RB. When you see a large deity trampling on a smaller deity, which are actually Hindu deities, you initially get the idea that the Hindu tradition is being crushed underfoot. But the large deity signifies a state of pure bliss, the union of compassion and wisdom.
SR. There is no hint of anguish or pain?
RB. Oh, there can be, in certain cases, because of the wrathful forms of some deities.
SR. Is it possible then to find peace in that kind of situation, where wrathful deities are seen to be exercising power over minor ones. How do you resolve that?
RB. You resolve that by an act of compassion. A wrathful activity is sometimes necessary and based on compassion. It may be necessary to communicate through wrath rather than through gentleness, like Jesus in the Temple.
SR. How should the lay viewer see the images of sexual union–often quite erotic–in the context of sacred religious art?
RB. The male deity personifies appearance and compassion and the female personifies wisdom. The penis, which is a form, disappearing into the vagina, which is the emptiness of wisdom, combines compassion and wisdom, which produces the state of bliss. The sexual union of deities, who are seen as being no more than 15 or 16 years old (and, presumably, in their first act of consummation) signifies the bliss that can only be compared in human terms to the bliss of nuptial union.
SR. It is a metaphor?
RB. It is a metaphor for an inner development. There are many sexual metaphors in Tantra and these have been very misinterpreted.
SR. Tantric art has come up in the West in recent years, influencing contemporary art in significant ways. Several western artists are now well into Tantric painting. Does that reflect the true Tantric tradition?
RB. No, in most cases it doesn’t.
SR. What is missing?
RB. Tantric art is still seen as their art rather than our art. There is not the spiritual understanding that accompanies the imagery. This is perhaps more true of Hindu Tantra, but similar misconceptions exist in western attitudes towards Buddhist art.
SR. Is it a kind of orientalist voyeurism, where one visits the margins of different traditions and soaks up the iconography without actually understanding it?
RB. It is to a large extent. I’ve been sent several texts recently on sexual Tantra, which I think are complete rubbish, so I’ve sent them back to the writer.
SR. Is this proliferation of modern Tantric art due to its popular appeal, and its sexual connotations?
RB. A certain popular appeal–and because people who know a little bit about the subject mix up various things.
SR. A Kama Sutra syndrome?
RB. Yes, where you get a hodgepodge of metaphysical ideas.
SR. How can that be countered? Some publishers, art agents and other commercial people seem to be exploiting a public fascination with the subject. Where are the people sincerely interested in righting those wrongs?
RB. The teachers are the only ones who can help. In the Tibetan tradition, the more teachers one sees the better informed one becomes. One finds that things aren’t what they originally appear to be. When western people teach after returning from the East, it’s endlessly fascinating. But when you see somebody who embodies those qualities, you can actually feel the results. Every visit that the Dalai Lama makes has that impact. In terms of his efforts for world peace, the common denominator in all religions, he’s very much involved in interface gatherings. It’s a very simple message that he presents and yet one becomes aware of his profound knowledge, which he doesn’t exhibit. The attitude is the important thing in Tibetan art. I realise, looking back at the three main teachers I had, that it’s not so much what they taught me technically, it’s who they were as people and how great their patience and devotion to the tradition was that come across as supremely important. And that is the dilemma for western artists. You asked me earlier if I had taught anybody. I did teach a few people several years ago. My feeling was that they just wanted to learn the tricks, the techniques of creating wonderful works of art very quickly. To me, the actual process of painting is secondary to the experience of painting–of learning to develop mental equilibrium while working. Years ago, when I started to paint I got into all kinds of mental states. I’d get quite angry, or obsessive about various things. Now I find the actual act of painting gives the mind complete freedom to explore. It’s very akin to a meditative state. I don’t say that it’s a meditative process, rather it’s the state of contemplation, of ease, usually. Each of the teachers I have had embodied this to a far greater extent than I can ever hope to attain. My last teacher, the Eighth Khamtrul Rinpoche, was a great master in all aspects of Tibetan art. He was a dance master, a poet, a painter and an architect who designed temples. In his previous incarnations, too, he was a great artist. I spent a year working for him, painting little images for the monastery. That work had no financial reward and the images disappeared: they were used for initiations. But that was an example of the development of the attitude. In Tibetan art the artist is anonymous, in western art the artist’s name is more important than the actuality of the painting.
SR. This is very true of other ancient eastern art as well. In much of Islamic art, for example, the artist is anonymous.
RB. There is an edition of Ferdowsi’s Shahnama brought out by the Boston University, Massachusetts, with a beautiful series of paintings. One of those, by a painter called Sultan Mohammed, took three years to execute. When the other painters saw the painting, it is said, they had to bow their heads in shame. If it wasn’t for this reported event Sultan Mohammed would still be an unknown painter. Because the incident is cited in a story, we know of Sultan Mohammed but not of the other master painters.
SR. What about yourself? You are a painter of remarkable substance and accomplishment, not at all unknown to those who matter, and you seem to live with great ease in a twilight of two great cultures, those of the East and the West. What would be your preference? Would you rather be anonymous than famous?
RB. I’d like to be anonymous and contented. I’m much more into the work than the name itself.
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