Nothing is left to chance or improvisation in Tibetan thangkas.
As they are used for meditation, every detail in thangka paintings holds symbolism and is designed according to a rigorous code preserved for centuries at Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, according to collector Francois Alberola.
For the monks who paint them, he said, to improvise would be to deviate from the spiritual exercise that painting thangkas is meant to be.
Thangkas, such as those exhibited at Chinese House in Phnom Penh through Feb 14, are hangings wherein heavy fabric serves as a frame for Buddhist paintings done on canvas. Considered a sacred art, the thangka tradition goes back 13 centuries in Tibet.
The works on exhibit were ac-quired by Alberola in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala—the center of the Tibetan community in exile since China took over Tibet 50 years ago. Produced over the past three decades, the paintings came from several Tibetan monasteries, including the Namgyal monastery, the home of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, he said.
A French psychologist and psychoanalyst who worked on the Cote d’Azur in the south of France for 25 years, Alberola retired in Cambodia in 2000 and now teaches psychology and French literature at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
He has also opened Galerie Gan-esha in Siem Reap town where he exhibits works from young Cam-bodian, Balinese and other South-east Asian artists, putting the emphasis on traditional and spiritual works, he said.
About 15 years ago, Alberola became interested in Asian thought and mythology. He traveled extensively in India and Nepal, visiting areas known as spiritual centers, including Dharamsala.
Producing thangkas, he said, “is often a collective work: Some monks do the background, others the body, and the master painter the face and the eyes, as the eyes are considered a reflection of the soul.”
Although they may vary in artistry, every detail—from flowers and figures’ gestures to colors and design features—has a meaning and strictly follows tradition, Alberola said.
Hardly any element in the often intricate pieces is decorative.
But, he said, when it comes to framing, the monk conceiving a thangka has a certain latitude re-garding the colors and the number of strips of fabric surrounding his painting.
Produced in the timeless atmospheres of Tibetan monasteries, Alberola said, “thangkas give us something that we may have forgotten because of our wish to succeed, to produce, to always do better and faster: [Monk artists] don’t aim so much to create fabulous works as to turn their task into an inner journey and make the piece express profound thought and feeling.”
He added that preserving the thangka tradition has become all the more important for the Tibetan community in exile, the survival of which centers on preserving its cultural heritage while separated from its homeland.