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- 24 05 2002 - 11:23 - katatonik

Death of a realist painter

The Tibetan painter Jampa Tseten, popularly known as Amdo Jampa, died on 28 March at the age of 91 in Lhasa. (photo)

Jampa Tseten had begun his career as an artist under the Dalai Lama’s most senior „state artist“ Sonam Rinchen. In 1954 he also pursued studies in China, where he was trained in traditional Chinese as well as modern Western painting. On his return, Jampa produced a remarkable set of murals in the reception chamber of the Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s palace, situated alongside the throne: highly realistic portraits of leading Tibetan government figures, the Scotsman Hugh Richardson and the Dalai Lama. Here’s one of them. The realist style differs drastically from historic Tibetan styles. It is likely that Jampa did not use xylographs as models for his portraits, but instead painted after photographs. In a culture where paintings traditionally were highly stylized and ritualized depictions of religious and political leaders, these realist portraits were considered an exciting revelation by some, a threat by others, as especially the figure of the Dalai Lama appeared just a touch too human.

Gongkar Gyatso, a Tibetan artist from Lhasa based in the UK who knew Amdo Jampa: “He trained in the 1950s at the same time as several other very talented thangka painters and he was the one who tried to do something different. He was quite brave to do so – as well as fortunate in having the support of the Dalai Lama for the work he began to create.”

Jampa was the only ‘state’ thangka painter who managed to escape from Tibet immediately after the Dalai Lama’s departure in 1959. In Dharamsala, Jampa was commissioned for a lot of paintings. Thus he came to paint the „Three Kings“ Songtsen Gampo, Trisong Detsen and Tri Ralpachen, key figures in Tibetan history who reigned in between the 7th and 9th centuries C.E. Again, just as in the Norbulingka murals, the figures are invested with a three-dimensionality and realism unknown in traditional Tibetan art.

But the setting was different. It was no longer an independent Tibet facing modernity with all sorts of contradictions and uneasiness, but an exiled community eager to rebuild its nation, a nation without territory. Soon after its completion, the painting was rejected, and a replacement was sought, as the realist style was deemed un-Tibetan and reminded many of Socialist Realism. Tibetans in exile soon forgot about the realist elements that Tibetan painters had started using in the early 50s. Socialist Realism was the only form of realism that remained in their memory, and obliterated everything else. In the end, the painting found a place in the neighbouring Tsuglakhang central temple.

It seems that Jampa went back and forth between India and Tibet. He returned to live in Tibet in the late 1980s, where he then held various official positions and also founded an art school. The influences on his work were wide-ranging. Gonkar Gyatso says: “Once I went to his studio in Lhasa and he was studying a book of 15th century Italian religious art. Some of his paintings were clearly influenced by painters such as Carpaccio, who used vivid, opulent colours, little shading, and had a narrative style.”

Sources: Clare Harris, „In the image of Tibet.Tibetan painting after 1959“. London: Reaktion Books, 1999. (published in the series „Envisioning Asia“), and this obituary by the Tibet Information Network.


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