Asian Medicines: A Unique Exhibition at the Guimet Museum

How are traditional medicines represented through Asian art? This is the subject of Médecines d'Asie, l'art de l'équilibre, the first exhibition in France dedicated to the three major Asian medical traditions: Indian, East Asian, and Tibetan. It offers an immersive journey between art and well-being through over 300 works, most of which are unveiled for the first time. To be admired at the Guimet Museum from May 17th to September 18th, 2023.

The ambition to popularize art

According to Yannick Lintz, the President of the National Museum of Asian Arts-Guimet, this new exhibition on Asian medicines is "the first in a series of a new kind" with the ambition to inaugurate a unique art experience, contrary to the usual cultural consumption. "We want to make art more popular and offer something other than the mechanical process of organizing one exhibition after another, exhausting ourselves by moving from one artwork to another".The idea is to create a visitor experience: to listen, to feel, to personally engage in the sensory exploration of the subject of art. Here, the focus is on a subject already very popular in the West: traditional Asian medicines, encompassing the physical aspects of illness and its treatments, as well as the spiritual dimension of energies and their representations, and the sacred connection between the world of the living and the world of spirits.

In addition to the numerous paintings, statues, sculptures, and documents, the exhibition provides a sensory perspective to allow visitors to experience the subject. One can observe the Qi (Chinese vital energy) flowing through a room in the form of visible energy streams, take 5 minutes in front of a Japanese golden wooden Buddha to meditate guided by the voice of monk Matthieu Ricard, or watch videos featuring psychiatrist and mindfulness specialist Christophe André. It is a clear intention to make the largest museum of Asian arts in Europe accessible to audiences beyond art enthusiasts.

The exhibition unfolds with multiple levels of interpretation, divided into four parts:

  • The history of Ayurvedic, East Asian, and Himalayan medicines, as well as the representations of the subtle body (e.g., doshas, qi, inner landscape of the human body, meridians, etc.),
  • The deities and the technical approach through healing practices (pharmacopoeia, meditation, moxibustion, acupuncture, yoga, massages), 
  • The medicines of the soul (exorcism, shamanism, astrology),
  • The East/West dialogue and the integration of these traditions into allopathic medicine. 

Extracts :

Healing the subtle body and preventive medicine. "Common to Hinduism and Buddhism, the notion of a deep identity between the constitution of the human body (microcosm) and that of the universe (macrocosm) is depicted in works representing the subtle or hidden physiology of the primordial man (purusha). Circles (chakras) and channels (nadis) materialize the flow of energies and vital elements in a symbolic anatomy that encompasses all beings populating creation".

Purusha, Népal, dated 1806

Exorcism to heal external demons. "In a world where medicine and religion are closely intertwined, manifestations of illness are also perceived as potentially resulting from external causes such as the action of a demon or the effects of a curse that the patient may have fallen victim to. In such cases, exorcism becomes the recourse, giving rise to the production of objects used in animated and theatrical ceremonies (…) where the exorcist engages in dialogue with disease demons embodied by actors throughout an entire night (pic 2)."

Yoga, Qi Gong, Tai Chi "Health is also cultivated through physical and mental exercises that anyone can learn under the guidance of a master. They enable the mastery of the flow of bodily energies, even conferring upon the practitioner self-healing abilities."

Painting, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh
Astrology Chart

Meditation : "The Sanskrit and Tibetan words translated into French as meditation are respectively bhavana which means 'that which produces' and 'that which gives well-being,' and sgom pa, which means 'cultivating' and 'becoming familiar with.' It primarily involves becoming familiar with a clear and accurate vision of things and cultivating qualities that we all possess but remain dormant as long as we do not make the effort to develop them. While the primary goal is to transform the experience of the world, it also turns out that its practice has beneficial effects on health."

Amida-Nyoral (Amitabha) forming the "seal of concentration," Japan, 19th century. Gilded and painted wood.

The curator's favorite artwork: "The Agony of Inayat Khan."

For the exhibition curator Aurélie Samuel, the undisputed masterpiece is, however, a representation of imbalance, as she believes it is "The Death of Inayat Khan" by Balchand (gouache and gold on paper, India, Mughal school, circa 1618). This small-sized painting precisely depicts the agony of the treasurer-general at the court of Emperor Jahangir (1605-1627, and father of Emperor Shah Jahan, famous for building the Taj Mahal in Agra).

he Mughal court painter Balchand provides a "very rare and striking representation of a suffering body, capturing the texture and stiffness of the body, with death already visible on his face".It is a realistic and harmonious painting of a man that leaves no one indifferent, as it bears the marks of a life marked by alcoholism and opium abuse. It synthesizes a decline that evokes both discomfort (for the dying man) and admiration (for the artist) in a form of sublimity.

We invite you to discover this artwork among the 300 present in this exhibition.

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