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Walters Art Museum's spectacular collection of Asian arts reopens

The Arts of Asia exhibit at The Walters Art Museum is now ready to be viewed. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)

The Awakened One had big feet.

Judging by "Seated Buddha," the 18th- to 19th-century statue from Myanmar (formerly Burma) on view in one of two newly renovated galleries at the Walters Art Museum, his trotters were the size of small paddles — and just as flat. That's because he wanted to leave his followers a clear and easily visible path to enlightenment.

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The elongated earlobes stretching nearly to the Buddha's shoulders? They're a reminder of his past life as a prince before he renounced physical pleasures. And the half-shut eyes signify that the Buddha is aware of what's going on around him but is remaining emotionally detached.

These are just some of the happy details that visitors can ponder as they browse through "Arts of Asia," a new exhibition that showcases devotional art created over 2,000 years.

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"Asian art has always been a cornerstone of the Walters Art Museum," says Julia Marciari-Alexander, the museum's executive director, noting that the new exhibition spans nine nations stretching from Tibet on the north to Cambodia, and from India on the west to Japan.

Amy Landau, the museum's director of curatorial affairs, is eager to reintroduce the public to the Walters' extensive Far East holdings. Most of these works have been in storage since at least the summer of 2014, when the museum began a multi-year, $10.4 million renovation. A former carriage house and garden have been converted into two new galleries that opened earlier this month and that represent the completion of the first phase of the construction project. The renovation will wrap up in June of 2018, with the public unveiling of the Hackerman House, a 19th-century neoclassic mansion that is one of three conjoined buildings making up the Walters.

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Landau said the objects in the redesigned galleries tell a different story than they did when they were located in the Hackerman House.

"In many ways, that narrative was really about the numbers," she said. "It was about amassing and displaying a massive amount of objects including porcelains that spoke to the American imagination of the time.

"Today, we're having conversations about mindfulness and slowing down. We're learning some of the important lessons taught by the Hindu, Buddhist and Jainist traditions: balance, calmness and serenity. It's why some people go to yoga and meditate every day."

Landau tried to encourage such an encounter by limiting the number of objects in the galleries to about 150; 30 are on public view for the first time. She focused instead on how each artwork is displayed. Now, the massive Buddha is dramatically lit and silhouetted against a bright red wall. The lavish gold leaf covering the statue glows, and the 6-foot-tall sculpture dominates the space. The new galleries, which have been painted in hues of deep brick and eggplant, are in marked contrast with the soothing cream and beige on the walls of much of the rest of the museum. Some visitors gasp audibly upon entering the gallery.

"I've had people tell me that when they walked into this room, their hair stood on end," Landau said.

The renovated galleries also provide the clearest look to date at Marciari-Alexander's vision for the museum she's been shepherding since 2013. She's interested in bringing renewed attention to the museum's 33,000 objects, a small fraction of which can be displayed at any time, and presenting them in a way that looks fresh and new. Marciari-Alexander isn't just interested in refurbishing a physical space; she wants to spruce up the museum-going experience.

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"This is not an installation that will be here for 25 years," Marciari-Alexander said. "This is an installation that can and that must change in response to the times."

She said that for practical reasons, most museums segregate their Asian arts collections by genre: sculpture in one gallery, paintings and textiles in another.

"It's really challenging from a lighting perspective to have works of different media around each other," she said. "You need to have very controlled lighting around paintings on silk, for instance, but you can blast sculptures with light."

But she and Landau wanted visitors to experience the breadth and sweep of Asian art. So at the Walters, an exquisite drawing of a nilgai (a bluish-gray Asian antelope) shares the room with a 17th-century steel elephant goad and an archer's thumb ring inlaid with gold, pearls and precious gems.

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"Visitors will get a much more holistic view of Asian art," Marciari-Alexander said.

"They'll see tangka [religious scroll paintings] that are sometimes gold and sometimes lacquer and sometimes metal. And they'll see them next to manuscripts and jewels and pieces of wood. It's so instructive. You're not getting just one slice of what Asian art is. You're getting a much broader picture."

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Most of the pieces on view in "Arts of Asia" are Buddhist, but there's also a substantial representation of Hindu art. A partly unclothed sandstone sculpture from about A.D.1000 of Devi, the Great Goddess, greets visitors descending the staircase leading into the John and Berthe Ford gallery. She's likely to be a favorite of adolescent boys captivated by the signs of the goddess', umm, fertility.

There's also a smattering of Islamic art, including a spectacular, illuminated Quran bound in gold-tooled brown leather that's among the museum's most important possessions. The exhibit even contains a few pieces testifying to the Christian influence in the Far East, such as a late-16th-century rock crystal figurine of the Christ child.

Modern viewers struck by the lavish loveliness of these pieces will regard them as artworks. But Landau said the Buddhas, at least, served a very different purpose when they were created.

"According to many Buddhist traditions, they're not looked at as objects but as sacred containers for the Buddha," she said. "Buddhists hold an eye-opening ceremony to consecrate the statue that brings it to life and endows it with sense."

That's why it was important for Landau to move the collection out of the Hackerman House, where the western architecture subliminally framed viewers' encounter with Eastern art in a way that made the curator uncomfortable.

"Asian art was getting seen through the eyes of American men," Landau said, "In particular, it was getting seen through the eyes of two American men — William and Henry Walters. I didn't want that. These artworks are about encounters between human beings and physical objects that in their time were looked at receptacles of the divine.

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"I wanted the exhibit to ask instead: what can we learn from these traditions today?"

If you go

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"Arts of Asia" has begun an open-ended run at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. Free. Call (410) 547-9000 or visit thewalters.org.

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