H uman beings are “collectors” by nature. They want to preserve their glorious history forever. They try to leave indelible traces of their past. But not everybody is a creative artist and most humans depend on the creativity of others to design a worthy tombstone or a respectable monument. Naturally, this is true also for me. I thought that by fostering an ancient culture I contributed a little bit to my own immortality. Depending on the available wealth, mortal people have come up with various means to mark their unique importance. I have felt that by linking myself to the age-old sages of Tibetan History, I might achieve the same goal, perhaps with a mixed conscience but nevertheless with some originality as I have no natural motivation for such a link. It was just my love and admiration that caused my irresistible attraction for Tibetan art and culture. Perhaps, I am already saturated by Westernized culture and presumption that are guiding me subconsciously. I admire the fresh approach of Tibetan philosophers and artists, and I am caught by their spontaneity and their metaphoric strength. I know I am not alone in my Tibetan fascination. But I am not carried just by a common wave of Tibet-friendliness; it was from the beginning a deep attraction by Tibetan symbols and their powerful message by the skillful usage of shapes and colors in the ancient paintings.
LOT 923: A THANGKA DEPICTING EKAVIRA VAJRABHAIRAVA TIBET, 15TH CENTURY ESTIMATE 700,000 — 900,000.
My scientific drive originated from the desire to explore the surroundings of Winterthur. In the attic of our old house, built in 1898 by my grandfather, I discovered a wooden box full of chemicals, the last remainders of an uncle who died in 1923. They inspired my first chemical adventures in the basement of our house leading to explosions and other surprising effects. Fortunately our house and I survived, nurturing my decision to study chemistry at ETH Zürich. In particular, spectroscopy became my preferred tool of exploration. My thesis advisor suggested that I acquaint myself with nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), an upcoming analytical method that was “worth investing a lifetime”.
A PHOTO OF RICHARD AND MAGDALENA ERNST AT A SOTHEBY'S RECEPTION HONORING THEIR COLLECTION IN ZURICH, 2018. © COPYRIGHT T+T FOTOGRAFIE/TONI SUTER.
I had to be patient to become accidentally exposed to Tibetan art, my dormant second passion. We were returning back to Switzerland from California after a stint in Palo Alto when in March 1968, Magdalena and I explored the market of Kathmandu together with our guide, Narendra M. Shakya. In a store at the New Road, we found numerous thangka paintings. I was struck by their fantastic colorfulness. At the beginning, I had no clue to comprehend it spiritual meaning. My science background was not particularly helpful in understanding it secret messages. Only much later did I learn about Buddhism and the role of the sixteen arhats, four of which are depicted on ‘our’ first thangka. But the fascination for this kind of art from a “different world” caught me; and step-by-step, I became a collector of Tibetan scroll paintings.
LOT 984: A THANGKA DEPICTING FOUR ARHATS TIBET, 19TH CENTURY. ESTIMATE $3,000 — 5,000.
Most of them at the Kathmandu bazaar were either worn‐out or relatively recently painted but lot 984 was an outstanding painting that caught our special attention. It was a painting of four arhats: Kanaksavatsa, Vajriputa, Ajita, and Bhadra, together with their entourage amidst lotus flowers and rivers in a Chinese-style setting. We got it for a very reasonable price as we still had the American pricing in our mind. We were quite entranced with our first Asian acquisition. The surrounding silk was still in a good condition. The brown “doors” on the top and bottom marking the entry into the painting were still in place. After our departure from Nepal, I stayed in contact by with our guide, and received photos of some additional thangka paintings, but none of them had the quality of the Four Arhat painting. This was indeed the beginning of our collecting journey.
Our collecting now continued in Switzerland. My professional life, back in Switzerland, was at the beginning neither productive nor pleasant. A serious nervous breakdown in 1969, caused by private and professional inadequacies, kept me from scientific endeavors for several months and I was forced to spend a convalescence stage near the beautiful city of Lugano. I had the leisure to browse through some curio shops in this tourist’s place. By another pure chance, in a cuckoo clock shop, I discovered two thangkas and a gilded bronze figure, having just arrived from Tibet by refugees.
LOT 966: A THANGKA DEPICTING EPISODES FROM THE LIFE OF NGORPA RINCHEN GYALTSEN, 18TH CENTURY. ESTIMATE 100,000 — 150,000.
One of the two thangkas represented the Conqueror of Death, Yamantaka (lot 923) a frightful dark-blue deity with nine heads; eight heads possess an angry complexion, while the topmost head looks peaceful and depicts the bodhisattva Manjushri. Yamantaka struck me as a fitting metaphor for a scientist who needed the strength and endurance of the fierce deity and at the same time the benevolent wisdom of Manjushri to be successful.
The second painting at the curio shop was in its original state illustrating episodes from the life of Ngorpa Rinchen Gyaltsen (lot 966). This
We concentrated our collecting on thangka paintings that inspired our imagination more than almost-perfect three-dimensional gilded bronzes. We knew that we could not afford to collect all objects of art which we admired. It was a decision that let us restrict our collecting to paintings. We got used to the imperfection of paintings that were worn by centuries of use in the temples. Sometimes their mystery even was enhanced by the missing details.
LOT 906: A PAUBHA DEPICTING GUHYAKALI NEPAL, CIRCA 16TH CENTURY ESTIMATE 8,000 — 12,000.
Ultimately I found solutions to my mental obsessions which finally even ended up in a fully undeserved but gratefully accepted Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1991. With a bit of time and some of the prize winnings, I was in a position to now fully indulge my dual passions. With techniques developed from both infrared reflectography and Raman spectroscopy (the latter of which proved to be an ideal technique for the identification of pigments in thangka paintings due to its specific and non-destructive properties—at low laser power—for inorganic pigments) I was able to develop ways beyond traditional and somewhat inaccurate carbon testing to date the pigments used in thangka creation and happily add to the research in this nascent field. Being able to access numerous aspects by a scientific approach increases the fascination beyond the borders of pure art studies and brings together two fields of human activity that inspires and deepens the understanding of both fields of science and art.
ERNST WINS NOBEL PRIZE IN CHEMISTRY, 1991.
Here is one of my favorite anecdotes is about how we acquired the
In the 2014 publication “Science and Art”, I wrote the following: “What a magnificent life spending most of my time and effort on beloved passions! My two major loves are indeed science and art. It is even better when two interests match, complement and overlap each other in harmonious fashion. Naturally, other passions have also brought excitement and thrills into my past eighty years. But nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR), a prominent member of analytical chemistry, on one the hand, and Tibetan painting, a fascinating visual feast, on the other, have provided the best conceivable life ever. I did not willfully select science and art as my passions. It all happened by chance, by encounters that were arranged by whatever is governing destiny. I love the term ‘chance’ without having to enact a beneficial originator, acting behind the scenes.”