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Buddhist-Inspired Abstract Artwork of Charmion von Wiegand to be Exhibited in Switzerland

Charmion von Wiegand in her studio in 1961. From

A new special exhibition of the works of the American painter, journalist, writer, collector, and art critic Charmion von Wiegand (1896–1983) has gone on display at the Kunstmuseum Basel, in Switzerland. The works draw from a number of influences, including von Wiegand’s life as a practicing Tibetan Buddhist. Her work incorporates bold shapes and colors that sometimes form broad, abstract images and at other times clearly reflect themes common to Tibetan Buddhism.

For Haema Sivanesan, chief curator of the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Canada, von Wiegand is “perhaps one of the first American artists to produce an image of ‘Modern Buddhism,’—that is, an image of Buddhism as a transcultural phenomenon constituted through the encounter between East and West.” (Artsy)

Von Wiegand’s painting career began late in life after a visit to her psychotherapist, who asked her what she would like to do if she could do anything. She responded then, in 1927 at the age of 30, “Why, paint of course.” (Artsy)

For the next decade, von Wiegand worked at her painting and her art criticism, writing for journals including New Masses and Art Front. Maja Wismer, head of art after 1960 and contemporary art at the Kunstmuseum Basel, described the period as one of “trying and testing out how she could behold the world. Sometimes she was trying to find words, sometimes she was trying to find figuration.” (Artsy)

Von Wiegand’s early work was figurative in nature as she believed this was the greatest way to harmonize with her left-leaning social values. In 1941, she met Piet Cornelis Mondriaan (1872–1944), through whom she would develop an appreciation for abstract art.

“I think he opened the door for her to see a light at the end of the tunnel of where abstraction could have meaning,” said Wismer. (Artsy)

As von Wiegand continued her progress as a painter, she also took up an interest in East Asian art and Buddhist practice. These influences combined with her growing mastery of contemporary abstract art to form a truly one-of-a-kind new style.

“The moment she really blossomed was when she was able to make a connection between her spiritual way of life and her painting, when it was not about reading someone else’s works but really through experiencing spirituality. That, I think, is unique,” said Wismer. (Artsy)

Writing for The New York Times in 2010, art journalist, editor, and critic Karen Rosenberg, wrote that in the 1960s, “while studying with the Tibetan guru Khyongla Rato, she started to incorporate mandalas, chakras, and other Buddhist symbols into her abstract compositions.” (The New York Times)

The Ascent to Mt. Meru (1962). From
To the Adi Buddha (c. 1968–70). From

One work showing the new fusion is The Ascent to Mt. Meru (1962). Felix Vogel, art history professor at the University of Kassel, points out in the exhibition’s catalogue that the work is “bound by a traditional Tibetan Style of representation in which showing an object at once from above and from the side is entirely normal.” (Artsy)

Another piece, titled To the Adi Buddha (c. 1968–70), depicts a Buddhist altar. Sivanesan notes that “the predominance of dramatic yellow and white suggests the luminous and uplifting qualities of Buddhist practice, distilling the experience of Buddhism to an aspirational vision of visualization.” (Artsy)

The exhibition, which promises to be of value both to practicing Buddhists and art aficionados, opened 25 March and will end on 13 August.

See more

Charmion von Wiegand (Kunstmuseum Basel)
Charmion von Wiegand’s Buddhist-Inspired Abstractions Are Earning Overdue Acclaim (Artsy)
The Rich, Detailed Fullness Found in Empty (The New York Times)

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