In Mongolia, located in East Central Asia and bordered by Russia to the north and China to the south, rock formations yield evidence of artistic expression and communication in the form of petroglyphs dating back to ancient times.
Such early examples of stone drawings and carvings discovered in the mountains of western Mongolia are reflections of what once were everyday experiences of indigenous people. These examples of artistic carvings, according to archeological researchers, date back to the Upper Paleolithic period (40,000 to 1,200 B.C.). Some of the most common motifs include hunting scenes with bears and deer; and Mongolian people depicted as hunters and gatherers, or during celebrations and acts of meditation.
Late 19th-century wool-on-cotton mat, made in Mongolia, 4 ft. x 2 ft. Image courtesy Jasper52
In addition to drawings and carvings on stone and caves, Mongolian artists have been known over the centuries for their creation of silver immortality vases, paintings on burlap and burlwood; woven rugs, and figures made of clay, copper, and bronze.
As time passed, Mongolian art continued to be shaped by the cultural influences of nomadic tribes and new settlers. The topography of the country influenced the scenery appearing in Mongolian art, such as mountains, deserts, forests, and upland mesas of the landlocked region. As the nomadic tribes traversed the country, aspects of their art went with them in the form of items called tsa-tsa and gau, which are portable shrines made of wood, clay, copper, and at times, silver. Meanwhile, the people from beyond Mongolia’s borders who established homesteads and worked and hunted on the same piece of land for a lifetime also were known to use silver, bronze, and gold in creating their artworks.
Chinese/Mongolian silver elephants inlaid with lapis lazuli and turquoise beads, circa late 19th- to early 20th century. Image courtesy Dallas Auction Gallery
Mongolian art is strongly influenced by religion and other beliefs, such as Buddhism, Shamanism, Islam, and Nestorianism. Be it statutes, paintings, jewelry, or textiles, over the centuries artists of this region incorporated deities and divinities into their creations. Although many Mongolian beliefs are shared by peoples in bordering nations, there are elements reflected in Asian artworks that are distinctly indicative of the location and tribe or people responsible for their creation, explains Terese Tse Bartholomew, in an article on asianart.com.
“The ornamentation, the shape of the lotus petals on the pedestal, and the way in which the base plate is inserted and held in place often give clues as to the country of origin,” writes Bartholomew. “Even within Mongolia, there were variations between the works produced in Inner Mongolia and Outer Mongolia. The sculptures of Zanabazar illustrate these differences.”
17th-century gilt bronze of Mongolian Bhais Aijyaguru, with inscription. Image courtesy of Golden State Auction Gallery Inc.
The Zanabazar of whom Bartholomew speaks is the revered Mongolian sculptor and artist Bogdo Gegen Zanabazar, who lived and created between the mid-17th and early 18th centuries. He became the first Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, or the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia, and the top-ranked lama in Mongolia. His work and leadership led to the development of the Zanabazar School of Sculpture of Outer Mongolia.
Within Mongolian artistry, motifs have specific meaning and symbolism. According to Bartholomew’s writings, there are five types of Mongolian artistic motifs:
- Geometric: Eternity pattern, “happiness” knot, khan’s bracelet, ribbon
- Zoomorphic: Friendly animals (elephant, monkey, hare, and dove), strong animals (lion, tiger, dragon, and a mythical bird Garuda), Asian zodiac animals (rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar), a circle comprised of two fish – symbolizing yin and yang; and horn-like and noselike figures
- Botanical: Lotus, peony, and peaches, which represent purity, prosperity, and longevity, respectively
- Shapes of natural elements: Water, fire, and air
- Symbols: Traditional symbolism of Tibetan and Chinese cultures including: the Eight Auspicious Symbols, Seven Jewels of the Monarch, and the Three Jewels
Antique miniature Mongolian thangka art, 2⅜ in. x 2½ in. Image courtesy Jasper52.
Mongolia’s most noteworthy artists of the 20th century are O. Tsevegjav, U. Yadamsuren, N. Tsultem and G. Odon, L. Gavaa, S. Choimbol, A. Senghetsokhio, B. Avarzed, Ts. Mijuur, Ya. Urjnee, S. Dondog, and D. Munkhuu.
Following a departure from communism and peaceful revolution in 1990, Mongolia adopted a democratic form of government. It is largely dependent on trade with neighboring China and Russia, its main industries being agriculture and mining. Mongolia also promotes tourism and capitalizes on the unique beauty of Mongolian art, both traditional and contemporary. With nearly three million people now living and working in Mongolia, and hundreds of thousands more visiting the country each year, art plays an increasingly important role in the present and future success of this intriguing Asian nation.