Improper handling also causes great damage to these objects. The thangka form was devised to facilitate easy transportation; nevertheless, rolling and unrolling a painting over the centuries causes damage to the support, ground and paint layers.
Ann Shaftel, Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
I often receive email from people looking for someone to frame their painted thangkas in brocade. They have made a purchase while traveling in India or Nepal. Or they’ve inherited an unframed thangka from someone else. And they want to treat it with respect and display it attractively.
I normally only make brocade borders for my own works — the pieced silk thangkas I make myself. This may change in the future, but that’s how it is for now. I do know some other people who make them, but only in India and in the UK, not in the US, where most of these messages originate. (If you’re reading this post and you frame thangkas, please contact me. Perhaps I can send people your way!)
My response to inquiries could stop at “Sorry, I don’t do that work,” but I usually go on to propose an alternative:
If you like bands of color surrounding your image like brocade, you could select from the many colored mats available in frame shops. Choose acid-free materials whenever possible.
Many people hesitate to frame their thangkas like other art, thinking they may be doing something culturally inappropriate, but I’ve never seen any validation for this concern.
The Tibetan tradition of mounting thangkas in brocade grew from their nomadic lifestyle and storage concerns. This non-rigid treatment allowed the thangkas to be rolled up for transport and storage in a particular cultural-historical context. It is not inherent to the spiritual significance of the thangka.
Modern art conservators know that rolling is a very poor way to conserve paintings, and many old thangka paintings have been damaged by this handling. Museums and galleries always store paintings flat. (This is not as significant an issue for fabric thangkas, whose inherent flexibility allows easy rolling. But even fabric thangkas would be better preserved by rolling less tightly, around a cylindrical core, and with the image facing out rather than inwardly as the traditional mounting necessitates.)
Migmar, an excellent thangka painter in Dharamsala, painted a beautiful 1000-armed Avalokiteshvara for me. I love how it looks in a gold frame with a burgundy-colored mat and a glass cover. The glass keeps it clean, and the flat frame keeps the paint from cracking. (If I had it to do over again, I would choose a non-reflective glass.) Consult with a professional framer or have the work done by one. Be sure to use spacers to prevent the glass from touching the painted surface.
You can’t “symbolically mess up” your thangkas (to quote an inquiry I received several years ago). Thangkas have been framed in various colors throughout history. Nowadays, they’re usually surrounded with a narrow strip of red, which is surrounded by a narrow strip of yellow, which is then set in a ground of blue brocade. But in earlier times, many thangkas were simply bordered with blue damask or other cloth. You may choose to replicate the strips of red, yellow, and blue with mats. Or you can simply choose one color you feel makes your thangkas most pleasing and attractive to look at. The important thing is to respect the thangkas and highlight their imagery as best you can.
Of course, if you have an older thangka that is already mounted in rollable brocade, you are facing a somewhat different situation. A thangka is a composite object, not simply a painting. Though the borders were almost certainly not designed in concert with the painting, they may have been applied at the same time or replaced years or centuries later. They have become part of the life of this object and, if you are interested in honoring the entire life story of the thangka, you probably want to seek a presentation solution that retains the brocade — perhaps mounting the entire object on a larger flat board to prevent further stress …
I just found out that some lovely ladies in Holland, among them Carmen Mensink and her friend Sarah, make brocade-wrapped mats to enhance their framed thangkas. What a great idea! If you’re crafty, you can try it yourself. Otherwise, ask your framer for help. The best of both worlds — brocade look with the protection of a rigid frame.