INFORMATION FOR TRAVELERS
MONGOLIA ARTS AND CULTURE
Mongol Zurag is the traditional national painting
Mongol Zurag is the traditional national painting. Painting is the major genre
of the Mongolian fine arts that came into being in ancient times. The
traditional Mongol zurag or painting style has been developed from the
prehistoric rock paintings. This style of painting has long brush strokes which
taper at the end. It also tends to feature bright colors.
Prehistoric artists, either carved silhouettes on rock, or painted figures in
predominantly red pigments from mineral ore. Ancient petroglyphs created before
recorded history, and later, various Shaman symbols and sacred place
identifications, bring us the voices and visions of the ancestors. These works
usually depict hunting trophies and domesticated livestock, and more rarely,
people and even carts with wheels.
The oldest examples of rock painting in Mongolia are located at Khoit-Tsenkher
Cave in Hovd Aimag. Painted in ochre on cave walls, these Stone Age paintings
depict mammoths, sheep and ostriches. Later, cave paintings from the Bronze Age
show animals, hunting scenes, carriages and various symbols.
Rock and cave paintings are, however, not the only important Mongolian early
artwork. The earliest examples of monumental sculpture known, not only in
Mongolia, but in Central Asia in general, are deer stones.
An example of very sophisticated workmanship and artistic abilities of early
Mongolians are the ancient relics found in at the Hun tombs of "Noyon Uul" which
date back to between 1AD and 3BC. Jewellery, pottery and other early artwork
have been found here, but the most well regarded piece is a felt carpet which
dates back around 2,000 years. The carpet shows a scene depicting beasts,
fighting for survival. This genuinely artistic, expressive and at the same time
ironic depiction of the beasts, fighting for survival can be considered not as
merely decorative craft, also a wholesome work of fine art. The author's perfect
knowledge of beasts' anatomy, characteristic behavioral traits and his command
of hyperbola and expressiveness are obvious, and one could assume that the
author intended to convey inter-tribal wars and victory of the Huns through
these fighting animals. This magnificent creation of the Hun craftsmen testifies
to the continuity of the Central Asian "stylized animal" art, preceded from the
Bronze Age. The symmetrical composition, the rhythm, distinctive color
combinations and the entire figurative reproduction give a vivid idea of
artistic side of the imitative arts in this distant past.
The other major type of monument found in Mongolia dates to the Turkic Empire
between the 6th and 8th century AD. As far as the burial rituals of the Turks
are concerned, according to Suishu, the buried was placed in a wooden structure;
its walls were depicted in episodes of his combat feat. Even though Mongolians
have traditionally been a nomadic people, there is a long history of permanent
settlements in Mongolia. The Uighur Empire, the most Buddhist of all states
existed in the territory of Mongolia between the 8th and the 10th century AD,
had a concrete influence on the artistic culture of the Mongolian nation. The
Kidan Empire, which developed soon after the fall of the Uighurs, brought about
a period of urbanization in Mongolia. A network of cities was developed along
the trade route, and traces of Buddhist temples and frescoes have been found in
the remains of these settlements. Its culture was distinctive, developed were
portrait and landscape genres and wall-murals on historical subjects. Pieces of
Buddhist temple ruins
were found under Uguudei Khaan's famous Palace "Thousand Tranquilities."
Fragments of wall-murals were preserved on these pieces. Researchers have
attributed them to a number of the Uighur and Central Asian painting schools of
the 9th to 10th centuries AD.
Paintings from the Topkanu museum in Istanbul (Turkey) reproduced in a book
"Mongolian Painting" give a realistic idea of ancient Mongolian painting. Some
of them show the life of nomadic cattle breeders, tending horses and other
domesticated animals, hunting scenes, including figures of various wild beasts
in motion. Some other paintings depict zoomorphic creatures, strong and savage,
dressed in human attire with bracelets around their wrists and ankles. These
super-natural monsters are depicted as human beings, wrestling with each other,
stealing horses, dancing and making music. The major personages and themes of
Mongolian paintings of those times were giants from heroic epics, battle scenes,
feasts and triumph of khans and noyons (feudal princes), and similarly popular
were landscapes and animalistics.
The carefully weighed composition, harmony and movements of personages on these
pictures are striking for their characteristics, being fundamentally
distinguished from the local miniatures. The style of painting is, obviously, of
realistic nature, the pictures are painted in relief whereas red, blue and brown
Of a considerable interest are wall-murals of a temple discovered by Japanese
archaeologists in 1932 near the Tsagaan Stupa in Inner Mongolia (China). The
wall-murals depict the Eastern Mongolian mountainous landscape represented in
four seasons with its animal and bird kingdom. By its painting style and form,
the mural is essentially different from the Tang and Sung landscape. The entire
landscape very much resembles works done in Mongol Zurag style of later period.
Thus, it would be impossible to create a complete and realistic picture of the
ancient Mongolian painting without taking into consideration the distinctive
culture of prehistoric and medieval states which existed in the territory of
Mongolia at different times and left behind rich artistic heritage.
Mongolian art experienced a sort of renaissance beginning with the flowering of
Buddhism in Mongolia during Zanabazar's time (1635 1723). For centuries after
the adoption of Buddhism in Mongolia, Buddhist-related art was the predominate
form of art created in this country.
Zanabazar was an outstanding figure of
all-round learning and exceptional talent. He was a pioneering role model in
fine arts. It was not by chance that he was the founder of the Mongolian school
in Buddhist art.
By creating the images of tranquil Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, he strove to create
the image of deified human being, the mind fully concentrated on the object of
mediation and faultlessly proportionate in outward appearance. He left behind
brilliant examples of artistically perfect creations, embodying all the 32 and
80 qualities of the divine beauty. These are his Vajradhara, Dhyani Buddha, Tara
and others. The Vajradhara is the chief deity (Buddha), and this figure is
represented with the hands crossed on the chest, one hand holding the vadjra
symbol of the male principle and the other th bell-symbol of the female
principle so expressing the indissoluble unity of male and female. The figure is
upright with the legs crossed, head inclined slightly to the left. This is now
the chief holy relic of the Gandantegchilin Monastery in Ulaanbaatar.
The pantheon of tantric deities, depicted by Mongolian iconographers, is
exceptionally rich. The pantheon did not include realistic portraits of men but
a collection of abstract, imaginary, "pedantic" images of Dharmas, meant for a
visual understanding c the essence of religious tenets, and therefore, the
artists had to confine to a strictly established canon in composition,
positioning of figures and attributes without having the right even to slightly
modify it. Nonetheless, the Mongolian school of iconography founded by
G.Zanabazar, which regarded these canons as means to depict and convey human
beauty, is unlike for its profoundly realistic portrayal of a human being.
Many of Zanabazar's works bear witness to his exceptional skill in depicting the
female figure. An example is the White Tara, one the most significant holdings
of Ulaanbaatar Fine Arts Museum. She is represented in the form of a beautiful
young girl not yet come to full maturity, with plump childish fingers and
bidding breast only just beginning to develop. The Green Tara, the largest of
the 21 Taras is, undoubtedly, one of his greatest works. Unlike other Taras,
depicting deities far removed from this world, this one looks like a lovely,
round-faced young Mongolian girl.
Also, the portraits associated with his name, "Self-portrait" and "Mother's
portrait" (Handjamts) are genuine master-pieces of the portrait genre. There is
no doubt that such cast and painted depiction of actual people influenced the
development of secular portrait painting as an independent form of art.
His works were the finest examples of the Mongolian art of those times. As the
years go by, these works become brighter and more beautiful and acquire ever
With his Green and White Taras, illustrating the strength of talent and the
magic force of artistic gift, he raised the Mongolian medieval religious art
into the level of universal aesthetic standards. His works are considered to
belong to the treasures of the world sculpture art. His masterpieces, such as
Bodhisattva Vajratara registered into world heritage, represent a vivid example
of international recognition of the Mongolian cultural legacy. He is,
undoubtedly, "the grand master of Oriental fine art".
According to historical sources and chronicles, there were quite a few renowned
artists in Mongolia by the late 18th and early 19th century. The paintings "Gombo"
and "Shalsha" drawn by artist Baldangombo, and some of the depictions of
geniuses hangals, authored by Tserendorj and Shirbazar are displayed at the
Bogdo-Khaan museum in Ulaanbaatar. The Fine Arts Museum homes the "Jamsran"
painted by Gendendamba who was the teacher of many Urga artists.
From this time until the shift to socialism in the early 1920s, much of the
subject matter in Mongolian art was Buddhist. The work of artists, who were
generally also monks, was used as objects of worship. The most common media in
religious two-dimensional art were mineral pigments on cloth and applique
(pieces of cloth stitched together and embroidered to form an image.) Appliquti
was especially suited to Mongolian life, as it was easy to transport and held up
well in the dry climate, as opposed to paintings, which might be damaged by the
climate and the wear and tear of frequent rolling and unrolling.
With political and social changes beginning in the early 20th century, some
artists began to move away from purely religious art and focused more on people
and everyday life. B. Sharav, who was educated as a monk, was a painter who
adjusted as his world changed and linked the old with the new in his art. The
Mongolian way of life is depicted in his famous work "One Day in Mongolia,"
which combines traditional Buddhist art aesthetics with secular subject matter.
In 1924 B. Sharav painted a portrait of Lenin. This adaptability of Sharav's
illustrates a huge shift in Mongolian art: works created during the period under
socialism were dedicated to publicizing the new system. In the 1930s, Stalinist
purges destroyed most monasteries and killed many monks in Mongolia. Also, in
the early 20th century, a new aesthetic was introduced, as Mongolian artists
were exposed to Western-style oil painting. In order to develop Mongolian art
systematically, specialized artists were trained and specialized agencies were
established in Mongolia. In the 1940s, the Mongolian government began sponsoring
art students' travel and study in the Soviet Union. During this time, Socialist
Realism and 19th century Impressionist styles dominated art produced by
In the 1950s many genres of fine art, carpet and porcelain production were
introduced in Mongolia and developed. During this period many artists and
architects became very famous for their thematic work, namely, painter O.
Tsevegjav for animals, U.Yadamsuren for workers, N.Tsultem and G.Odon for
history and everyday life and L.Gavaa for nature.
The 1960s and 70s saw two interesting trends in Mongolian art. Some Mongolian
artists began to incorporate the older Mongolian aesthetic into their pieces,
which remained socialist in tone. Thus, for example, one finds stylized flowers,
clouds, and rivers surrounding the Mongolian seal and all the ethnic groups; or,
an idyllic socialist scene very reminiscent of Sharav's "One Day in Mongolia."
Also, the technique of applique resurfaced, especially in the mid-1960s.
A second trend during these decades and beyond was that Mongolians began to look
outside the Soviet Union for influences to Eastern Europe. Their work began to
show more individualism: artists began refusing to use realism, linear
perspectives, and harmonization of colors, and explored other techniques of
In 1990, Mongolia changed to a multi-party system and market-based economy. This
meant both positive and negative influences on the art world. With the change in
the economy, inflation and supply shortages caused widespread poverty, and the
Socialist system's support of the arts collapsed. But it also meant the
beginning of the revival of Buddhism, and freedom for artists to express
themselves without restrictions on subject matter or style.
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