Portrait of J.G. Ballard

Dalai Lama

Oil and Tempera Painting, Mische Technique

Artist's Comments:

When I received permission to be the first person ever to paint an official portrait of the Dalai Lama, I was overjoyed until I read the letter of permission more carefully. I was offered only 40 minutes—take it or leave it! No one can paint a portrait in 40 minutes! I knew it would be madness to go all the way to India and travel up the mountains to Dharamsala for a sitting of only 40 minutes, but I decided to go anyway. I had found that strange things happen when you take a risk, and adventures occur when you are travelling.

My friend, Mary Craig, came with me. She was writing a book on the Dalai Lama (later to be published under the title Kundun) She would interview His Holiness while I was painting him. Talking to a model keeps the face alive. Several months later when the time for my sitting drew near, we made our way to Dharamsala, and stayed at a little Tibetan hotel, run by the Dalai Lama’s younger brother and his wife. I had prepared a sort of kangaroo pouch with all my painting materials in it—ready for action—I didn’t want to waste a minute of my precious sitting.

At last a jeep came to take us to the sitting, and we clambered out when it stopped in front of the gate to the residence. I waddled forward, impeded by my kangaroo pouch which contained oil paints, painting rags, turpentine and medium. In addition I clutched a plastic bag of brushes in one hand and a palette in the other. Mary carried my gesso panel. We were searched by the guards who looked very puzzled by my equipment, and then led up to the Dalai Lama’s ‘Palace’ which was just a large square house with a gaily painted border on top. Inside the waiting room was furnished with carved furniture and thick Tibetan carpets. There were colourful Tanka paintings on the wall and underneath them sat two very little boys each dressed in the bright yellow and dark red robes of a monk. Beside them sat their tutors: two wrinkled old monks who fussed over their charges like nannies. After one little monk went in, I realised my sitting would take place after the other little monk’s audience and I began to panic. I started to squeeze out my paints on to the palette: even squeezing time was precious now. The little boy on the bench watched me with interest, but his tutor looked shocked. A nervous assistant came to put my paper palette on a carved tray, which looked more respectful. Then Mr. Chimme, the palace official, appeared and looked at my blobs of colour with distaste.

He said bluntly, “there are many people waiting to see His Holiness today, can you cut your visit short?”

I stared at him in consternation, “but I only have 40 minutes!”

He frowned. “Who said you have 40 minutes?” I was speechless, but Mary came to my aid.

She said, “we have a letter with us that promises her a sitting of 40 minutes and it is signed by you.”

Mr. Chimme turned to me, “can’t you be very inspired and paint the picture in ten minutes?”

I glared at him. “Have you ever painted a picture?”

“No,” he said, and left the room. The little boy monk was called, and I knew it was my turn next. I tried to collect my thoughts and calm my nerves. At last Mr. Chimme came to fetch us.

He said firmly to Mary, “will you keep the time?” Mary nodded.

We got up and prepared to be ready to offer the regulation white scarves, which I managed with great difficulty, loaded down as I was. We were led along a corridor and at the end of it we saw a touching scene. The Dalai Lama was bending down, helping the little boy monk put his yellow boots back on. The tutor led the little boy away by the hand and the Dalai Lama followed them for a few paces, bending forward and blowing kisses. The little boy kept looking back at him as he was being led away, his boots peeping like canaries from under his robe. When he was out of sight, the Dalai Lama straightened up, and came forward to greet us, his smile broadening into a grin when he saw all my equipment hanging around me. He beckoned us into the audience room; in the front along the whole wall was an altar, in the center of which sat a golden statue of Buddha. On either side were ranged brightly-coloured statues of meditating Bodhisattvas. In front of each were candles flickering in red, blue or gold glass containers. In the center of the room were comfortable sofas and chairs, which were not easy to paint from, but to my relief I saw some straight chairs along the side wall. The Dalai Lama sat down in the worst position from my point of view: on the sofa with his head dark against the light. I did not know if I would have the nerve to ask him to move! He looked up at me and smiled.

 ”You tell me where to sit. Treat me as a member of your family.”

Then I took courage, and fetched some chairs from the wall. I asked him to sit where the light fell on his face, in front of him I put a chair to serve as an easel, draped it with plastic and put my painting board on top. I sat on a third chair in front of it, while Mary took out her tape recorder to begin her interview, while I sat transfixed. How could I do anything in forty minutes? By now I had probably only 39 or 38 minutes and still I sat paralysed. Mr. Chimme sat himself behind me and I could feel his eyes boring into my back. I pictured him wondering why I made such a fuss when now I’m not doing anything! I had intended to do my usual method of underpainting; I made a few dabs and stopped, realising that there is no time for underpainting. My only chance is to paint straight on as quickly as I can. I was in despair and only worked so as not to look a fool in front of Mr. Chimme. I sketched outline, features and put in the planes of the flesh. It was useless to try to do more than indicate background and figure: I had to concentrate on the face. I saw where I had been going wrong. The angle of the nose. I corrected it, and then realised that the eyes must go higher. I got interested. Something was beginning to emerge. I worked in frenzied haste–sometimes I did not hear Mary’s interview, at other times it came over clearly, but I only hear it in my head, as if my brain were detached from my hand’s frantic activity. Mary asked the Dalai Lama what he felt when he heard that he had won the Nobel Prize.

He said, “when I first heard that it was possible that I had won, I was a bit excited. But I listened to the BBC World Service and it was not on the news, so I thought, 'Must be mistake' and went to bed. In the morning they came to tell me that I had won the Nobel Prize, but by that time, too late, excitement over.”

“But didn’t you enjoy the ceremony?” Mary exclaimed.

He rubbed his nose thoughtfully. “When went to Sweden, met many people, made good friends. Only trouble was always get up very early–four o’clock, so very tired at night. The Nobel Prize dinner went on until 11.30! Hopeless!” he said, shaking his head. “Half dead!” The position of his head kept altering as he talked. It was like trying to hit a moving target. At last his head came to rest in the right position and I could really work.

“You have five more minutes,” said Mary. It was like an arrow, shooting down a bird. There was no chance now. I took some photographs, but I knew it would not be the same. I started gathering up my paints. My usual luck, that I had been counting on, had failed me. His Holiness asked to see the painting. He looked at it carefully and suggested that the left eye might be too big.

“I know, Your Holiness,” I said, almost crying, “but there is no time to fix it now.” He turned to Mr. Chimme, who was standing like a sentry, ready to usher us out of the room, and spoke to him in Tibetan. Mr. Chimme left the room looking annoyed. Then the Dalai Lama motioned to me to stop packing up my paints.

“I was just wondering…” he said, and told me he had sent Mr. Chimme to ask the next people due to have an audience, if they minded if I staying and painted His Holiness at the same time. Relief flooded over me. I felt like a condemned man reprieved. As I spread my paints out I heard Mary go and sit at the back of the room. At last I could relax, no one was watching me paint! As I worked I took it all in, the people coming from all over the world – to many this was the high point of their lives. As one American couple left I glanced up at the Dalai Lama and got a shock. His face looked as though a light had been switched off, he was completely inward, his face like a mask. Then, as the next visitors arrived, His Holiness looked up, ready to greet them, seeming refreshed and renewed from some inner source. These visitors were an Indian couple with a young Swiss schoolgirl, her hair in blonde plaits. She spoke earnestly to His Holiness. She said her father was a rich sports manufacturer, and she had been spoiled all her life. But then she had heard of the terrible fate of the Tibetans, and the struggle of the Dalai Lama to help his people, and she wanted to do something for him. One day she saw a photograph of his riding an inferior exercise bicycle, and this gave her an idea. She had asked her father to help, and had brought, all the way from Switzerland, the finest exercise bicycle that there was. As she spoke, two grinning young monks brought in a large white exercise bicycle. The Dalai Lama’s face broke up with laughter (I groaned inwardly, as I was fixing his eye). The girl asked if she could photograph him on the bicycle, promising him that it would never be used for publicity, but treasured by the family. He jumped up, and went to the gleaming bicycle. His top robe was in the way, so he tossed it off, leaving a yellow top and maroon skirt. He pedalled happily, grinning like a small boy, while the girl took a picture. Then she got up to say goodbye, and asked, “did you use your old bicycle a lot?”

There was a little pause. “Sometimes,” said His Holiness. At last it was time for me to pack up and go. I went up to him to thank him, and looking into his eyes, I had a strange experience. I felt as though I were bathing in an ocean of love, swimming and luxuriating in a boundless divine element. It was as if he knew all about me – all my faults – and loved me anyway. In another moment I had another shock. In a flash I saw that I, too had an ocean of love inside me, but something – a thin shadowy self – was barring the way and preventing me from expressing it. And then in another blinding flash I saw a great vision: I saw that everyone in the world had an ocean of love inside that was struggling to be expressed!

“It’s all the same!” I cried out to the Dalai Lama, hardly knowing what I said. He laughed and nodded, looking as pleased as if I were a child who had got a sum right. Mary came forward and I finished packing up my things. It was time to say goodbye. I stretched out my hand to shake his in farewell, but secretly I longed to give him a kiss on the cheek, but didn’t dare. He was, after, a God-King to his people. But just as if he was reading my mind, he leaned his cheek forward so that I could give him the kiss. Then he opened his arms and gave me a bear hug! It was wonderful – both human and spiritual and strangely comforting. It became ever after, the high point of my life. Then he gave Mary a hug and showed us round the rose garden. Then it was time to say a final goodbye. Greedily I stepped forward, hoping for another hug, but was stopped in my tracks with a shock I was never to forget. The Dalai Lama’s eyes were smiling down at me still, but they were as distant as the twinkling stars, three galaxies away. I wouldn’t have dared to touch him.