Avatar, the prequel, at the Asian Art Museum

Big traveling art shows like the King Tut exhibit make headlines, but that's no reason to overlook the wealth of art museums’ permanent collections.

The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, for example, has a dozen avatars – ancient mythical ones, not James Cameron's three-dimensional characters on film.

Forrest McGill, the museum's chief curator, proudly shows 1,000-year-old statues in the third-floor Southeast Asian gallery, explaining that the word avatar comes from the Sanskrit “avatara,” meaning “descent.”

Avatars were incarnations of the Hindu divinity Vishnu. When the world was threatened with disorder and violence, The Preserver of Worlds would take on an appropriate form and descend to earth to set things right.

“There are usually thought to be 10 incarnations, and they include animal or part-animal forms such as the Tortoise and Man-Lion, and human forms such as the Dwarf, Rama and Krishna,” says McGill, adding, “the idea in Hindu religion, in the film and video games, is projecting yourself into another, illusory, body.”

One unusual relic is a stone slab bearing an elaborately carved image of Vishnu with tiny representations of all 10 standard avatars around the central image. 

A more recent (circa 1760) item is a painting that shows a blue Vishnu – the color of the natives and avatars in Cameron's movie – and his consort riding through the sky on the great magical bird Garuda, another image used prominently in the film.

Asked to pick a few favorites among the thousand of other items in the museum's permanent collection, McGill has a hard time selecting from his “children,” but eventually settles on:

– The large, spectacular Bright Knight Fudo Myoo sculpture, from around 1100 AD, in the Japanese gallery. The large, carved flames behind the figure were installed only after the museum moved from its previous home in Golden Gate Park.  

– A large vase in the Korean gallery, with a vibrant design in pale blue cobalt. The painting shows a tiger smoking a pipe, McGill says, “from the Korean equivalent of ‘once upon a time’ depicting an impossible tale.”

– From the Chinese gallery, Terese Bartholomew's reproduction of a floor-length case of precious vases from the Imperial Palace (under special German glass that's virtually invisible), and a wonderful duck pouring vessel. McGill calls it “a fantastic creature, 600 years old, but invoking a style of a thousand years before its creation.”

Asian Art Museum permanent collection

Where: 200 Larkin St., San Francisco
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except until 9 p.m. Thursdays and closed Mondays
Tickets: $7 to $12; discounts after 5 p.m. Thursdays; $5 first Sunday each month
Contact: (415) 581-3500; www.asianart.org

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