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Buddhist art through the Chinese dynasties
by Lucien de Guise, New Straits Times, May 26, 2013
AS China’s new premier trots the globe, or at least India, it is an opportune moment to look at the other cultural phenomena that the Middle Kingdom has unleashed upon the world.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- For many decades of the late 20th Century, it was tomb figures. Whether they were horses, camels or courtesans, these earthenware mouldings showed what China had to offer in three dimensions for viewers who couldn’t feel a connection with a ceramic bowl or a bronze altar accessory.
<< 11th century Guanyin sculpture in wood with gesso, pigment and gilding.
Wood was a latecomer to the market, although some collectors were way ahead of the pack, including Frank Lloyd Wright. In China’s hierarchy of materials, wood is by no means at the top of the metaphorical tree. What respect has been shown is less due to the effort of the craftsman than to the intervention of nature. With Chinese furniture, the first question will generally be: What sort of wood is it made of? In the West, it wouldn’t matter if the great French and
English furniture makers had worked in formica, so long as the name of the artisan was guaranteed. In traditional China, an artfully arranged tree root could excite more admiration than the hand of the finest artisan.
Collectors of Ming furniture want their wood to be zitan or huanghuali. Collectors of Chinese sculpture don’t usually ask. Impressive though these sculptures look after time has ravaged them a little, their appearance now rarely matches their original look. In the old days, you would not have seen the wood at all as it was covered with a generous coat of lacquer or gesso, and pigment.
The type of Chinese sculpture that is now fetching large sums is, in keeping with this season and with Premier Li’s trip to India, Buddhist. Most of it is from the Song dynasty (960-1279). It might come as a surprise that this should happen during a period that is generally seen as bad karma for Buddhism. Certainly, Confucian ideology prospered during those days. However, it seems increasingly likely that the religion imported from India did not suffer the backlash against decadent Tang (618-907) ways that has generally been assumed to have happened. Judging by the number of Song-era sculptures that have entered the market, the temple business must have been booming at that time.
Song Buddhist sculptures have a distinctive look. The most vigorous of them are seen “in the round” and were not intended to be placed in a niche, unlike so many other religious images. Everything about them is well attuned to 21st Century sensibilities. Instead of portraying the Lord Buddha himself, they tend to feature Bodhisattvas — beings who delay their journey to Nirvana in order to help others reach the same destination.
The all-time favourite is Guanyin. Ambiguous in many ways, this deity of dual gender is usually equipped in Song sculptures with a look of awe-inspiring indifference. They have a cool that is very contemporary. They are also a manifestation of inner beauty that happens to fit current criteria. Even their posture has a languid composure that would make them first-rate fashion models in the modern milieu.
Among the most common poses is the one known as “royal ease”. Sitting with one leg raised and the other dangling down, it is far from the stiff iconography that usually comes with Buddhist art. It is almost as if he is dipping his toes in the Malibu infinity-edge swimming pool. Although the figure of Guanyin wears more clothes than most Californians, there is still plenty of flesh on display, and a cascade of jewellery too.
Majesty is what these sculptures exude, without any of the stuffy conventions that are usually attributed to royalty. During the Tang era (618-907), the aim was to represent the realm of the sublime. There is grace, but a certain inflexibility.
By Song times, there is less spirituality and more sensuality. These later anonymous artists were the equivalent of Michelangelo in their humanising of the Divine. It is hard to imagine any Chinese works that have such an effortless quality. This is combined with expressive sensitivity that is often both highly sensual and filled with Buddhist notions of The Void as well.
This doesn’t always work as intended; sometimes a face can end up looking more like Jackie Chan than a manifestation of regal benificence. Even when it does happen, there is nothing folksy about these carvings, which have the same commanding presence as Buddhist sculptures from Gandhara. This region in what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan is most famous for the Bamiyan Buddhas that were destroyed by the Taliban shortly before America decided to even the cultural score. They were in the category of Buddhist art that is as rigid as ancient Egyptian basalt. Other sculptures from Gandhara display more fluidity, although nothing to match the Song experiment.
After the Song, sculpture moved steadily along the path to realism. As before, every effort was made to hide the fact that it was made of wood. Ming (1368-1644) sculptures tend to look rather formal, and the situation deteriorated further after that.
By Qing (1644-1911) times, the genre had been reduced to little more than the mini figures that turn up on smokey temple altars. The decline continues. Modern attempts to re-create the splendour of Buddhist statuary end up as undeniably massive Buddhas, such as Hong Kong’s Lantau Island record-breaker. At 220 tonnes, it is not attempting to look graceful. At the other extreme are Buddhas sprayed with what looks like gold automative paint and lurid polychrome nymphs. Once more, it is not the wood that devotees are looking at.