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: A Gift of Early Chinese Sculpture From Mrs. Washburn


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Through the generosity of Mrs. John Washburn a fine example of Chinese Buddhist sculpture has recently become part of the museum’s permanent Far Eastern collection. This is a stone head of the Buddha dating from the latter half of the sixth century and coming from a small and as yet little-known group of caves in Wu An in northern Honan. Despite the fact that it is actually only a fragment—the head has been sheared off from what must have been a very large figure so that only the face remains—the piece gives a remarkable impression of completeness.It measures about twenty-five inches in height and is in excellent condition. The expression, portrayed with a suavity that heralds the flowering of T’ang art, is one of benign contemplation. The eyes are half-closed beneath strongly modelled brows, the nose is straight and fine, and the lips are curved in a shadowy smile reminiscent of Wei Buddhist images.To some visitors this sculpture, because of its passivity, may seem of little interest. To many others, however, it is an object of great beauty. To them its dignity, aloofness, and quiet strength speak inwardly and symbolize the timeless greatness of Chinese art.The precise date of this head has not been determined, but according to Dr. James M. Menzies of Toronto University it may be attributed to the early years of Northern Ch’i (A.D. 550-577), a short-lived dynasty that followed the collapse of the Eastern Wei (A.D. 534-550). Dr. Menzies, whose researches in China cover some twenty years, is convinced that the head comes from a group of caves at Pei Hiang T’ang which he visited in 1913, since it strikingly resembles both in style and material the Buddhist sculptures that he saw there. The modelling of the face is characteristic of the softer and rounder style which, during the contemporary Northern Ch’i and Northern Chou (A.D. 557-581), and the Sui (A.D. 581-618) dynasties, marked the transition from later Wei sculptures to those of the T’ang period (A.D. 618-906).The head is carved of the hard almost black limestone that is often found in the sculptures of northern Honan and, in the treatment of the headdress and the modelling of the eye sockets, recalls the monumental statue of the Buddha from the Loo Collection which was shown in the exhibition of Chinese Art in London (Cat. No. 2360). It is thought that the Institute’s sculpture was removed from China sometime between 1912 and 1917, when the caves near Pei Hiang T’ang were violated by vandals. It later turned up in a European collection and was subsequently brought to this country. Fuller information concerning the actual caves from which it came must await the publication of a monograph now being prepared at Yenching University.The gift of a piece of Buddhist sculpture is one of considerable interest and importance to the Art Institute, since it brings to the collection a second example of the early transitional period of Chinese sculpture. Together with the standing Bodhisattva of dark grey limestone from Sian-fu, which was purchased by the Institute in 1918 and is shown on page forty-nine, it illustrates the evolution of Buddhist sculpture from the archaic style of the Wei to the perfected and highly sophisticated style of the T’ang. It is, moreover, an example of a period and locality as yet little-known in American collections, and will be valuable in ascertaining the provenance of other sculptures of its kind.The importance of transitional examples may perhaps be clarified by a brief review of Buddhist sculpture during the Wei dynasty. The empire of the Northern Wei (A.D. 386-535) was founded by a descendant of a chieftan of the T’opa Tartars who, finding himself sufficiently powerful, overthrew the existing government. The first capital of the dynasty was established at Ta Tung Fu in northern Shansi, and it was in the nearby Yün-kang caves that the first important Buddhist sculpture in China were executed.The Wei, illiterate and ignorant of any art but the primitive arts they had practiced in their nomad lives, took over the culture and manners of the vanquished race but preferred to bestow their patronage on the foreign Buddhist religion which, until then, had received no perceptible encouragement. Under the Wei rulers Buddhist art flourished throughout north China, first in the Yün-kang cave temples, begun about 454, and later, when the Wei capital was removed to Loyang in the late fifth century, in the Lung-mên caves. It is interesting to note that the early examples at Yün-kang reveal a more decided foreign influence than the subsequent examples at Lung-mên in Honan where native cultural traditions were strong.It is in the early carvings at Lung-mên that the Wei style is seen at its best. It is characterized by a flatness and elongation of figure, a mysterious smile, a dignified pose, and a tenseness in the rendering of drapery. The figures are excessively attenuated, the necks long, and the heads narrow. Some idea of this style may be obtained from the two terra cotta figures in the Institute’s collection.The style of the Northern Wei dominated the sculptural art of China until the middle of the sixth century, its latest influence being reflected in the carvings of the Eastern Wei (534-550) and the Western Wei (535-557). Thereafter, under the Northern Ch’i (550-577), the Northern Chou (557-581), and the Sui (581-618) dynasties, it began to break away from the archaic Wei style and eventually under the T’ang dynasty (618-906) became a mature and perfected art.The transitional period begins in the mid-sixth century, when, in 550, the rule of the Eastern Wei was seized by a powerful minister who, unfortunately, paid with his life for his treachery. His coup was not effected in vain, however, for his brother was able to found a new dynasty which he called the Northern Ch’i. The self-made emperor kept Yeh in Honan as his capital, and early in his reign (A.D. 555), did much for Buddhist art by making it the official religion. This resulted in the production of a large number of Buddhist sculptures in Honan and Shantung, in a large part of Chili, and in the eastern section of Shansi, provinces which were under the sway of the Northern Ch’i.The most important group of cave sculptures of the Northern Ch’i period now known are those at T’ien Lung shan near T’ai Yuan hsien, the old capital of Shansi. As the home of the founder of the Northern Ch’i dynasty, this place was one of unusual significance throughout the reign despite the fact that the capital was at Yeh. In the opinion of Oswald Sirén the sculptures at T’ien Lung shan were begun during the domination of the Northern Ch’i, and were thereafter continued under the Sui and later rulers. The earliest figures reveal, in some instances, a strong Indian influence, and lead to the belief that the exchange of ideas was especially close between India and T’ien Lung shan at the time. It has even been suggested that certain of the figures may have been executed by Indian workmen.The early images at T’ein Lung shan are quite flat despite the fact that they are carved in rather high relief, but in the later sculptures, where Indian influence is more marked, they are rounder and heavier and executed in such high relief as to be almost in the round. In modelling the bodies of the Buddhist images the sculptors had definitely freed themselves from earlier conventions, and were treating their material in terms of mass and weight.The same preoccupation, however faint it may now appear to have been, is also apparent in the sculptures of Honan. Here, as had been the case in the Wei period, artists were less affected by foreign influence than in other parts of China, for they were working in the locale where native tradition was perhaps stronger than elsewhere. Thus their sculptures are in some respects more interesting, since they reveal native artists solving their problems in their own way. The transition from the abstract and excessively angular figures of the Wei period to the plastic and more natural images of the Northern Ch’i is effected logically. The forms gradually become rounded and the draperies quieter. There is, especially in some of the large heads from this district, a delicacy of modelling and a hint of characterization that places them among the most interesting Buddhist sculptures of China. To this group the Institute’s newly-acquired head belongs. The sculptor who executed it had some knowledge of plastic form and managed to suggest, beneath the still slightly archaic expression of the face, the sculptural ideal which would come to full flower in the T’ang period.This ideal, to which the Buddhist sculptors of the Northern Ch’i contributed so much, may be discerned also in the sculptures executed during the period of the Northern Chou, a dynasty which flourished concurrently with, and eventually overthrew, the Northern Ch’i. Just as the latter had deposed the Eastern Wei in 550, the former deposed the Western Wei in 557, and set up the Northern Chou government at the existing capital Ch’ang-an. The territory over which it held sway included the provinces of Shansi, Kansu, and western Shansi.The sculptures of the Northern Chou, like those of the Northern Ch’i, reveal a definite evolution from the conventionalization and linear emphasis of the Wei period to a more natural and rhythmic treatment of line and mass. The faces of the images become more human even while retaining, in many cases, the characteristic smile of Wei Buddhist figures. In this respect the sculptures of the Northern Chou reveal a kinship with those of the contemporary Ch’i. In other ways, however, they differ, for the Buddhas carved in Shensi during this time are heavier and more virile than the delicate and often elegant sculptures of Honan and Chili.A characteristic example of the Shensi style, which produced the most important group of Buddhist sculptures during the rule of the Northern Chou, is seen in the museum’s standing figure of a Bodhisattva. This comes from Sian-fu and is dated A.D. 570. The Bodhisattva is shown standing on a double lotus pedestal which is placed in turn upon a square plinth. Four small lions decorate the corners of the base. The right hand of the figure, now broken, was raised, and the left is stretched forward as if to give or receive some object that is now missing. The flowing garments are richly adorned with large pendants and looped chains, and a thin scarf falls from the shoulders.Despite the feminine quality of the figure, which results from the lavish use of beads, buckles, and chains, the outstanding impression it conveys is one of real power. The form is flat and masculine, and the face expressive of restrained force rather than of benignity.The qualities of vigor and refinement illustrated in these two examples of Buddhist sculpture were in time to join forces and produce the mature religious art of the T’ang period. That this did not occur during the period of the two contemporary northern dynasties may have been due to the constant rivalry between the two houses. The Northern Chou did finally, in 1577, conquer their neighbors and become rulers of all north China, but their triumph did not endure for long. Before many years had elapsed an ambitious minister of the Northern Chou took over the government, and in 581 seized it completely, founding the Sui dynasty. Under this reign the whole of China became one vast empire and the art of sculpture moved further toward the T’ang ideal which is so subtly and beautifully foreshadowed in the head presented by Mrs. Washburn.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Stone head of Buddha of the Northern Ch'i Period (A.D. 550-577) from the cave temples at Pei Hiang T’ang in Honan province. Gift of Mrs. John Washburn
  2. Limestone Bodhisattva dated A.D. 570 from Sian-Fu in Shensi. Northern Chou period (A.D. 557-581)
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Source: "A Gift of Early Chinese Sculpture From Mrs. Washburn," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 27, no. 10 (March, 1938): 46-50.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009