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: Institute Receives Gift of Rare Chinese Wall Paintings


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Art Institute has recently received, as the gift of C. T. Loo, a remarkable group of three Chinese wall paintings which date from the Northern Sung Dynasty (A.D. 960-1127). It is with the greatest pleasure that the Institute takes this opportunity to express to Mr. Loo its gratitude not only for his gift, but also for the unique contribution he has made over a period of many years to the furthering of an awareness and appreciation of Chinese art in this country. It is typical of Mr. Loo’s generosity to have shared with Minneapolis what may prove to be the last available Chinese wall paintings. Due to the nature of the materials used, only a few examples have survived in remote sections of China, Chinese Turkestan, and Korea. Still fewer have been brought to America for installation in museums. Thus Mr. Loo’s gift fills a gap in the Institute’s collections of Chinese art and further establishes Minneapolis as a center for the study of such works of art.The paintings, which represent Buddhist deities, formed part of a larger composition standing in the debris of a ruined temple on the Honan-Shansi border when Mr. Loo first heard of them in 1923. His agent arranged with local authorities to salvage as much of the series as possible, thus sparing it further exposure and deterioration, if not total destruction. Mr. Loo was later gratified to learn that the temple had been rebuilt with the funds received as compensation for these paintings. They were first installed by Mr. Loo in his house in Paris, a well-known landmark on the Rue de la Courcelles. After World War II he brought them to the United States for the enjoyment of a wider public. Following their exhibition in 1949 in New York and several other cities, including Minneapolis, Mr. Loo divided the paintings among a small group of museums.The Institute’s three examples probably formed part of a large Buddhist paradise painted directly on the mud wall opposite the main entrance to the temple, which judging from Mr. Loo’s description, must have followed the conventional rectangular plan of most Buddhist temples. The largest and most important of the paintings, sixty-eight inches high and forty-eight inches wide, portrays the Dhyani-Bodhisattva, who is seated cross-legged with his right hand on his right knee and his left hand raised toward the chief deity in the composition. He is magnificently clothed and decked with jewels, and wears in his headdress an image of the Dhyani-Buddha, of whom he is an emanation. The other two paintings, seventeen by twenty-three and twenty-four by twenty-five inches, depict Apsarases, or flying angels, who serve as his complementary attendants.It is important to note that these paintings are not frescoes, but wall paintings. Fresco implies that the lime of the plaster ground serves as the binding medium of the pigments. It is, moreover, a procedure developed in Italy, not China. These paintings were painted directly on reinforced mud walls covered with a thin coat of kaolin. Water and glue served as the binding medium for the numerous pigments, including mineral and lead pigments as well as vegetable dyes. The rich, flowing line so characteristic of the best Chinese painting indicates that a master has been at work. However, he may have provided a cartoon which his assistants traced on the mud walls and then executed under his supervision.With its limestone sarcophagus of Prince Cheng Ching, purchased in 1946, and Mr. Loo’s gift the Institute can now display two of the important stages of the development of Chinese painting. The sarcophagus, with its series of landscapes and figures designed by a painter, but executed by a sculptor working in low relief, represents the sophisticated style prevailing in the Chinese capital in the sixth century. All contemporary painting on more fragile material has long since perished. The three wall paintings comprising Mr. Loo’s gift, with their expressive line and delicate color, represent the mature style as well as the international character of Buddhist painting of a later date. In iconography, for example, they recall the cave paintings done at Ajanta and at Bagh in Southern India during the first centuries after Christ, while in color and composition they resemble more closely the great series of the sixth to the eighth centuries discovered in the Buddhist center at Tun-huang in Kansu by Sir Aurel Stein. Perhaps they resemble most of all their immediate predecessors executed during the T’ang Dynasty (A.D. 618-906) in China and Japan and now completely destroyed, the latest and most tragic loss having been the fire at the kondo of Horyuji in Japan in 1948.For a fuller statement of Chinese wall painting in general and Mr. Loo’s paintings in particular, Mrs. Lindsay Hughes Cooper has kindly granted permission to reprint the following excerpts from an account written by her for the catalogue prepared for the New York exhibition of Mr. Loo’s Northern Sung paintings.“Confucius wrote of Portraits of the Ancients which adorned walls of palaces in Loyang when he visited there about 500 B.C. The Wu family, in the second century A.D., decorated the walls of their ancestral offering chamber with reliefs which we look at today and think must have reproduced in stone designs which otherwise were painted on walls. Wu Tao-tzu is said to have painted some three-hundred frescoes during his lifetime in the eighth century—compositions which amazed and awed those who saw them, the figures so vital that there were some reputed to have come alive.“All of these paintings have disappeared. We read in books of fifteen hundred years of Chinese wall paintings for which we cannot point out any known example.“The story of wall paintings during the Yuan and Ming periods is fairly well known from the excellent examples in, and published by, several museums. This present exhibition pushes back our knowledge some two hundred years before this period, into the Northern Sung Dynasty.“Chinese temples, from the first, have been particularly well suited for wall decoration. The ceiling rests on a wooden framework (a principle similar to that of our modern skyscraper architecture) and the walls are filled in with bricks. The façade wall is made up of a series of doors and through these doors light falls on the three other walls with their uninterrupted spaces.“In order to prepare the back and side walls for painting, the bricks were covered with a thick layer of mud mixed with straw. Upon this, in the exhibited paintings, there was added a thin layer of finer clay with vegetable fibers in it, and finally a coat of lime so that the artist had a smooth surface on which to work.“He sketched his designs upon the wall with a brush charged with carbon black from soot, outlining his figures, their draperies and accessories. Instead of filling in the indicated fields with a single color, as was customary in frescoes of the Yuan-Ming period, in these earlier paintings the color was brushed on by the artist in fully a sensitive a manner as that he employed for his outline....[In some examples] the red body color stops short of the black line, allowing the background to frame the outline. The effect achieved is one of depth, as though the line were engraved instead of painted. . . . [In the floating scarf of Apsaras] The black guide lines were filled, sometimes eclipsed, with red paint over which were drawn narrow stripes of a contrasting color, probably a light green. . . . Finally the borders were highlighted by a line of thick white.“Colors were used skillfully and sensitively. This same Apsaras. . . which has been cleaned, reveals that a red line was painted over the black outline of the face and undraped figure, to indicate modeling of the body. (This was a conventional device used on T’ang frescoes found in Central Asia. . . and at Horyuji in Japan.) Halos with shaped edges, cloud banks with subtle changes of color, hands, headdresses, accessories. . . are delicately painted. It seems highly unlikely that the man who planned and sketched these compositions allowed anyone else to work on them.“The colors used are several shades of red, green, blue and black and white. Yellow was possibly present, but has faded beyond recognition. . . .“These paintings, as is true of most wall paintings of the T’ang and later periods, are of Buddhist subjects. That they are rare today may be accounted for by the persecutions and the demolitions of temples suffered by that foreign-born religion.“Compositions were usually similar, a bisymmetric arrangement of deities with a large figure of an enthroned Buddha, or as in this case, a Bodhisattva, holding the dominant central position. On either side a secondary Bodhisattva was enthroned with various lesser deities and attendants standing in adoration, some with gifts of flowers, fruits or incense, with angels floating through the upper heaven.“The costumes are of two types. The central Bodhisattva and most of the attendants wear a long dhoti, sometimes lined with a contrasting color. . . which is held in place at the waist by a ribbon and then falls loosely about the hips. The upper torso is unclothed except for scarves, a floral rosary and an anchoring rope of jewels.“This skeleton wrap of jewels consisted of a stiff round necklace, with a double or triple loop in front, to which were attached flexible strands crossing the upper arm, thigh, front torso, with a long loop falling below the knees to continue the movement of the skirt. Loose pendants swaying in front added to the sumptuous effect.“Similar jewels covered and held in place the second type of costume, worn by the two minor enthroned Bodhisattvas. . . . A hip-length blouse, with wide round neck and rolled over collar, has a center vertical panel which is pulled into the neck when seated to keep the blouse from binding the hips. . . . Three-quarter length sleeves have a bulbous band below the elbow. The skirt is finely pleated and caught up slightly on either side of the leg, so that when seated it fits almost as neatly as would a pair of trousers.“The three enthroned Bodhisattvas wear high headdresses, similar in shape to a bishop’s miter. Each one bears an image of the Dhyani-Buddha from whom this Bodhisattva is an emanation. The headdresses are heavily jeweled, pendants being suspended form the beaks of decorative birds or from projecting scrolls.“Such a display of jewels, scarves, grace and beauty suggest that these deities were feminine gods. An ever-present mustache would indicate otherwise.”The paintings in the exhibition thus recorded by Mrs. Cooper add to the existing body of material in America further important examples for the study of the great tradition of Buddhist wall painting. Thanks to Mr. Loo, that tradition may now be studied in Minneapolis.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Flying Apsaras with a plate of flowers
    Detail of a Northern Sung wall painting presented by C. T. Loo
  2. Dhyani-Bodisattva, Chinese, Northern Sung (907-1127)
    One of a group of Buddhist wall paintings presented by Mr. Loo
  3. Flying Apsaras. One of the complementary attendants in a Buddhist wall paintings originally in a Chinese temple.
  4. Flying Apsaras holding a plate of flowers. One of the attendants floating through the upper heaven of a Buddhist paradise.
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Source: Richard S. Davis, "Institute Receives Gift of Rare Chinese Wall Paintings," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 41, no. 1 (January, 1952): 2-8.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009