Saturday, May 9, 2015

Early Chinese Buddhist Sculpture at Harvard

I finally got to Harvard  a week ago to see the newly re-opened Harvard Art Museums in the location of the former Fogg Art Museum, which is what I knew when I was a student.  Much lauded, this ambitious redo was just opened in November of 2014, but we all remember what this last winter was like, particularly in the Boston area. I wasn't about to brave the blizzards and snowdrifts!  Designed by Renzo Piano, the renovations cost 350 million dollars and features what he calls, "the light machine", which is in reality, just a big skylight. The result of this extraordinarily expensive renovation is quite ugly from the outside, the "light machine" towers above the old building like some sort of sci-fi smokestack or other mechanical thing.  However, fortunately, the galleries themselves are quite nice, and they are streaming with light generally, even when it doesn't serve the art. 

The galleries displaying their early Chinese Buddhist sculpture, the focus of this post, is a case in point. They are on the ground floor off the courtyard, and do not benefit from the light coming through the "light machine", rather many are displayed against glass exterior walls, so are back lit, and impossible to photograph.  In person one can see them reasonably well, ones eyes compensate in a way a camera does not.  However they are not displayed to their best advantage.  Surprisingly I discovered in researching for this post, the complete collection of Harvard's early Chinese Buddhist sculptures is not on display, strange given all the money spent and the larger exhibition spaces that were created.  Some of the pieces not on view are major, as I remembered them my memory which was confirmed by consulting the Harvard museum website which does have the entire collection available online. That much is to their credit, many museums still only have a fraction of their collections online. 

I will feature in this post the pieces on view currently that most relate to the material I have been fortunate to handle.  Chief among them is the piece below, in two images, one I took showing the difficult lighting conditions, the other from the Harvard website, optimally if not dramatically lit.

My photograph of the Bodhisattva statue

Photo from the Harvard website of the same sculpture
The sculpture above is a statue of a Bodhisattva, carved in marble with extensive traces of original polychromy and gold leaf. It is quite large, 62 1/2 inches tall, about life sized. It is highly adorned with a lot of jewelry, which is typical in this period of sculptures of Bodhisattvas.  It is dated to the Sui Dynasty, 581-618 A.D., which was when China was finally reunified for the first time in the four centuries after the fall of the Han Dynasty in 220 A.D. This sculpture, along with its companion, which is not on view currently at the museum, and which I featured in a post before, was key to my education in art history. When I was a student at Harvard, I wasn't particularly interested in Chinese art, but this sculpture and a few others at Harvard impressed me nonetheless. It is large, fairly complete for its great age and in a remarkable state of preservation with its remaining paint and gold leaf.  And it is beautiful, very finely carved.  It also has great seriousness, and grandeur with its elegant slim proportions and hieratic straight pose.  It is quite unlike later Chinese sculpture which is lush and curvy and not so interesting or impressive to me in general.  

The next pieces must all come from the same find, they are all of marble, and retain a lot of their original paint and gold leaf.  However none are as fine as the Bodhisattva above, see below.

Statue of a monk at Harvard

Statue of a Bodhisattva at Harvard

2nd statue of a monk at Harvard
These are all my photographs, as these sculptures are not displayed against the glass exterior walls.  All are marble, and about 3 feet or a little more in height, and all date to the Northern Qi Dynasty, 550 - 577 A.D.  They are all very similar to each other, the two monk sculptures are a pair, and the Bodhisattva is very related in its quality and style.  All are well preserved in terms of their surface, missing only their hands, but none are particularly finely carved. 

Seated Bodhisattva at Harvard

2nd seated Bodhisattva at Harvard

The pair of seated Bodhisattvas, also from the Grenville Winthrop bequest, are Northern Qi Dynasty, and are nearly intact, only missing the upraised right and left hands respectively.  Of very fine quality and also preserving a great deal of original paint, gold leaf and surface, the relate to the other sculptures above, but are carved of limestone, and may come from a different site than the others. 

Marble Buddha head at Harvard
The marble Buddha head above is exquisite and one of my favorites even though it is a fragment, whereas the prior works discussed are all nearly intact. From a life sized sculpture the quality of the marble, surface and carving is exceptional.  It has the deeply meditative expression that one finds in the best of Buddhist sculpture. Again, the head was backlit, so it does not photograph well in situ.

Small marble seated Buddha at Harvard

Detail of the seated Buddha above

Another detail of the seated Buddha above

 One of the greatest revelations was this small seated marble Buddha at Harvard, also Winthrop collection, that I don't remember from my youth. It was certainly there, but I may not have really noticed it. Only about 24 inches tall, it is intact and preserves most of its original pigment and surface. The pure white marble shines with its polished surfaces, contrasting the white skin areas with the painted clothing and lotus throne. The halo behind the head is also painted. The hands are exquisitely detailed with the palm lines and articulation of the fingers all clearly carved.  Between the thumb and forefinger of the left hand the Buddha holds a small jewel, and the toes are also clearly carved and detailed of the foot visible opposite that hand.  It, like the others above, is Northern Qi Dynasty, and may well come from the same find as the 3 marble sculptures featured. 

All the sculptures above come from the Northern Qi Dynasty, 550 - 577 A.D., which was a particularly brilliant moment for Chinese Buddhist sculpture. There are a few other pieces at Harvard worthy of mention that are before and after that period.

Gilt bronze Buddha, Harvard
Foremost among the other pieces is this gilt bronze seated Buddha, which is one of the earliest and best of the surviving early Chinese Buddhist sculptures. It dates to the 3rd to 4th Centuries A.D., early Northern Wei Dynasty and strongly reflects the Indian, specifically Gandharan, prototypes on which it is based.  It is large for a bronze, over 12 inches tall, and of much better quality than most other surviving early Chinese Buddhist bronze sculptures.  One reason for the rarity of Chinese Buddhist sculpture from this time was a pogrom against Buddhism that destroyed the temples and sculptures in 460 A.D. This destructive purge seems to have been singularly successful in nearly erasing any trace of Buddhism, but was short lived, as immediately after the temples were rebuilt and there is much sculpture surviving from the later Northern Wei Dynasty.  This bronze is so Indian in style that out of context it would be taken at first glance for a Gandharan bronze Buddha. Only a few small stylistic details make it clear that it is Chinese and not Indian in origin.  As such it is a wonderful illustration of how Buddhism and Buddhist art reached China through contact with India.

Tang Buddha at Harvard
This seated sandstone Buddha is one of the most famous in the collection as it epitomizes high Tang style art of the mid 8th Century A.D., which was the height of the greatest period of Chinese civilization.  China at this time was the pre-eminent world empire, and its capital, Chang'an, was the most populous city in the world at this time, with a population of some 2 million people. China was very cosmopolitan at this time, the silk route brought people from all over the world into the empire and there were foreign sections in Chang'an reflecting the empires reach and diversity. The art is supremely confident and completely Chinese. You can see that in the sculpture above, the features and style are totally Chinese there is no mistaking it for anything else, and yet it has not lapsed into the softness and lassitude that characterize later Chinese sculpture. This Buddha comes from one of the cave temples at Tianlongshan, which was a major center of Buddhist worship patronized by the imperial family.  It is large, nearly life sized at 43 1/2 inches tall, and very finely carved in sandstone, preserving traces of its original polychrome.  It is featured in most survey books on Chinese sculpture as it is is one of the best examples of its type extant.

Clay and stucco Bodhisattva sculpture at Harvard

3/4 view of the stucco Bodhisattva above, at Harvard

Last I will mention this worshiping bodhisattva above, which is rare survivor and example outside of China of an important class of sculptures which don't survive because of their fragile materials. It comes from a cave temple in Dunhuang and was part of an assembly of 8 attendant figures around a central seated Buddha.  Dating to the early Tang Dynasty, this reflects the high cosmopolitan style of Chinese art of this time, sensuous, luxurious, but still serious in intent and feeling.  The medium allowed for great freedom of the modeling, it is only because it was in a cave that this fragile medium survived. It is one of the only and best such sculptures in the West. 

All the sculptures above come from one collection and bequest, that of Grenville Winthrop, who left his extensive and varied art collection to Harvard in 1943.  The scion of one of Massachusetts oldest and most distinguished families, Winthrop was a pioneering collector. When going through the Harvard Museums I was struck by the fact that invariably, any work of art that caught my eye, had come from his collection. The range is quite amazing, the most beautiful Pre-Raphaelite works at the museum came from him, as well as much of the ancient art there, from Greece, Rome and most notably China.  In reading up on him subsequently, I learned that he developed the best collection of Ingres outside of France, among other things. It was the Chinese collection he amassed that struck me when I was a student and still does now. He collected nearly 600 ancient Chinese jades, and many bronzes, as well as the early Buddhist sculptures above. 

A quote from him in response to an appeal from the Smithsonian Institution for his collection sums up his aim in giving it to Harvard:

"I admit that more people of the "general public" will visit Washington than Cambridge, but I am not so much interested in the general public as I am in the Younger Generation whom I want to reach in their impressionable years and to prove to them that true art is founded on traditions and is not the product of any one country or century and that Beauty may e found in all countries and in all periods, provided the eye be trained to find it."

His aim was certainly achieved, his collection made an impression on me when I was young and opened my eyes to Chinese art, which later has been of great benefit to me.