An Extremely Rare and Important Massive Gilt-Bronze Figure of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara Song Dynasty
- 61 cm., 24 1/8 in.
This gilt-bronze Avalokitesvara figure is highly idiosyncratic in style and outstandingly rare, with only one other comparable sculpture being recorded, in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, from the Avery Brundage collection. While its modelling and casting quality is beyond any doubt, it is not easy to immediately place it in the history of Chinese Buddhist bronze sculpting.
Buddhist gilt bronze figures were produced in China almost right from the start, when Buddhism was embraced by various courts in the period of China’s division after the Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220). Until the Tang dynasty (607-906), however, they remained very small. A first development away from small votive images took place already in the Khitan Liao dynasty (907-1125), when sculptures not only became bigger, but also underwent a stylistic treatment towards a more abstract sculptural beauty (see lot 82). Yet it was to take another important step before precious gilt-bronze images such as the present figure, in a size comparable to the much cheaper wooden sculptures, were commissioned. This development culminated in the Yongle period (1403-24), when the court took total control of their production – as it did for other artefacts, in particular porcelain and lacquer – and a distinct style was devised, which should become classic and determining for all future design of Buddhist gilt-bronze images.
It would seem that the sculptors of the present figure had not yet seen a Yongle image and were thus innocent enough to formulate their own style. Between Tang and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties, a multitude of imperial and royal courts – the Five Dynasties (907-60), Liao, Song (960-1279), Jurchen Jin (1115-1234), Tangut Western Xia (1038-1227) and Mongol Yuan (1279-1368) – exerted influence on the appearance of works of art, both religious and secular, so that not one style gained overall acceptance. The stylistic variety of works of art in that period can therefore be overwhelming, and the artistic development is by no means one-directional.
The present sculpture is therefore something like a phare in an uncharted sea. It comes from a period when the Guanyin image had not yet turned sweet and feminine, and although the basic facial features suggest a woman’s face, the addition of small curls to indicate beard and moustache are an unmistakeable effort to counterbalance this effect. This way of representing Avalokitesvara is characteristic of Tang painting executed at Dunhuang in Gansu province, either in form of wall paintings inside the Caves or banners and other textiles discovered there.
Models for the style of a figure such as this could have been sketches as were done for wall paintings, some of which have survived. An ink sketch of a Bodhisattva head, drawn on the reverse of an earlier Daoist manuscript that was used as scrap paper, has been discovered at Dunhuang and is now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. It shows a very similar head with moustache and beard, sharply curved eyebrows, thick lips, neck with horizontal folds, and rich jewellery and ribbons; it was included in the exhibition Chine: L’empire du trait. Calligraphies et dessins du Ve au XIXe siècle, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, 2004, cat. no. 36 a, where it has been tentatively attributed by Nathalie Monnet to the late Tang or Five Dynasties, 10th century (fig. 1).
This sketch is echoed in a large number of Buddhist paintings from Dunhuang, done over an extended period from the late Tang through the Five Dynasties to the early Northern Song (960-1127) dynasty, which can be attributed to the 9th and 10th centuries. Compare, for example, paintings of Guanyin figures illustrated in Jacques Giès, Les arts de l’Asie central. La collection Paul Pelliot du musée national des arts asiatiques – Guimet, Paris, 1996, vol. I, pls. 52-72, and vol. II, pls. 11-35.
A group of paintings attributable to the 10th century, the Five Dynasties to early Northern Song, shows an even closer Bodhisattva image with multiple heads similar to the present figure, often with an eye on the forehead and hands, also richly adorned with jewellery and often with similar facial features; see in particular Giès, op.cit., vol. I, pls. 86, 89-93, and vol. II, pls. 64 and 65 (figs. 2 and 3).
There is also a standing wooden Bodhisattva figure carved in a related style in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, possibly also from the Dunhuang Cave complex in Gansu, attributed to the 10th/11th century (with a radiocarbon date range of 970-1120), illustrated in Denise Patry Leidy and Lawrence Becker, Wisdom Embodied. Chinese Buddhist and Daoist Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2010, cat. no. A 38.
Stylistically, facial features and proportions of this sculpture are also reminiscent of Guanyin images carved into the rock at the Huayan Caves, Anyue county, Sichuan province, which can be attributed to the Northern Song dynasty; see Zhongguo meishu quanji: Diaosu bian [Complete series on Chinese art: Sculpture section], 12: Sichuan shiku diaosu [Sichuan cave sculpture], Beijing, 1988, pls. 128 and 130.
The closely related gilt-bronze Avalokitesvara figure in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, which is lacking the rich ornaments and ribbons around the head, is illustrated in René-Yvon Lefebvre d’Argencé, ed., Chinese, Korean and Japanese Sculpture in the Avery Brundage Collection, San Francisco, 1974, pl. 159 (fig. 4).
While Yuan dynasty qingbai figures of similar size may at first glance seem closely related, they tend to be much softer and more distinctly feminine in appearance; see four Guanyin figures, from the collections of C.P. Lin, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the Metropolitan Museum, New York, illustrated in Stacey Pierson (ed.), Qingbai Ware: Chinese Porcelain of the Song and Yuan Dynasties, London, 2002, pls. 119-22.
It is highly unusual to find a Bodhisattva figure wearing a dragon-decorated robe, but the dragons seen on the present gilt bronze also confirm a pre-Yuan attribution. Compare similar seemingly boneless incised dragons with the head almost dissolved into a cloud motif and three-clawed feet with nails not yet set off at an angle, on Song dynasty Ding wares, for example, a dish and a washer included in the exhibition Qianxi nian Songdai wenwu dazhan/China at the Inception of the Second Millennium: Art and Culture of the Sung Dynasty, 960-1279, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2000, cat. nos. II-21 and III-17 (fig. 5).