A HIGHLY IMPORTANT AND SUPERBLY CARVED SANDSTONE FIGURE OF A BODHISATTVA TANG DYNASTY
- 60.4 cm, 23 3/4 in.
J.T. Tai & Co., New York.
Sotheby's Hong Kong, 29th April 1997, lot 709.
This exquisitely carved sandstone figure of a bodhisattva, embodiment of compassion and a manifestation of the most refined characteristics of high Tang sculpture - the extraordinarily sensitive treatment of form and movement, and the renewal of influence from Northern India - is arguably the greatest Tang stone sculpture in private hands. Certainly it is by far the finest quality and most complete example of the Tianlongshan style recorded in any private collection, and is unrivalled by any of the famous published sculptures in that style preserved in the collections of major Western and Japanese museums. It is endowed with a truly illustrious provenance, formerly in the collections of two of the greatest art dealers of the 20th century - C.T. Loo (1880-1957) and J.T. Tai (1910-92). Emerging for the first time at auction from the latter’s estate at Sotheby’s Hong Kong spring sales in 1997, it commanded an unprecedented world-record price. Other fragmentary pieces have been sold at auction since then, surpassing this record, but it is highly unlikely that any Tang sculpture of comparable quality and completeness will ever again emerge on the international market.
Little is recorded of the Tianlongshan cave temples of Shanxi, established in the Eastern Wei dynasty (534-550) and particularly active in the Tang dynasty (618-907) up until the mid-8th century, but after remaining forgotten for centuries, with only a passing reference to the excavation of three caves to provide shelter for refugees of war in the 25th year of the Jiajing period (1546), the legacy of the breathtaking Buddhist sculptures created there was broadcast to the world in the early 20th century. It was immediately clear that in the category of Chinese stone sculpture, no other period or style surpassed that of Tianlongshan in terms of quality or sheer beauty. Publications by international scholars including Tomura Tajiro and Osvald Sirén contained lavish photography of the caves, of which altogether 25 were discovered, the most important numbered from 1 to 21, all literally carved out of the rock face, with the majority of sculptures inside carved from the very walls they decorated.
The C.T. Loo sandstone bodhisattva, published for the first time in the catalogue Exhibition of Chinese Arts, C.T. Loo, New York, 1941, is unrecorded in any of the detailed photographic studies of the Tianlongshan caves, notably Tomura Tajiro’s comprehensive work Tenryūzan Sekkutsu [Tianlongshan Caves], published in Tokyo in 1922, or Sadajiro Yamanaka’s catalogue Tenryusan Sekibutsu-shu [Collection of Tian Long Shan Buddha], published in 1928, but influence from the Tianlongshan style is distinctly present. Another figure of a bodhisattva, carved in the same posture with identical treatment of the face, jewellery and drapery, photographed in situ in Cave 14 (fig. 1), is illustrated in Osvald Sirén, Chinese Sculpture from the Fifth to the Fourteenth Century, New York, 1925, pl. 495, as are three other similar figures flanking the Buddha from Cave 17, pl. 498. Compare also a similar figure of a bodhisattva in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, originally in Cave 17, illustrated in situ in Sun Di, ed., Tianlongshan Shiku [T'ien Lung Shan Grottoes], Beijing, 2004, p. 148, pl. 176 (fig. 2); a head of a bodhisattva, now in the Nezu Museum of Art (fig. 3), included in the exhibition Chinese Buddhist Stone Sculpture. Veneration of the Sublime, Osaka Municipal Museum of Art, Osaka, 1995, cat. no. 67; and a torso from the Cleveland Museum of Art (fig. 4), illustrated in Chinese Art in Overseas Collections. Buddhist Sculpture, vol. II, Taipei, 1990, pl. 123.
The C.T. Loo bodhisattva is also illustrated in the appendix of Sun Di, ed., Tianlongshan Shiku [T'ien Lung Shan Grottoes], Beijing, 2004, p. 178, pl. 18, alongside other sculptures clearly in the style of Tianlongshan, but unrecorded in early publications, including a torso of Maitreya in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas and another torso of a seated Buddha in the Rietberg Museum, pp. 174 and 176, pls. 8 and 12.
The closest comparable example to the current sculpture ever to have appeared at auction is a larger torso of a bodhisattva with replacement head from the collection of the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Tokyo, originally loaned by Yamanaka to the International Exhibition of Chinese Art, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1935, cat. no. 234, later illustrated in Ancient Chinese Arts in the Idemitsu Collection, Tokyo, 1989, col. pl. 340, and sold at Christie’s New York, 26th March 2003, lot 148. It is now in the collection of the National Museum of China, Beijing. It is illustrated in Sun Di, ed., Tianlongshan Shiku [T'ien Lung Shan Grottoes], Beijing, 2004, p. 178, pl. 210, in situ on the north wall of Cave 21, with the head already removed, and together with its replacement head, pl. 213. It is stylistically very close to the C.T. Loo bodhisattva, both depicted seated in lalitasana with sensual yet muscular poise, with similar treatment of the drapery that elegantly folds across the body, revealing the graceful curves of their bodies. Its original head, donated in 1942 by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, accession number 42.25.12, is illustrated in Chinese Art in Overseas Collections. Buddhist Sculpture, vol. II, Taipei, 1990, pl. 127.
The Idemitsu torso and Metropolitan Museum head are also illustrated together on the website of the Tianlongshan Caves Project (tls.uchicago.edu), an academic website set up in 2013 to pursue research and digital imaging of the caves and their sculptures, where it is pointed out that due to a large fissure in the stone walls of Cave 21, the stone itself was unsuitable for sculpting. It is therefore more likely that the figures in this cave were originally carved separately outside of the cave complex and later placed inside, rather than being carved in high relief from the walls themselves.
After his visit to the site in 1922, Osvald Sirén observed in Chinese Sculpture from the Fifth to the Fourteenth Century, New York, 1925, p. 55, that the sandstone used to carve the Tianlongshan figures was extremely fragile, making them particularly prone to damage and loss of detail:
"The stone at T’ien Lung shan is of a soft sandy quality and has comparatively little power of resistance. Some of the statues have been eaten away in part by water".
The soft and supple nature of the sandstone utilised in the carving of the Tianlongshan sculptures makes them especially fragile, but it is also the key to their sheer beauty and sensitive naturalism, visible on the examples illustrated here. The modelling of the sculptures is articulated with vivid realism, the compassionate expressions on the faces of the bodhisattvas conveying the uttermost spirituality. In contrast to the more sinicised treatment of the human form in the Northern Qi (550-577) and Sui (581-607) dynasties, these creations of the high Tang exhibit a deep level of influence from the artistic style of the Indian Gupta empire (320-647) and the flourishing Buddhist centres of Gandhara. Compare the sensitive modelling of the facial features, and especially the treatment of the drapery on the famous large carved grey schist figure of Buddha from Gandhara, 2nd/3rd century, from the collection of Charterhouse School, sold in our New York rooms, 20th September 2002, lot 16 (fig. 5), originally found near Peshawar in 1881.
Like grey schist, the type of sandstone used at Tianlongshan is also particularly conducive for high quality carving in the round, enabling intricate and naturalistic detailing of the facial features and curved poised bodies. The eye is drawn not only to the form of the figure itself, but also to the graceful folds of the robes, distinctly Hellenistic in their adherence to the contours of a realistically conceived body as they flow freely down below the plinths. However, where the Gandharan prototype is sterner and more distinct in its seated posture, the Tianlongshan sculptures are characterised by gentle S-curves on the body, hips slightly tilted to one side, and heads turned in an opposite direction, all of which imbue the figures with dynamic movement and deep sensuality, especially when placed as groups against the walls of the cave. These characteristic touches of the high Tang are heightened by the exquisite details the sculptors were able to bring to life from the versatility of the sandstone: the skilfully defined and muscular torso; the graceful curve of the exposed belly above the waistband; the raised heel and curved toes exuberating movement.
The same sensitive and realistic treatment of form, with particularly sensual modelling of the body, can be seen on contemporaneous bronze figures of bodhisattvas. Compare the elegant curved posture of the Tang bronze Avalokitesvara from the collection of Sakamoto Gorō, offered in this series of sales, lot 3218. Like the current stone sculpture, the style of the bronze figure has a hint of the secular; the elegant curved form and graceful movement of the hips, and the open robes revealing the torso and prominent belly button, all combine to endow these legacies of the high Tang with expressions of profound compassion and deep sensuality.
Loo Ching Tsai (1880-1957)
Born into a scholarly family in Zhejiang, C.T. Loo (as he was known in the West) was educated in Shanghai before moving to Paris at the age of twenty. In 1902 he established ‘Ton Ying’, a private trading company with Zhang Jingjiang, the commercial attaché to the Qing Minister in France, and contributed to the financing of the Xinhai Revolution which ended Imperial rule. With access to treasures from the Qing Court collection, and agents not only in Beijing and Shanghai, but also the interior cities, he was the unrivalled buyer of Chinese art of all periods throughout the 1920s and 1930s. He originally set up gallery in Paris and converted a town house at 48 rue de Courcelles into a Chinese pagoda, but after the First World War he also opened stores in Fifth Avenue, New York, and became a major supplier to museums throughout the US, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The famous Sui dynasty Amitabha Buddha in the British Museum, at nearly 6m tall the largest Chinese stone sculpture outside of China, was donated by C. T. Loo to the British Museum in 1938.
Tai Jun Tse (1910-1992)
Born in Wuxi in 1910, J.T. Tai (as he was known in the West), opened a gallery in Shanghai in the 1930s. In 1949, he decided to leave Shanghai for Hong Kong, and was almost immediately invited by C.T. Loo to become his partner in New York, but he eventually decided to start his own business as a dealer, opening a shop at 810 Madison Avenue. He soon established himself as a leading figure in the world of Chinese Art in New York. Among his important clients were two of the leading American collectors of bronzes in the post-war years, Avery Brundage, whose great collection is now preserved in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, and Dr. Arthur Sackler, who assembled one of the largest groups of ancient Chinese material ever put together in the West. Much of the collection is now in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C. J.T. Tai’s personal collection of Chinese stone sculpture was sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 29th April 1997.