In its rendering the sculpture exhibits the deep influence of Indian Gupta sensuality on Tang art. The sensual modelling and slightly stern character of these figures, which combined Hellenistic traits with north and north-western Indian styles, took a softer tone in China. This is evident in the gentle roundness of the stomach with the navel exposed, and subtle tilting of the hip that endows the figure with a stately appearance.
A naturalistic approach to the human body is evident from the early Tang dynasty, and by the high Tang, sculptors created highly voluptuous and muscular figures. The present sculpture appears to stand between these periods. It displays a sophistication and attention to natural forms characteristic of the eighth century, as seen in the flawless rendering of the dhoti tied with such a precisely carved sash, and the exposed body embellished by a beaded necklace. It however lacks the unrestrained sensuousness and full forms in the rendering of the torso.
Alfred Salmony catalogued this figure in 1944 as coming from Henan and indeed it bears some similarities with sculptures from the Longmen cave complex. However, no closely related example from these caves appears to have been published, and hence it cannot be directly attributed there. Situated near present-day Luoyang, cave temples here were built from the Northern Wei through the Tang dynasty, particularly during the reigns of Emperor Gaozong (r. 650-683) and Empress Wu Zetian (r. 684-704). A bodhisattva displaying a similar treatment of the body and scarves, although with more prominent jewels, from the Wanfo cave in Longmen, which was built around 680, is illustrated in situ in Longmen shiku [Longmen caves], Beijing, 1980, pl. 162. The rendering of the scarf and torso bear similarities to a sculpture also attributed to the Longmen caves, from the collections of Sir Ernest Debenham and Stephen Junkunc III, sold in our London rooms, 22nd November 1946, lot 56, and at Christie’s New York, 21st September 1995, lot 302. Here, the folds of the scarf and skirt are however less convincing, and overall the figure appears less stately.
Two sculptures that exhibit significant similarities, are illustrated in Matsubara Saburō, Chūgoku bukkyō chōkoku shiron/The Path of Chinese Buddhist Sculpture, Tokyo, 1995, vol. III, p. 603, nos a and b, from the collection of the Nelson Atkins Museum, Kansas City; and another, albeit somewhat sterner, inscribed with a cyclical date corresponding to 687, from the collection of W.R. Hearst now in the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, is illustrated in Osvald Sirén, Chinese Sculpture from the Fifth to the Fourteenth Century, New York, 1925, pl. 482, where the author notes that it was previously attributed to the Baimai temple in Henan province.
Further related examples that however possibly belong to a later stage of development include a larger torso that features a very similar treatment of the garment, in the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, illustrated in Ancient Chinese Sculpture Gallery, Shanghai, 2000, pl. 23; another carved with a dhoti that is tied with a comparable knot, from the Dahai monastery in Xingyang, Henan province, included in the exhibition Cina alla Corte degli Imperatori, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, 2008, cat. no. 34; a torso illustrated in Matsubara, op. cit., pl. 693, together with a large marble torso excavated in Xi’an and illustrated in Zhongguo meishu quanji. Diaosu bian [The complete series on Chinese art. Sculpture], vol. 4, Beijing, 1988, pl. 53. See also two much smaller marble torsos, recovered from the Xiude temple in Quyang, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Compendium of Collections in the Palace Museum. Sculptures, vol. 7, Beijing, 2011, pls 126 and 127; a much smaller torso from the C.K. Chan collection, included in the exhibition Chinese Buddhist Sculpture from the Wei Through the T’ang Dynasties, National Museum of History, Taipei, 1983, cat. no. 28; and a fragment of a torso from the collection of Evelyn Annenberg Hall, sold at Christie’s New York, 29th March 2006, lot 182.
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