A Buddha image more captivating, majestic and at the same time sensitive – or simply more beautiful – than the Sakamoto Buddha head can hardly have existed in the Tang dynasty (618-907). There is no other technique or material that can evoke the harmony and perfection of a divine face like this ‘dry lacquer’ technique. This head of the Buddha is unique in every respect, including its size and can be ranked among the world’s most moving religious images. The Buddha’s compassion, and the ten Buddhist virtues of integrity, generosity, wisdom, strength of character, patience, renunciation, truthfulness, determination, loving kindness, and serenity are all encapsulated in this portrait. Yet at the same time this sculpture has a worldly beauty quite independent of any religious connotation.
The extant number of Tang dynasty images made in this complex and sophisticated technique is extremely rare, probably not exceeding seven sculptures, mostly preserved in a fragmentary state. This is hardly surprising given the demanding production process on the one hand, which must have severely limited the number of figures ever completed, and the delicacy of these works on the other hand, which mostly likely reduced their number quite dramatically over the centuries.
The production began with a stick-like wooden model over which a figure was sculpted from clay. Onto this clay base patches of lacquer-imbued hemp were pasted that later would provide the core of the figure. These were then covered with further lacquer layers, which would be sculpted in greater detail and carved to acquire their final appearance. The surface was eventually painted in polychrome pigments. When finished, the figures were cut open at the back and the original construction of wood and clay removed to hollow them out and to leave only the thin skin of hemp and lacquer. The advantages of such light figures compared with ones carved from stone are obvious, as they could be completed in specialized metropolitan workshops, easily transported, and carried around in processions. The technique allowed for very precise sculpting and in the modelling of the present head the sculptors displayed particular sensitivity and an uncanny understanding of the expressive quality of simple, sharp lines and soft, rounded curves. By counterbalancing the sweet expression of the full lips and fleshy chin with the seriousness of the crisply cut eyebrows and pointed nose, they made the face come alive and have given this deity a presence that is as fresh today as it was more than a thousand years ago.
The closest companion to the present head and the only other example executed on a similarly impressive scale (c. 50 cm) is the equally magnificent head of a bodhisattva in an unpublished private collection, which may well have been made in the same workshop at the same time, and perhaps once belonged to the same sculpture group as the present head. It is very similarly modelled, the serene face represented with fine detail and the hair largely remaining.
The six other Tang dry-lacquer sculptures that are recorded are all exquisite sculptures in their own right, but quite different in scale and less distinctive in their expression. The famous seated Buddha figure in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (96.5 cm), illustrated, for example, in Sekai bijutsu taisenshū/New History of World Art: Tōyō hen [Eastern series], vol. 4, Tokyo, 1997, pl. 132, which still has a large amount of the original pigment remaining, is known to come from the Daifu Temple in Zhengding, Hebei province and attributed to c. AD 650 (fig. 1). This figure may well have been made in the same workshop as the present head, since the face has similar features and the hair is now remaining in a similar state; yet being smaller, it is executed with much less detail particularly to the eyes and eyebrows. A similar, somewhat smaller seated Buddha figure in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (72.5 cm) has been published together with the Metropolitan Museum Buddha in Matsubara Saburō, Chūgoku bukkyō chōkoku shiron/The Path of Chinese Buddhist Sculpture, Tokyo, 1995, vol. III, pl. 810 (figure not available online). A Buddha bust (c. 51 cm remaining), formerly with Yamanaka & Co, but its present whereabouts unknown (fig. 2), is published in Osvald Sirén, Chinese Sculpture from the Fifth to the Fourteenth Century, London, 1925, pl. 549, believed by the author to belong to the same series as the Metropolitan Museum figure. Another Buddha bust (45.7 cm remaining), with most of its finely combed hair remaining, from the Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection is in the Seattle Art Museum (no. 51.71)(figure not available online). While all these Buddha figures seem related, a seated bodhisattva figure (44 cm)(figure not available online) and a dancing apsara (40 cm), both in the Cleveland Museum of Art (nos. 1983.86 and 1953.356) are very different in style. Dry-lacquer sculptures are discussed in connection with the Cleveland apsara figure in Sherman E. Lee, ‘A Chinese Lacquer Sculpture’, Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, vol. 43, no. 1, January 1956, pp. 6-9, where some of the above figures as well as some later ones are mentioned, including an almost complete luohan figure in the collection of John D. Rockefeller Jr., which does not seem to be published elsewhere and may or may not date from the Tang. Siren illustrates in addition a seated Buddha figure from the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, (no. 25.9), which has been suggested to represent a prototype for the above figures. It also has a lacquer-and-cloth surface, but applied onto a wooden core that has been left in place.
Lacquer was extremely rarely used in the Tang dynasty, mainly on the back of mirrors as a base for some inlay, or to coat plain wooden or ceramic objects. The dry-lacquer technique does not appear to have been practised for long during the Tang dynasty and was only occasionally revived in later dynasties, but never again achieved the level of craftsmanship and artistry that it had in the Tang. It was early on adopted, however, in Japan and there continued to remain important for centuries. According to Kyotaro Nishikawa, ‘Dry Lacquer Statues of Japan’, in N.S. Brommelle and Perry Smith, eds, Urushi. Proceedings of the Urushi Study Group, June 10-27, 1985, Tokyo, Santa Monica, 1988, p. 127, Japanese dry lacquer statues of the four Deva kings are recorded to have been made for the Daian-ji in Nara in the mid-7th century, and the technique was much used between the 8th and 9th centuries. Many works are remaining in the Nara area, mostly made for important temples in and near the capital, with Lee, op.cit. singling out the Todai-ji and Kofuku-ji. In Japan the technique was also already used earlier as partial surface modelling for wooden statues, such as the Kudara Kannon in Horyu-ji. Two standing dry-lacquer figures dated in accordance with AD 734 are illustrated in Nishikawa, op.cit., p. 128, figs. 2 and 3. Forty-eight such sculptures extant in Japan are designated as National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties.
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