PROPERTY OF A PRIVATE ENGLISH COLLECTOR
Among this group of seven inscribed sculptures, this one is unusual in being one of two very similar sculptures of the same subject. The other inscribed example of a willow-branch Guanyin or Avalokiteshvara is now in the Palace Museum, Beijing. Both are about the same size and are in a very similar style. It is very likely that the tenth Karmapa made both of these during his long exile from central Tibet, when he stayed in Lijiang in northern Yunnan.
Both sculptures portray Avalokiteshvara holding a willow branch, or the “Willow-branch Guanyin”, a form of Avalokiteshvara popular in China during the late Sui (ca. 581-618) and the early Tang (618-906) dynasties.[i]
Avalokiteshvara is portrayed standing in a straight and frontal posture, grasping a willow branch in his right hand at shoulder level, while his left hand holds a jar at his waist. He is dressed in full robes, which include scarves that fall on either side of his body from his forearms to his feet. He wears a three- or five –leafed crown; long cloth lappets are attached to the ends of the crown over each ear which fall over the shoulders. His jewelry is striking, featuring an simple necklace with a circular large pendant hanging against his chest and an elaborate chain-like ornament that falls from each shoulder to meet in front of his body just below the waist, passing through a ring and looping down to the knees and then slightly rising again to the back of the robe, where it disappears, not being visible on the rear of the sculpture.
The two inscribed versions of this deity are very similar, differing only slightly in size (the Palace Museum sculpture is slightly smaller); in the position of the inscription: on the Palace Museum sculpture it is found on the back of the robe, whereas here it is around the base; and in the treatment of the eyes, which in the Palace Museum version are inlaid silver. Otherwise the two are almost identical, and strongly resemble other images of this form of the deity, all Chinese and most dated to late Sui–Tang dynasties.[ii]
This particular iconography appears to be unique to China. As Luo Wenhua notes: “…there have never been any traces found of willow-branch Guanyin in India, and this form of Avalokiteshvara was supposedly created in China around the sixth century, possibly composed of Indian Buddhist iconographic elements and Chinese Taoist medical beliefs.”[iii] Popular during the late Sui to early Tang periods, this form gradually died out, surviving only in few outer regions, particularly in Yunnan, where it survived until about the thirteenth century. [iv]
The recent history of the figure in the Palace Museum, which was purchased by the museum in 1957, illustrates the confusion that often surrounds the work of Chöying Dorje. It was originally catalogued as Tang dynasty at the time of the purchase and was later published by Li Jinjie as late Sui or early Tang dynasty.[v] When another Chinese scholar, Jin Shen, presented the sculpture at a conference on Tibetan art in 2002, he hypothesized that it was a 12th or 13th century copy of a Sui dynasty sculpture, possibly cast by a Nepalese craftsman (because of the high copper content alloy typical of the Nepalese). When he showed a slide of the back of the sculpture with the Tibetan inscription “rje btsun chos dbyings rdo rje’i phyag bzo”, Tibetologists at the conference recognized this as “a work made by the venerable Chöying Dorje”, and since then the sculpture became known as a work of the tenth Karmapa.
These two figures are striking in their contrast to the other images by Chöying Dorje attributed to him by inscription. With the exception of a small silver image of the ninth Karmapa, the other inscribed Chöying Dorje images are remarkable for their highly idiosyncratic style and mysterious iconography, whereas these two are faithful to a known and well-defined iconography.
The contrast can be readily seen when comparing these images of the willow-branch Avalokiteshvara to a Chöying Dorje sculpture from the collection of Ulrich von Schroeder sold at Bonhams Hong Kong in November 2016. This enigmatic figure bears and inscription almost identical to that found on the two willow-branch Guanyins: “rje btsun chos dbyings rdo rje'i phyag bzo (a work made by the venerable Chöying Dorje)”.
But whereas the identity of the willow-branch figures is clear and indisputable, the von Schroeder collection figure has been variously described ever since it first appeared in an advertisement by then owner Adrian Maynard in 1987, where it was described as “Bronze figure of Kubera; Nepalese, 6/7th c.”[vi] It appeared in Sotheby’s New York sale of 17 June 1993, lot 4, where it was described as “A Nepalese bronze figure of Vajrapani, Licchavi, circa 7th-8th c.”, where it remained unsold; it was offered again and was sold in Sotheby’s New York of 30 November 1994, lot 335. In 2001, then in the collection of Ulrich and Heidi von Schroeder, it was published by von Schroeder as a Yarlung dynasty (7th-8th c) Tibetan sculpture, described as a "Composite Image with Aspects of Vajrapani, Kubera, and Possibly Hayagriva."[vii] I have always found it very difficult to determine the intended identity and have used the simple description, “Standing male figure”.[viii]
The other sculptures produced by Chöying Dorje and attributed to him by inscription are similarly enigmatic and difficult to easily identify within the iconographic canon. But this figure is clearly and unmistakably a portrayal of Avalokiteshvara holding a willow branch, or the willow-branch Guanyin.
As I have written in previous essays, I believe that the tenth Karmapa's art changed through the various periods of his life. From the biographical sources we perceive that his younger years—when he was largely unschooled and perhaps less aware of the strictures of standardized iconography and the weight of previous traditions—may have been a period of visionary creativity. The visions that his biographer ascribed to him occurred before he was twenty-six years old, and it may be that his most liberated sculptures—those seen in the von Schroeder figure and related figures of a similarly enigmatic nature—were done then, while in later years some of his production, such as this willow-branch Guanyins and its pair in the Palace Museum, would appear almost conventional in comparison. Of course, until we know more about the evolution of his art, this must remain conjecture.[ix] But this explanation of the trajectory of the 10th Karmapa’s career as a sculptor, would suggest that these two sculptures are part of his later work.
Chöying Dorje’s preference for the Kashmir style and the inclusion of elements of that style in his sculpture has been often noted, and even in sculptures where the identity of the figure may be obscure, elements harking back to early Indian models can be found.[x] But in this figure they are entirely absent, rather we find a very standard iconography drawn from early Chinese sculpture. Why did Chöying Dorje decide to make two figures which so faithfully followed this iconography, an iconography which, at the time he made them, was already archaic?
Surely the answer must lie in the circumstances of his long stay in Lijiang, where he sought refuge after fleeing central Tibet in 1645, after his political patron, the king of Tsang, was defeated by the forces of the Mongols allied to the Fifth Dalai Lama.
He stayed in Lijiang under the patronage of the Naxi tusi Mu Zeng (r. 1598-1624) and his son, Mu Yi (r. 1624-1669). Chöying Dorje stayed in Lijiang for 25 years, from 1642 to 1673, and only returned to central Tibet for the last year of his life. During this period, he cooperated with his devout Buddhist patrons to establish numerous Karma Kagyu monasteries in the Lijiang region, and bring many of his Karma Kagyu colleague and pupils to the area. He continued his prolific output of paintings as well, and one can surmise that this sculpture and its fellow in the Palace Museum were made during this long sojourn so far away from his home in central Tibet. The willow-branch Avalokiteshvara survived as a type in this area of Yunnan for several centuries after it disappeared in the more important centers of Chinese Buddhism, and it may be that he encountered this form of Avalokiteshvara there. Perhaps an ancient statue was an important object of devotion in one or more of the families that sheltered him and absorbed his teachings. He may have been asked to make a copy for one or more of those families. We know he made at least two, and perhaps the one in the Palace Museum, with its silver eyes reminiscent of some Kashmir sculptures, was one he kept for his own collection, or that of his faithful attendant Kuntu Zangpo.
Through the sculptures and paintings Chöying Dorje left behind we are able to make contact with this genius of Tibetan art, and gradually his story, and his art, are reemerging from the past.
Essay by Ian Alsop
[i] Luo, p. 155, Debreczeny, p. 211, Alsop, p. 219, figs 8.9 & 8.10, p. 231.
[ii] see Debreczeny, p. 213, fig. 7.35; Luo, figs 7.6, 7.7,
[iii] Luo, p. 158
[iv] Debreczeny p.211, Luo, p. 158-159, and figs 7.8, 7.9, 7.10
[v] Luo, p. 155
[vi] Adrian Maynard, "Advertisement", in Oriental Art, Vol. XXXIII, no.2, 1987, p.122.
[vii] Von Schroeder 2001, 754, pl. 175.
[viii] Ian Alsop, Fig. 8.2
[ix] Alsop, p, 231
[x] Alsop, p. 234 ff. Luczanits, pp 107-151
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