This sensual image of a Bodhisattva, so gracefully carved with deeply voluptuous movement, is an outstanding legacy of the high period of the Tang dynasty (618-907), when China’s sculptural tradition reached its most mature phase. The modelling of the aristocratic male figure is articulated with vivid realism, the dignified poise of the Bodhisattva endowed with 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, masterpieces of the high Tang, of which this is such a superb example, exhibit a deep level of influence from the artistic style of the Indian Gupta Empire (320-647), itself embued with resonances of the Hellenistic tradition.
This type of grey stone, likely to be from Shanxi province, is particularly conducive for high quality carving in the round, enabling intricate and naturalistic detailing of the facial features and curved poised body. 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. However, where Gandharan and other earlier prototypes are sterner and more distinct in their seated posture, sculptures of the high Tang period are characterised by gentle S-curves on the body and hips slightly tilted to one side, which imbue the figures with dynamic movement and deep sensuality. 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 stone: the skilfully defined and muscular torso; the graceful curve of the exposed belly above the waistband; the slightly raised heel and curved toes exuberating movement.
Throughout the Tang period, monks and pilgrims frequently travelled to North India, the spiritual home of Buddhism, in a quest for knowledge and inspiration. Renowned travellers including Xuanzang returned with abundant findings of original manuscripts. Others also returned with works of art and sketches from the holy sites, which served as models for artists back in China. In this way, the great artistic tradition of Gupta India increasingly provided a rich source of inspiration to Tang stone carvers.
Close comparison of the current sculpture with a monumental Gupta torso of a male deity from fifth to sixth century India, originally in the collection of Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck, and most recently sold in our New York rooms, 19th September 2008, lot 269 (fig. 1), clearly shows this influence. The muscular upper body is characterised by the same graceful curves of the tribhanga pose. Tribhanga, a pose deeply enshrined in the Indian sculptural tradition, derived from the ancient classical dance tradition of Odissi, literally meaning ‘three parts break’, consists of three bends in the body; at the neck, waist and knee. These opposing curves at the waist and neck give the body a gentle 'S' shape so visible in the current torso. The prominent belly buttons on both the current torso and the Gupta torso draw the eye to the gentle undulations of the bulbous area of the stomach just above the band, the voluptuousness of both so skilfully conveyed through the manner in which the weight rests on the right leg. Where the Gupta torso is unrestrained in its sensuality, however, the twisted knot falling revealingly loose around the waist, in the current torso the scarves are tied modestly to the body, but carved of such precision and delicacy that they seem to adhere to the skin.
The Bodhisattva exhibits close stylistic similarities with other recorded examples from China’s cave temples, particularly those of Tianlongshan, such as the sandstone Bodhisattva donated by Eduard von der Heydt to the Rietberg Museum, Zurich, illustrated in Museum Rietberg, Zurich, 2002, pp. 62-63 (fig. 2). It is also recorded in situ in Tomura Tajiro’s comprehensive photographic studies of the Tianlongshan caves Tenryūzan Sekkutsu [Tianlongshan Caves], Tokyo, 1922, where it is illustrated with another Bodhisattva along the west wall of cave no. 14. The form and contours of both torsos match each other closely, both carved with the same naturalism of expression, with similar delicacy of articulation of the jewellery and flowing robes. However, the current torso is much more aristocratic in its bearing and more demonstrative in its sensual movement. The fine texture of the grey stone on the current torso also differs slightly from the flakier sandstone found on sculptures directly attributed to the Tianlongshan there, and so it is cannot be directly attributed to there. Clearly there were flourishing traditions of stone sculptural art in and around Shanxi, directly influencing each other, and the present sculpture clearly stands in this tradition.
Other published examples of Tianlongshan sculpture include a Bodhisattva, photographed in situ in Cave 14, illustrated in Osvald Sirén, Chinese Sculpture from the Fifth to the Fourteenth Century, New York, 1925, pl. 495; a 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; and a torso from the Cleveland Museum of Art, illustrated in Chinese Art in Overseas Collections. Buddhist Sculpture, vol. II, Taipei, 1990, pl. 123. For a Tianlongshan torso of a Bodhisattva sold at auction, see the example 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.
Of all the published important high Tang torsos of Bodhisattva, the closest related example and the only similar example ever to have appeared at auction is an example from the Patino family collection, acquired by Eskenazi in our New York rooms, 3rd December 1986, lot 280, and now in the collection of the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth. It is illustrated in Giuseppe Eskenazi in collaboration with Hajni Elias, A Dealer’s Hand. The Chinese Art World Through the Eyes of Giuseppe Eskenazi, London, 2012, pl. 119 (fig. 3). Both torsos are characterised by the same pronounced tribhanga pose, with similar carving of the defined muscular features and the same skilful treatment of the drapery, sculpted into graceful folds and naturalistic curves that reinforce the dynamic sensual movement inherent in the sculpture. The only significant difference between the two is the larger size and more lavish treatment of the pendent jewellery on the Patino example. Both are carved from the same high quality grey stone, differing from the supple and flaky sandstone of Tianlongshan. Their stylistic influences and close similarity to other sculptures in Tianlongshan clearly demonstrate they emanate from that same illustrious period, both probably from the same cave complex in Shanxi.
The form, sculptural style and iconography of the current Bodhisattva is also closely related to the famous white marble torso of a Bodhisattva unearthed from the grounds of the Daming Palace, Xi’an and now in the Xi’an Beilin Museum, illustrated in Zhongguo meishu quanji. Diaosu bian. Yuan Sui Tang diaosu [The complete series on Chinese Art. Sculpture. Sui and Tang dynasties], vol. 4, Beijing, 1988, pl. 53. The texture of the stone is quite different to the current figure. However, the fundamental approach to the divine image, voluptuously carved in the Gupta tradition with sensational attention to the muscular form of the torso, the fleshy treatment of the naturalistic curves of the body and the graceful folds of the drapery, is exactly that of the current image, demonstrating that the current example, if not carved at Chang’an in the same workshop, emanated from a cave complex with close links to the sculptural traditions of the capital.
The current Bodhisattva was originally in the collection of Edmund Stevenson Burke (1879-1962), a wealthy banker and sportsman, who came from a prominent Cleveland family of philanthropist industrialists and served on the advisory council of the Cleveland Museum of Art. The rest of his art collection, including paintings by major artists such as Corot's famous painting 'Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld', now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, was sold at Parke-Bernet galleries, New York, 6th November 1963. Other than a small number of archaic bronzes, which were subsequently donated to Cleveland Museum of Art, the asian art section of his collection was relatively small. However, in the early twentieth century, high Tang dynasty sculptures of this quality were among the most highly coveted of all artworks, actively pursued by the world’s leading museums and very few remain in private hands now.
The high regard at the time attached to Tang sculptures of this quality is demonstrated by the comments made by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller regarding their famous white marble torso of a Bodhisattva, so stylistically similar to the Xi’an Beilin and the current torso, that it was "without a doubt the most beautiful Chinese figure in existence".
Sir Percival David's lyrical description of the torso in his review of the Royal Academy exhibition serves as a fitting paean to the current sculpture, as both emanate from the same exalted sculptural tradition:
“This grand conception of the Chinese sculptor, full of grace and movement, owes much to the artistic heritage left by Greece and India to the Far East. It is from Greece that it derives the clinging folds of its drapery; it is India which has inspired the swaying poise of the body and its sensuous modelling. But it is the genius of China which has breathed into the figure its vitalising spirit”.
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