This majestic image of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara captivates the viewer as a personification of all that is admirable, desirable and reassuring in Buddhist thought. There is no technique or material that can evoke the harmony and perfection of a divine face like this ‘dry lacquer’ technique. In spite of its genderless, spiritual beauty, this masterful sculpture appears to breathe with life. The dry lacquer technique allowed for particularly precise modelling and in combining rounded, fleshy features with sharp, stylised lines, the sculptors palpably manifested the Bodhisattva’s sanctity, wisdom and compassion.
The Tang dynasty (618-907) saw an unequalled flowering of the Buddhist doctrine, which exerted a major influence on all strata of Chinese society right up to the court. In spite of repeated controversies that unfolded around the growing popularity of this religion and the multiplication of its monasteries – investiture as monk could be useful for saving taxes – Buddhism continued to grow in popularity until the radical prosecution of Buddhists in the 840s, but even this setback appears to have been of only short duration.
At the same time, Buddhist imagery saw the development of a fully Chinese sculptural style. Although sculptors had begun to free themselves from centuries of Hellenistic, Indian and Central Asian inspiration already a century or so earlier, Buddhist sculptures had remained rather formal. Only in the mid-Tang period did they embrace a sensuous naturalism in their representation that made faces and bodies more human and poses more relaxed. The present head derives from probably the finest era of China’s sculptural tradition, the period of full maturity achieved in the High Tang around the reign of Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712-756), which is characterised by relatively life-like representation, which rendered deities more approachable and less distant than before.
The present head is unique and no closely comparable dry lacquer head appears to be preserved, but it immediately recalls another superb head of Avalokitesvara, but carved of white marble, belonging to the famous hoard of sculptures recovered from the ruins of the Anguo Temple in Xi’an, and today housed in the Forest of Steles in Xi’an. This exquisite sculpture, which also has no surviving parallel, shows a similar fleshy face with narrow eyes, prominent, sharply curved brows emphasised by an engraved line, small mouth with thick lips, long pendulous ears terminating in thin, slit lobes, and rich strands of hair tied up in an ornate bun; see Zhongguo meishu quanji: Diaosu bian [Complete series on Chinese art: Sculpture section], 4: Sui Tang diaosu [Sui and Tang sculpture], Beijing, 1988, pl. 50.
The Anguo Temple, constructed in 710 next to the imperial palace complex Daminggong in the Tang capital, Chang’an, was an important place of worship of the zhenyan (‘true word’) school of Esoteric Buddhism. While Avalokitesvara is one of the deities revered in many forms of Buddhism, other sculptures of the group represent deities that are specific to the Esoteric doctrine. This whole group of Esoteric sculptures appears to have been carved at the same time, probably as an ensemble, and is generally attributed to the High Tang period under Emperor Xuanzong or soon after; it is unlikely that these grand white marble sculptures, with details in gilding, could have been produced without patronage from the imperial family.
Although Emperor Xuanzong had a close affinity to Daoism and undertook repeated efforts to curtail the expansion of Buddhism, Esoteric Buddhism with its mystical practices exerted a strong fascination on him as well as on the Tang aristocracy in general. Famous Tantric masters from India worked in the capital under imperial patronage and performed rituals and magic feats for the Emperor.
According to Henric Sørensen, the Anguo Temple may have been destroyed towards the end of the 9th century (in 871 it was still visited by Emperor Yizong). He writes “Among the images and sculptural fragments recovered from the site are those of buddhas, bodhisatvas, and vidyãrãjas, which clearly reveal the Esoteric Buddhist context that produced them”; and “Unfortunately, very little of this rich material has survived in China, and were it not for the Japanese pilgrim-monks who came to China during the second half of the Tang to study Esoteric Buddhism and, upon returning to Heian, brought with them many images, paintings, mandalas, blueprints, manuals, and ritual objects, our knowledge of the material culture of Esoteric Buddhism during the mid- to late Tang would have been almost non-existent” (Charles Orzech, Henric Sørensen & Richard Payne, eds, Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia, Leiden, 2011, pp. 404-5). Tang sculptures brought to Japan by travelling monks exerted a lasting influence on Japanese sculpture.
The dry-lacquer technique in particular was early on adopted in Japan, much used between the 8th and 9th centuries, around the same time as Esoteric Buddhism took hold in Japan, and continued to remain popular there for much longer than in China. Two famous Esoteric priests, Kūkai (774-835) and Saichō (767-822) left Japan for China in the early Heian period (794-1185) and besides religious scriptures brought back many objects of religious significance. Kūkai studied Esoteric Buddhism in the capital, Chang’an, and upon returning to Japan founded the Shingon (Chinese zhenyan, ‘true word’) school of Buddhism there. The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, Kannon Bosatsu, was much worshipped in Esoteric Buddhism in Japan.
The production of dry lacquer is complex and onerous. In China, it does not appear to have been practised for long and was only occasionally revived in later dynasties, but never again reached the level of craftsmanship and artistry it had achieved in the Tang. Massive sculptures such as this over life-size head of a bodhisattva, and the recently sold Buddha head from the Sakamoto Collection (fig. 1), which very likely belonged to the same ensemble of sculptures, required patronage of the highest sort, probably not available without involvement of the imperial court.
Manufacture 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 covered with layers of lacquer, which would be sculpted in greater detail and carved to acquire their final appearance. The figures were then 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 specialised metropolitan workshops, easily transported, carried around in processions – or brought to Japan.
The extant number of Tang dynasty images made in this sophisticated technique is extremely rare. This is hardly surprising given the demanding production process on the one hand, which must have severely limited the number of figures commissioned, and the delicacy of these works on the other hand, which mostly likely reduced their number quite dramatically over the centuries. The closest companion to the present head is the head of Buddha from the collection of Sakamoto Gorō, included in the exhibition Kaikan tokubetsu shuppin seihin senshu [A special inaugural exhibition], Kyushu National Museum, Fukuoka, 2005, cat. no. 30, and sold in these rooms, 8th October 2013, lot 120 (fig. 3); and only one other example executed on a similarly impressive scale (c. 50 cm) is recorded, another equally magnificent head of a Bodhisattva in a private collection which, however may have belonged to a different sculpture group. It is very similarly modelled, the serene face represented with fine detail and the hair draped in a bun, but displays a more slender physique.
Six other Tang dry-lacquer sculptures are recorded, all exquisite sculptures in their own right, but quite different in scale (the largest being a seated figure of 96.5 cm), less distinctive in their expression and executed with much less detail, particularly to the eyes and eyebrows. The famous seated Buddha figure in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the largest one extant, is illustrated, for example, in Sekai bijutsu taisenshū/New History of World Art: Tōyō hen [Eastern series], vol. 4, Tokyo, 1997, pl. 132; a similar seated Buddha figure in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. has been published together with the Metropolitan Museum Buddha (p. 809) in Matsubara Saburō, Chūgoku bukkyō chōkoku shiron/The Path of Chinese Buddhist Sculpture, Tokyo, 1995, vol. III, p. 810. A Buddha bust formerly with Yamanaka & Co., but its present whereabouts unknown, is published in Osvald Sirén, Chinese Sculpture from the Fifth to the Fourteenth Century, London, 1925, pl. 549; another Buddha bust from the Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection is in the Seattle Art Museum (no. 51.71). While all these Buddha figures seem related, a seated Bodhisattva figure and a dancing apsara, 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.
The mature Tang style of the present head is similarly seen on several stone heads of Bodhisattvas from the Tianlongshan caves near Taiyuan in Shanxi province, such as the examples in the Nezu Art Museum, Tokyo, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (fig. 2); see the exhibition catalogue Chinese Buddhist Stone Sculpture. Veneration of the Sublime, Osaka Municipal Museum of Art, Osaka, 1995, cat. no. 67; and Alan Priest, Chinese Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1944, pl. LXXXIV. Compare also a wooden figure with related features, of slightly later date, in the Liaoning Provincial Museum, illustrated in Zhongguo meishu quanji, op.cit., pl. 68.
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