Saturday, May 9, 2015

Early Chinese Buddhist Sculpture at Harvard

I finally got to Harvard  a week ago to see the newly re-opened Harvard Art Museums in the location of the former Fogg Art Museum, which is what I knew when I was a student.  Much lauded, this ambitious redo was just opened in November of 2014, but we all remember what this last winter was like, particularly in the Boston area. I wasn't about to brave the blizzards and snowdrifts!  Designed by Renzo Piano, the renovations cost 350 million dollars and features what he calls, "the light machine", which is in reality, just a big skylight. The result of this extraordinarily expensive renovation is quite ugly from the outside, the "light machine" towers above the old building like some sort of sci-fi smokestack or other mechanical thing.  However, fortunately, the galleries themselves are quite nice, and they are streaming with light generally, even when it doesn't serve the art. 

The galleries displaying their early Chinese Buddhist sculpture, the focus of this post, is a case in point. They are on the ground floor off the courtyard, and do not benefit from the light coming through the "light machine", rather many are displayed against glass exterior walls, so are back lit, and impossible to photograph.  In person one can see them reasonably well, ones eyes compensate in a way a camera does not.  However they are not displayed to their best advantage.  Surprisingly I discovered in researching for this post, the complete collection of Harvard's early Chinese Buddhist sculptures is not on display, strange given all the money spent and the larger exhibition spaces that were created.  Some of the pieces not on view are major, as I remembered them my memory which was confirmed by consulting the Harvard museum website which does have the entire collection available online. That much is to their credit, many museums still only have a fraction of their collections online. 

I will feature in this post the pieces on view currently that most relate to the material I have been fortunate to handle.  Chief among them is the piece below, in two images, one I took showing the difficult lighting conditions, the other from the Harvard website, optimally if not dramatically lit.

My photograph of the Bodhisattva statue

Photo from the Harvard website of the same sculpture
The sculpture above is a statue of a Bodhisattva, carved in marble with extensive traces of original polychromy and gold leaf. It is quite large, 62 1/2 inches tall, about life sized. It is highly adorned with a lot of jewelry, which is typical in this period of sculptures of Bodhisattvas.  It is dated to the Sui Dynasty, 581-618 A.D., which was when China was finally reunified for the first time in the four centuries after the fall of the Han Dynasty in 220 A.D. This sculpture, along with its companion, which is not on view currently at the museum, and which I featured in a post before, was key to my education in art history. When I was a student at Harvard, I wasn't particularly interested in Chinese art, but this sculpture and a few others at Harvard impressed me nonetheless. It is large, fairly complete for its great age and in a remarkable state of preservation with its remaining paint and gold leaf.  And it is beautiful, very finely carved.  It also has great seriousness, and grandeur with its elegant slim proportions and hieratic straight pose.  It is quite unlike later Chinese sculpture which is lush and curvy and not so interesting or impressive to me in general.  

The next pieces must all come from the same find, they are all of marble, and retain a lot of their original paint and gold leaf.  However none are as fine as the Bodhisattva above, see below.

Statue of a monk at Harvard

Statue of a Bodhisattva at Harvard

2nd statue of a monk at Harvard
These are all my photographs, as these sculptures are not displayed against the glass exterior walls.  All are marble, and about 3 feet or a little more in height, and all date to the Northern Qi Dynasty, 550 - 577 A.D.  They are all very similar to each other, the two monk sculptures are a pair, and the Bodhisattva is very related in its quality and style.  All are well preserved in terms of their surface, missing only their hands, but none are particularly finely carved. 

Seated Bodhisattva at Harvard

2nd seated Bodhisattva at Harvard

The pair of seated Bodhisattvas, also from the Grenville Winthrop bequest, are Northern Qi Dynasty, and are nearly intact, only missing the upraised right and left hands respectively.  Of very fine quality and also preserving a great deal of original paint, gold leaf and surface, the relate to the other sculptures above, but are carved of limestone, and may come from a different site than the others. 

Marble Buddha head at Harvard
The marble Buddha head above is exquisite and one of my favorites even though it is a fragment, whereas the prior works discussed are all nearly intact. From a life sized sculpture the quality of the marble, surface and carving is exceptional.  It has the deeply meditative expression that one finds in the best of Buddhist sculpture. Again, the head was backlit, so it does not photograph well in situ.

Small marble seated Buddha at Harvard

Detail of the seated Buddha above

Another detail of the seated Buddha above

 One of the greatest revelations was this small seated marble Buddha at Harvard, also Winthrop collection, that I don't remember from my youth. It was certainly there, but I may not have really noticed it. Only about 24 inches tall, it is intact and preserves most of its original pigment and surface. The pure white marble shines with its polished surfaces, contrasting the white skin areas with the painted clothing and lotus throne. The halo behind the head is also painted. The hands are exquisitely detailed with the palm lines and articulation of the fingers all clearly carved.  Between the thumb and forefinger of the left hand the Buddha holds a small jewel, and the toes are also clearly carved and detailed of the foot visible opposite that hand.  It, like the others above, is Northern Qi Dynasty, and may well come from the same find as the 3 marble sculptures featured. 

All the sculptures above come from the Northern Qi Dynasty, 550 - 577 A.D., which was a particularly brilliant moment for Chinese Buddhist sculpture. There are a few other pieces at Harvard worthy of mention that are before and after that period.

Gilt bronze Buddha, Harvard
Foremost among the other pieces is this gilt bronze seated Buddha, which is one of the earliest and best of the surviving early Chinese Buddhist sculptures. It dates to the 3rd to 4th Centuries A.D., early Northern Wei Dynasty and strongly reflects the Indian, specifically Gandharan, prototypes on which it is based.  It is large for a bronze, over 12 inches tall, and of much better quality than most other surviving early Chinese Buddhist bronze sculptures.  One reason for the rarity of Chinese Buddhist sculpture from this time was a pogrom against Buddhism that destroyed the temples and sculptures in 460 A.D. This destructive purge seems to have been singularly successful in nearly erasing any trace of Buddhism, but was short lived, as immediately after the temples were rebuilt and there is much sculpture surviving from the later Northern Wei Dynasty.  This bronze is so Indian in style that out of context it would be taken at first glance for a Gandharan bronze Buddha. Only a few small stylistic details make it clear that it is Chinese and not Indian in origin.  As such it is a wonderful illustration of how Buddhism and Buddhist art reached China through contact with India.

Tang Buddha at Harvard
This seated sandstone Buddha is one of the most famous in the collection as it epitomizes high Tang style art of the mid 8th Century A.D., which was the height of the greatest period of Chinese civilization.  China at this time was the pre-eminent world empire, and its capital, Chang'an, was the most populous city in the world at this time, with a population of some 2 million people. China was very cosmopolitan at this time, the silk route brought people from all over the world into the empire and there were foreign sections in Chang'an reflecting the empires reach and diversity. The art is supremely confident and completely Chinese. You can see that in the sculpture above, the features and style are totally Chinese there is no mistaking it for anything else, and yet it has not lapsed into the softness and lassitude that characterize later Chinese sculpture. This Buddha comes from one of the cave temples at Tianlongshan, which was a major center of Buddhist worship patronized by the imperial family.  It is large, nearly life sized at 43 1/2 inches tall, and very finely carved in sandstone, preserving traces of its original polychrome.  It is featured in most survey books on Chinese sculpture as it is is one of the best examples of its type extant.

Clay and stucco Bodhisattva sculpture at Harvard

3/4 view of the stucco Bodhisattva above, at Harvard

Last I will mention this worshiping bodhisattva above, which is rare survivor and example outside of China of an important class of sculptures which don't survive because of their fragile materials. It comes from a cave temple in Dunhuang and was part of an assembly of 8 attendant figures around a central seated Buddha.  Dating to the early Tang Dynasty, this reflects the high cosmopolitan style of Chinese art of this time, sensuous, luxurious, but still serious in intent and feeling.  The medium allowed for great freedom of the modeling, it is only because it was in a cave that this fragile medium survived. It is one of the only and best such sculptures in the West. 

All the sculptures above come from one collection and bequest, that of Grenville Winthrop, who left his extensive and varied art collection to Harvard in 1943.  The scion of one of Massachusetts oldest and most distinguished families, Winthrop was a pioneering collector. When going through the Harvard Museums I was struck by the fact that invariably, any work of art that caught my eye, had come from his collection. The range is quite amazing, the most beautiful Pre-Raphaelite works at the museum came from him, as well as much of the ancient art there, from Greece, Rome and most notably China.  In reading up on him subsequently, I learned that he developed the best collection of Ingres outside of France, among other things. It was the Chinese collection he amassed that struck me when I was a student and still does now. He collected nearly 600 ancient Chinese jades, and many bronzes, as well as the early Buddhist sculptures above. 

A quote from him in response to an appeal from the Smithsonian Institution for his collection sums up his aim in giving it to Harvard:

"I admit that more people of the "general public" will visit Washington than Cambridge, but I am not so much interested in the general public as I am in the Younger Generation whom I want to reach in their impressionable years and to prove to them that true art is founded on traditions and is not the product of any one country or century and that Beauty may e found in all countries and in all periods, provided the eye be trained to find it."

His aim was certainly achieved, his collection made an impression on me when I was young and opened my eyes to Chinese art, which later has been of great benefit to me.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Asia Week, New York, March 2015, over heard trash talk!

I was just in NYC earlier this week, to preview the Ellsworth Collection sale at Christie’s and see Asia Week. On view in different galleries, mostly on the Upper East Side, are a range of dealers, from Europe as well as New York and America, covering the full gamut of Asian art, from ancient to contemporary, and from Japan, Korea to Indian and Southeast Asian, and of course Chinese.  I focus on the few dealers who handle ancient art.  One of them was exhibiting at Friedman Vallois, on East 67th Street and Madison Avenue, from Milan, Dalton Somare. I am not familiar with them, but was very impressed with what they had on view, see below.

Gandharan Head of a Buddha
  Prominently featured and very well displayed was this immense colossal head of a Buddha, Gandharan, from India, 2nd to 3rd Century A.D.  Carved of grey schist, it is 68 cm tall, about 27 inches.  A fragment from a larger sculpture, possibly a composite sculpture, it is a very imposing head.  And beautiful.
side view of the Gandharan Buddha head

While generally classical in style, as Gandharan art is, it has a very Indian cast of features. Highly stylized the eyes are strongly projecting, and the lips sensuously curved, the eyebrows arched and the nose straight.  The surfaces are polished to a soft sheen, which I have seen on some Gandharan schist sculptures but not that often. It is a really beautiful and impressive head.  They had a few other very good and unusual pieces as well, but this stood out. 

I went from this exhibition to another further up Madison Avenue, to a small gallery who also handles Gandharan art, but of a much more modest scale.  There were a few people there engaged in conversation, a visitor and a man who I took to be the dealer.  The visitor was saying that one had to be so careful of fakes and the dealer responded that when you see a piece so large and exceptional, you have to be suspicious. He could only be talking about the head I just saw.  The coincidence was pretty amazing, but I wasn’t particularly surprised, this head was a stand out, and would attract interest and talk.  However, the opinion of the dealer is one of the things that is wrong with the market, and illustrates how it operates.

This type of casual talk is poisonous to the market. It feeds off the insecurity and ignorance of the buyers, but ultimately, damages faith in the market. From what I could see Dalton Somare are serious dealers who take what they do seriously. The pieces were very select and fine and were very well displayed.  I am sure they do their due diligence and get expert opinions from scholars and perhaps even scientific examinations. I would want both types of opinions and reports on something as extraordinary as this head is.  To tell a buyer that the piece is a fake is unfair, but typical of how dealers undercut each other.  And who is to say differently?  Unless you already know a great deal and are confident of your eye and opinion, it is easy to be swayed but such negative opinions.  And it is corrosive.  I believe it is driven by jealousy.  The dealer so opining had minor pieces in comparison, very nice, pretty, but relatively insignificant in comparison.  No wonder he felt he need to put down this other dealer.

My word of advise to my reader is when you hear a dealer tell you something you just saw is a fake that you think is noteworthy, be suspicious, not of the piece but of the dealer.  They probably have an agenda, and it isn’t pursuit of the truth.

Amazing results, the Robert Ellsworth sale at Christies March 2015

Robert Ellsworth was a pioneering dealer of Chinese and Asian art in New York from the 1960’s into the 1990’s. I unfortunately never got to know him, I did meet him briefly at an art fair, and was impressed by his emerald green jade set in a high karat gold ring. I was told by a friend who would know, that the jade was of such fine color and quality that it was worth 2 million, and this was in the 1990’s!  I never got to see his apartment, which was legendary, large and on Fifth Avenue, full of fine antique American and Chinese furniture and of course, Asian antiquities.  When he died last year, the extensive obituaries lauded his taste and importance as a dealer in early Asian art, and his social connections.

Christie’s got his estate to sell, and did so just this week, in a series of  6 sales over 5 days, the last day being today as I write this.  The sale has been eagerly anticipated by myself and everyone involved in the trade of Asian antiquities. Particularly exciting to me was the inclusion of a number of good early Chinese Buddhist sculptures, which you don’t often see coming up at auction. 

Lot 755 from the Christie's Ellsworth auction

One of the pieces caught the eye of my best client, and that was lot 755, a small limestone statue of Buddha, broken above the ankles and missing its right hand.  It is Chinese, from the Northern Qi Dynasty, 550 - 577 A.D., limestone, and 18 1/4 inches tall. It has extensive remains of paint and some gold leaf, which add to its appeal.  I was poised to bid on the piece, which was estimated $40,000. to $60,000., and I was ready go above the estimate by a bit.  I didn’t get a chance to even bid, the little Buddha sold for 1.5 million dollars hammer price, which doesn’t include the 20% buyer premium! This is an amazing price for what is a sweet, but modest example of Northern Qi sculpture.  I have bought and sold much better examples for a fraction of this price. 

One wonders at this extraordinarily high price, probably a record for this type of sculpture at auction, certainly a record for a piece of this size and condition of this period.  The provenance had a lot to do with it, but should that really justify pricing a piece that I would expect to be priced at $50,000., or $60,000., to sell for 1.5 million?

Robert Ellsworth was a great dealer, and one assumes that his pieces were purchased a number of years ago, but frequently the catalog simply stated for this piece and many others, "The collection of Robert H. Ellsworth, New York, before 2000" What this really means, Christie's had no idea of when exactly or from whom Robert Ellsworth had purchased the piece.  It is safe bet that it was before 2000 simply because of his advanced age and that he had essentially retired from dealing by this time.  However, it is hardly the type of precisely documented provenance that the auction houses claim to require to sell pieces! The reality is that the "collection" was really the leavings of a great dealers inventory, the pieces he didn't sell while active, rather than a collection in the sense of a deliberate gathering of the finest pieces for ones own pleasure of ownership.  Even so, it was an impressive group of objects amongst which were some real gems.  Christie's gave it the full "Liz Taylor" treatment, a hagiography at the beginning of each of the 6 volumes of the full set of the print catalogs which were printed in a larger size than normal.  The display incorporated some of the antique furniture and other objects that Robert Ellsworth had in his home, and the catalog had lots of glamorous views of his 960 Fifth Avenue apartment, showing how he lived with the pieces. 

Robert Ellsworth had the good fortune to be at the right place at the right time.  He formed friendships with people who were able to advance his career early on, starting in the 1940's, and was dealing when the art market was really just forming for Asian art in Post War America.  He bought his apartment at 960 Fifth Avenue in 1975, when someone who was just rich, but not super-rich, could buy a great apartment in NYC.  From there he entertained and showed his wares in grand style.  He had the means and the courage to purchase the legendary Christian Humann collection, called the Pan Asian Collection, in 1981.  This gave him the inventory for his career. Christian Humann was an heir to the Lazard family banking fortune, who created the Pan Asian collection. I was told by Matthias Komor, who knew all of these people, and for who I worked for in the early 1980's, that Christian Humann's family was very disappointed that upon his death, there was no money but an apartment full of Asian Art.  It was considered one of the greatest collections of early Asian art ever assembled, and Ellsworth's purchase of it was a stroke of genius.  However, the little Northern Qi Buddha, lot 755, was not from the Pan Asian collection, nor were many of the pieces in the auction. 

I think this illustrates one of the facts of the art market, particularly for antiquities, its irrationality.  I’m happy to see a Chinese Buddhist sculpture sell for so much, it helps validate what I’m dealing in. However, I don’t expect to get this type of price, although I wish I could!

A story of two Busts in the Metropolitan Museum

I want to start addressing in my posts, one of the central issues in dealing with ancient objects, that is authenticity, and how what role it plays in the market.  To start, I will tell the story of two exceptional Roman portrait busts, now proudly on view in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Bust of Matidia the Younger, sister of Sabina

Bust of Sabina

These wonderful portraits busts date to the reign of Hadrian, ca 122 - 128 A.D., are complete, including their socle bases, and in superb condition. They do however have a heavy dark encrustation that has proven difficult and potentially damaging to remove, and so has been left on. You can see on the left cheek of Matidia where an attempt was made to scrape it off, and the attempt seems to have been abandoned when it was clear that it was damaging the ancient surface underneath.  Heavy encrustation notwithstanding, these are beautiful sculptures of the highest quality attainable in the Roman period, or any time.  The surfaces that are exposed are gorgeous, with their original soft polish and finish preserved.  I have always admired these busts, and I have known them for decades.

It is nice when ones advanced age becomes an asset, and in this case, it is. I have been involved in the antiquities world long enough to have seen these busts sold twice, and on view at the Metropolitan Museum twice.  The first time was in 1983, at Sotheby's New York, lots 121 and 123. Listed as "property of various owners", they both sold for $154,000., which includes the buyers commission.  At the time, that was a fairly high price, but not outrageously so.  Their provenance was very mysterious, it was rumored amongst the dealers that they came from an unnamed Mexican collection.  Somewhat hard to believe, as their quality and condition would have merited attention from the scholarly world had they been at all publicly known of.  However apparently they weren't, popping up at Sotheby's New York for sale.

Sotheby's June 10&11, 1983 catalog page

Sotheby's June 10&11, 1983 catalog page

 They were purportedly purchased by Basia Johnson, who was collecting mostly old masters, but also some antiquities.  However it was rumored that she never took delivery of the busts, because the dealers who she was buying antiquities from, Robin Symes and Christo Michaelides told her they were fakes. When told this I was incredulous, everything about these busts spoke of their authenticity, their beauty, the perfect ancient style they are carved in, and their condition. While the encrustation was marring, it seemed incontrovertible evidence of their antiquity to me, this type of patina take millennia to form. It was also hard to understand why Robin Symes would damn them, except for they didn't come from him, and he didn't want Basia Johnson purchasing from anywhere but his gallery.  Even at auction evidently. Fortunately, Robin's damning of them didn't carry weight with the Metropolitan Museum, who put them on exhibit, for several years from 1984 to 1989.

A little more than decade after the first sale, the portrait busts came up again at Sotheby's New York, where Robin Symes condemnation apparently meant little.  This was in the December 14th, 1994 New York sale, lots 90 and 91.

December 14, 1994 Sotheby's sale catalog page

December 14, 1994 Sotheby's sale catalog page

This time the busts sold for $290,000., each, hammer price, so the buyers premium would have been added to that. I was in the room, and thus got only the hammer price at the time they sold.  Then, about a year later, they re-appeared on view at the Metropolitan Museum of art, on loan this time from the Dubroff family.  Mr. Dubroff has been purchasing antiquities, only from auction, and loaning pieces to museums. There are a number of his pieces currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, these being two of his best pieces. 

The point of this tale is a cautionary one about how questions of authenticity are used by dealers to sabotage other dealers, and control collectors. There can really be no real question about these busts antiquity, they were raised simply to undercut a buyer's willingness to buy from someone, anyone else, but them.  This is more frequent than one would like to believe and should make one skeptical when you hear a dealer talking about an object being fake that is beautiful and otherwise seems right.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Dating a Statue of the Buddha

A Standing Buddha Statue

Standing Buddha.
China, Northern Qi to Sui Dynasty, 570 - 600 A.D.
Limestone, Height: 43 inches.

This statue of a Buddha is just under life sized, 43 inches in total, with both arms broken off where the hands would have projected.  The quality of the sculpture is very high, the forms are sensuous and the head is sensitively carved and beautiful.  While the form of the Buddha is standard and familiar, the dating of this piece is actually not so straightforward. I will analyze the piece and show parallels to attempt to place it in time.

The form of the Buddha with the robes having low relief folds close to the body forming a column, and the elegant restraint of the overall figure, generally date the sculpture to the late 6th Century.  However, certain elements of the face, ushnisha, and the folds of the robe are not typical of the Northern Qi, 550 - 577 A.D., but may indicate a date just after, making this a transitional style sculpture.  I will take each element separately to attempt to place it more exactly.

One dates a sculpture from the head, so we will start there.  

The cranial lump which is a mark of the Buddha’s transcendent wisdom, the ushnisha , here is defined and distinct, although subtly so. During the Northern Qi Dynasty, the ushnisha is melded into the overall form of the head to create more of a cone head, but here, it is clearly defined, even if only just so.

The long lobes of the ears are a marker of the Buddha, found in all periods of Buddhist sculpture.

The face is rounded, and distinctly Chinese looking with its full cheeks, small full mouth and small nose.  The features are highly stylized, the eyes are swooping curves, under arched brows. The chin is small, and slightly double chinned, you can barely make out the line defining it underneath it. The neck is smooth and columnar, with no fat rings, as are found more commonly after the Northern Qi. The face, with its rounded form is moving towards the fullness developed in the Tang Dynasty, but the clarity and elegance of it is still Northern Qi. 

Based on the slightly distinct but still subtle ushnisha, the fullness and Chinese appearance of the face, and smooth neck, I feel we have a late Northern Qi sculpture here, whose style anticipates the later developments in Chinese sculpture, almost a transitional piece.

Another stylistic feature that helps to place this statue in time is the treatment of the robe, which has low relief crisp folds and is close to the body.  On each upper arm below the shoulder are a pair of folds which flow down the upper arms in an S shaped, almost flame like, curving line.  Symmetrically mirroring each other, they frame the central torso.  This feature is found in two marble Buddha statues that I have found, which are dated to the Sui Dynasty, 581-618 A.D., see below.

Similarly the treatment of the bottom hems of the robes is helpful in dating. While the lower left side is broken off, enough survives of the right side to see that the robe ended in a series of scrolling curves for the ends of the vertical pleats of the robe, echoing the scrolling hem of the outer robe above.  On the left side the outer robe bottom has a central pleat whose hem forms a spade shape, flanked by curves on either side.  The under robe, whose hem is lower is broken off on that side, but it no doubt mirrored the other side, rather than followed the upper robes folds. This is partly due to the asymmetrical treatment of the folds crossing the body from left to right in curving descending arches.  

Above is an image of a Buddha statue in the Toronto, Royal Ontario Museum, dated to 577 A.D., which would be the end of the Northern Qi, to early Northern Zhou Dynasties.  You can see the folds on each upper arm which come from a vertical, before curving down, mirroring each other. The scrolling wave pattern of the lower under robe lower hem relates to ours, as well. The overall columnar form created by the robes close to the body, with the crisp shallow folds is quite similar to our statue.  However the head is quite different, they eyes in particular do not have the curving upward flame like curving form as in our sculpture. 

This colossal statue is in the British Museum, Chinese, and which has an inscription dating it to 585 A.D., early Sui Dynasty.  It is carved of marble, and stands 5.78 meters tall, nearly 19 feet high. It is a truly magnificent statue, unfortunately displayed in a stairwell at the British Museum, so you cannot get a good view of it.

The overall columnar form of the statue with its crisp low relief folds falling across the body, and the mirroring folds along the upper arms, relate to our statue.  The scrolling wave pattern of the lower hems of the upper robe and larger waves of the under, lower robe, are similar but more stylized than in our sculpture. The head of the BM statue is quite different, more hieratic and remote, than the warmer curves and expression on our statue.  This helps to put our statue within the Northern Qi style, perhaps late, or transitional, just at the end of that period. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Yet another Poniatowski gem discovered!

I just recently purchased a gem set in a gold frame hung from chains to be used as a pendant, that is one of the Poniatowski Gems.  The dealer knew what it was, but not which one, and I have been able to find it in the Beazley Archives, where it's current whereabouts are marked as unknown. No longer, it can re-emerge into the view of the wider world.

 The gem, which measures 30mm long by 22mm wide, is carnelian agate, and has a scene of a winged man seated in a rocky setting, handing a bag to a cloaked man with a rounded cap. Behind this man is the prow of a ship with its swan head finial.  Below the ground line is a long inscription in Greek letters.  The surface of the gem is slightly worn and the carving is of very high quality, the composition has strong diagonals, and the size of the gem is large as engraved gems go. All these factors mark it as being from the Poniatowski collection, but I had no specific information as to the subject or which gem it was.

After some study and the fortuitous visit of a friend, the subject was identified as being Ulysses, the original Greek name being Odysseus, receiving the winds from Aeolus, as told in the Odyssey by Homer.  With the subject known, I was able to narrow down my search on the Beazley Archives website and found the gem, illustrated only with its impression from when it was in possession of John Tyrrell, Esq., in 1841, who had purchase it along with 1,200 other gems from the Poniatowski collection from Chrisities in London after the princes death.  Tyrrell believed the gems to be ancient, even though by this time a number of scholars doubted them, and he had casts made of the gems, and published them along with catalogs of his collection and distributed them to scholars around the world. This catalog and the plaster impressions taken from the gems, have allowed for the re-discovery of many of the Poniatowski gems.  This particular one is number T1017, the T being for Tyrrell.

Like all the gems, or at least most, in the Poniatowski Collection this gem is very high quality, beautiful, and its subject very interesting.  The Poniatowski Collection represents one of the greatest collections of gem engraving of its time ever assembled.  This gem was designed by Calandrelli, the drawing is in the Antikensammlung Berlin, and now the gem is with me.

Photo of the impression from when it belonged to John Tyrrell. (image courtesy Beazley Archives)

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Crowned Bodhisattva Head and its type.

I recently acquired the exceptional Chinese Northern Qi head of a Crowned Bodhisattva, seen in the images below.  It is large, just over life sized, intact as far as the head itself goes, with only a bit of the top of the crown missing and the side ribbons. In addition to being relatively intact the surfaces are very well preserved with extensive remains of the gold leaf preserved along with polychromy.  The lips preserve their original carmine red, and bits of color remain on the crown.  It is a magnificent head, really majestic.  However the reason the head is compelling to me is that it is of a type known from other versions, which is a rarity in Chinese Buddhist sculptures of this time.  While all are similar, no two are the same in their details, except for this particular type.

Head of a Bodhisattva, Limestone, Height: 15 inches

Head of a Bodhisattva wearing a crown.
China, Northern Qi Dynasty, 550 - 577 A.D.

Side view of Head of a Bodhisattva, Limestone, Height: 15 inches.
In my studies of Chinese Buddhist sculpture, one is confronted repeatedly with this (see below) spectacular Bodhisattva wearing a crown, with a small Buddha centrally placed.  This indicates it is Kuanyin, the Bodhisattva of compassion.  Singularly superb in its carving, conception and execution, it stands apart from the group of extraordinary sculptures discovered in Qingzhou in 1996, and subsequently made famous by a traveling exhibition and catalogue, "The Return of the Buddha", in 2002.  It was featured in one of the first publications of the find in 2001 on the cover of the magazine, Arts of Asia, Volume 31, number 1. 

Bodhisattva found in the Qingzhou horde, Limestone, Height: 136cm.
 Standing Bodhisattva
China, Northern Qi Dynasty, 550 - 577 A.D.

Detail showing the head of the Qingzhou Bodhisattva

The beautiful Bodhisattva above (photos taken from the Asian Newspapers online article is one of the most famous of the sculptures found in the horde.  And justly so as you can see in the photos above.  However, as remarkable as it is in itself, evidently either it, or a lost original, inspired copies to be made of it, something I have not seen before in Chinese Buddhist sculpture.  The first time I encountered one, it was a smaller version, that duplicates the details of the jewelry, robes and crown exactly, but the face is quite different. (see below)

Bodhisattva, Limestone, Height: 25 inches.
Standing Bodhisattva
China, Northern Qi Dynasty 550 - 577 A.D.

Head of the Bodhisattva above.
Another view of the head of the Bodhisattva
As you can see above, the smaller version of the Bodhisattva type copies exactly, as far as I can tell, the jewelry, robes and crown of the Qingzhou sculpture.  I bought the smaller one without realizing just how close it was to it, but recognizing that it belonged to that type of adorned Bodhisattva.  I was startled when I was studying photos of the Qingzhou sculpture to see just how closely the one I had followed it.  And yet the faces are quite different, indicating that they are not by the same sculptor, and perhaps even separated in time.  The question is, was the Qingzhou Bodhisattva famous and admired in its own time, or was there yet another example that it is another copy of.  That is something we may never know. 

The head I just acquired indicates that there was yet at least one more version, the one the head came from, which would have been just over life sized, and a very impressive sculpture.  Interestingly, the crown, which is almost identical to the Qingzhou example, is not exactly so.  On either side of the central seated small Buddha on the Qingzhou sculpture, is a stylized lotus leaf seen from the side, however in the newly acquired head, the Buddha is framed by a jewel, with a spray of pearls on either side, the rest of the crown almost exactly parallels the Qingzhou type.  The face is much more related to the Qingzhou type, a bit bigger and less attenuated, unlike the small version where it is totally different.  The lips in particular has almost the same cupid bow upper lip that the Qingzhou one does.  In addition the expressions are very similar, very removed and distant in deep meditation.  The smaller one just has a different feel to its face, even though it too is in deep meditation.

The whole field of early Chinese Buddhist sculpture is still only beginning to be processed by scholars, since before the Qingzhou horde, very few examples survived, now many examples have come to light, reached the market, but are still relatively unknown to them.  I wonder how many other "types" we will find, where there are multiple examples so similar to each other as the three above. 

A little bit about Bodhisattvas.  The Buddha attained enlightenment and nirvana, leaving the earthly realm merging into the universal essence.  In early Chinese Buddhist sculpture, the Buddha is distinguished by the lack or jewelry and adornment, in the simple robes of a monk.  It is his pure presence that demands your attention, while Bodhisattvas are richly clothed and adorned often with heavy extravagant jewelry.  The Qingzhou example is a particulary richly decorated one.  A Bodhisattva is a being who has attained enlightenment, but has chosen not to go to Nirvana, but to stay behind to help other sentient beings achieve enlightenment.  One story about Kuanyin is that on the brink of Nirvana, he heard the distressed voices of all creation, and in compassion, turned around to stay behind to help other beings on the road to spiritual perfection. Perhaps as recompense for not going to Nirvana, Bodhisattvas are depicted adorned in kingly jewelry and robes.  The richness of their garb may also symbolize their spiritual wealth, which is limitless.  Almost all Bodhisattvas are crowned, but the Qingzhou type has a distinctive crown, so I am referring to them as a crowned Bodhisattva.  The central small seated Buddha in the crown is an attribute of Kuanyin, so it may well be the type is meant to depict him.  In Indian sculpture, which was the source for Buddhism, Bodhisattvas are richly adorned, with jewelry.  But the Chinese examples are often far more richly adorned then the Indian ones.  The type above is one of the most beautiful in early Chinese Buddhist sculpture, I'm lucky to have found this beautiful head of one.