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I'm With Stupa

On Saturday, I went down to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery to see the Islamic exhibit, which I mentioned on July 23, when I read Souren Melikian's review for the International Herald Tribune. (More about Islamic art to come later this week.) While I was there, I thought I would at least drop in and see the Buddha exhibit that a friend had liked (he even offered to write a review for Ionarts that sadly never materialized). I was glad that I did, since it was set to close on August 8, when the thirty-five 6th-century Buddhist sculptures in this show, Return of the Buddha: The Qingzhou Discoveries, will be returned to China.

The exhibit has done extraordinarily well, according to the gallery, as well it should have, since it is an absolutely remarkable thing to see. First of all, these pieces were discovered only in 1996, when construction workers were leveling out a

school sports field in Qingzhou, a small city in Shandong Province on China's northeast coast. The ranking of these sculptures among the 100 most significant archaeological finds of the 20th century puts them on a par with the First Emperor's terracotta soldiers. Their discovery has significantly advanced scholarship of Chinese Buddhist art, while at the same time their sublime beauty has renewed popular interest in Buddhist sculpture. Genuine examples, legitimate reproductions, and forgeries can all be found in today's art market, stimulated by collectors' search for works in the Qingzhou style.
What they uncovered was a large pit, near the site of the Longxing (Dragon Rise) Temple, where some 400 sacred statues (made mostly between the 520s and 580s, which makes them remarkably old, after all) and other objects had been buried, at some point in the early 12th century. The most convincing theory behind the reason for this burial is that it was a ceremonial retirement of outdated temple items, which could not just be destroyed. An iconoclastic or other type of anti-Buddhist persecution seems unlikely, since the pieces were wrapped and buried with the faces intact. Needless to say, archeologists from the Qingzhou Municipal Museum got there to salvage the finds as quickly as they could, before the construction went ahead. This selection of sculptures was loaned first to the Museum Rietberg in Zurich, which organized the exhibit with the Chinese government: the show has also appeared in Berlin, London, and Hong Kong, but Washington is its only stop in the United States.

To look at images of the exhibit, you can use the Sackler's Flash presentation, which is nice but irritatingly rigid in its layout. I prefer the Web site devoted to the exhibit at the Royal Academy in London, which was designed by someone who was less of a control freak. The largest piece was displayed right at the entrance to the exhibit at the Sackler, a Buddhist triad with mandorla, showing a somewhat pieced-together Buddha flanked by two bodhisattvas, or spirits who could attain Nirvana but do not, in order to stay in this world to help others do so. This is hardly an original thought, but the composition of this sculptural group could, with slight modification, serve just as well for the Transfiguration or Ascension of Christ, right down to the angel musicians. (There are several other examples of these Buddhist triads in the exhibit.)

Standing BuddhaIt is the eternal nature of the Buddha depicted in these buried works that stands out: the rigid, hieratic pose (with few exceptions, the figures stand flatly on both feet); the odd, frozen smile (not unlike the "archaic smile" found on archaic Greek statues); and the identifying iconographical symbols of hand gestures, ushnisha, pendulous earlobes, the stupa (Buddha's final resting place), and lotus flower. Within that framework of the timeless, however, there are fascinating variations, which the information panels do a good job of bringing to your attention. Depictions of Buddha changed so much as time passed after his death and as Buddhism traveled from its native India, where it has nearly died out, through Asia, across China, and to Japan. It is always identifiable as Buddhist art but is usually mixed with elements of other cultures in interesting ways. In one example, in a fragment from a triad with mandorla (cat. no. 9), a bodhisattva holds a heart-shaped object. When curators traced the depiction of these spirits to Gandhara (in modern Afghanistan), they are holding a sort of fan, which was imitated by artists as Buddhism moved east. However, in different cultures, the fan was copied with no understanding of what it really was, so it looks here like some sort of little purse. In the same way, the oldest piece in the exhibit, the stele of Han Xiaohua, dated to 529, has all the Buddhist elements, underneath two figures holding up the sun and the moon, from the Daoist tradition.

One of the discoveries in these pieces for art historians is a little more information on how early Buddhist sculptures were painted. One piece, in particular, the Standing Buddha (shown here) has the most paint remaining on it. When you read about how colorful these sculptures once were—with gold-leaf skin, metallic blue hair, bright red lips, and realistic eyes—it does change your view of things. The 1996 excavation has also made Chinese art specialists realize that Shangdong province, which was thought to be a sort of blank area in the history of Chinese sculpture, had a vibrant artistic culture at this time. Just about all of those scholars agree that there is most likely a great deal more waiting under the ground all around China, which makes the decision to do this really seem reckless.

Return of the Buddha: The Qingzhou Discoveries went back to China on August 8.

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