Arcane Realms – Buddhist and Daoist Art

Art should have no frontiers and should, on the contrary, be a source of enjoyment for people the world over. Our expectation is that this Exhibition may increase knowledge of the Great Past of China and by so doing promote understanding between our countries.
C. T. Loo

We are pleased to present a group of fine frescoes from the 10th century to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), a category that has been recently overlooked by the market, despite great interest previously from classical Chinese historians and collectors. Complementing the frescoes is a selection of sculptures in various materials, including two extraordinary heads of luohan, one in dry lacquer and the other in marble.

In C. T. Loo’s (1880–1957) 1949 catalogue for his New York and Paris exhibition, titled Chinese Frescos of Northern Sung, and from which we quote above, he describes the process of creating murals in China and notes how conditions inside temples were particularly well suited for such decoration. The ceilings were built upon a wooden framework and the walls filled in with bricks. The bricks were first covered with a thick layer of mud mixed with straw, then with a layer of thin fine clay mixed with vegetable fibres, before being coated with lime to create a smooth painting surface. The designs were then sketched by artists. Stylistic differences appear across different dynasties.

European explorers and Sinologists at the turn of the 20th century were particularly interested in frescoes. As such, several in this exhibition come from European collections. The earliest dated example is a Five Dynasties/early Song period (907–1125) flying apsara (no. 4) from a French private collection, which bears remarkable similarities to an example illustrated by C. T. Loo in Chinese Frescos of Northern Sung (nos. 7 and 11). A sensitively painted Song period (960–1279) figure of Guanyin (no. 5) comes from the collection of the Sinologist and linguist Alexis Rygaloff (b. 1922), who was a student of the great French explorer Paul Pelliot (1878–1945).

The frescoes from the later Yuan (1271–1368) and early Ming periods in this exhibition can be divided into two styles. The first is larger in scale and elaborately painted with male and female celestial immortals (nos. 24, 25 and 26). The second consists of panels in various sizes with smaller and finely painted figures shown in exterior locations such as gardens and temples (nos. 17, 18, 19 and 20). Of this group, the latter three seem to have been painted by the same artist, and thus probably decorated the same temple. All are from European collections.

The remarkable dry-lacquer head of a luohan (no. 7) from the renowned collection of Stephen Junkunc III (d. 1978) is a rare and exciting discovery. During the Song period, formalities and religious restrictions previously imposed by the court on the creation of Buddhist sculptures were lifted. Many examples from this period emphasize the beauty of the human form and seemed to have been modelled on real people. The dry-lacquer technique appears to have been more successful in creating highly expressive
and realistic sculpture than other methods. Most extant examples of dry-lacquer sculpture are found in museum collections, with few held in private hands.

Similarly, the white marble head of a luohan (no. 6) from the Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat Collection, with its fierce and piercing gaze, is a superb example of Song period sculpture. A Liao period (916–1125) jade head of a Buddha is far smaller in size but very finely carved (no. 3). This rare example compares well to Liao funeral masks in gold and silver with its striking presence and facial characteristics.

The large, painted stucco head of a bodhisattva (no. 16) is representative of three-dimensional sculptures found in caves and grottoes in temples of Shaanxi province dating to the Yuan dynasty. The size of the head hints at the enormous dimensions of the full figure.

Finally, we include a selection of Ming dynasty ivory sculptures. People have been carving on ivory since the dawn of civilization—not only in China but also in the rest of the world. Indeed, the earliest pieces known date from Egypt’s pre-dynastic period (5,500–3,100 BCE). Many such works are held in museum collections and have been studied extensively by scholars. These objects of beauty are a part of our collective history and hold great cultural significance. The examples in this exhibition were produced mainly in Fujian province, where these types of figures were in demand both for local and foreign consumption.

The composition of ivory allows it to take polish on all surfaces so it becomes unctuous and highly tactile, similar to jade and lacquer. We present two seated depictions of Guanyin (nos. 27 and 31) and a heavily European-influenced standing Guanyin (no. 28). Also included is an elegantly carved deep carved and black-stained figure of Han Xiangzi (no. 30) and a mandorla (no. 23) represents the highest-quality carving of the Yongle period (1403–1424). Finally, the unusual 15th century standing figure of Bodhidharma (no. 22) with its rich patina and fine definition is undoubtedly a masterpiece of Chinese ivory carving.