The most dazzling show on this year’s winter calendar is taking place not in a major metropolitan museum or high-end commercial gallery, but at New York’s Asia Society. That organization’s exhibitions have often been must-see events, but with “Kamakura: Realism and Spirituality in the Sculpture of Japan” it has outdone itself. Richly plastic, charged with sacred presence, in places grippingly expressive, and marked throughout by technical innovation, this group of forty-odd works, almost all made of wood, is the ideal introduction to Asian sculpture for the uninitiated (of whom I count myself one). Naturalism, for centuries the lingua franca of Western art, here affords entrée, by way of the familiar, to an art form whose more common characteristics of psychological withdrawal and a high degree of stylization and abstraction can often make it seem remote and inaccessible.
The Kamakura period (1185–1333) coincides with the first stirrings of the Renaissance in the West—Giotto died in 1337. Yet at least in the area of sculpture, it constitutes a kind of renaissance of its own. A civil war in the 1180s had destroyed the great Buddhist temples, along with libraries and artifacts, precipitating an urgent need for rebuilding and populating these structures with images of the deities and other figurative works. And, as such episodes of sweeping destruction often do, it created a climate conducive to fresh thinking.
And so two innovations appeared. First, artists took an idea from an earlier era of Japanese sculpture and ran with it, composing works from multiple wood blocks instead of, as had been done previously, a single one, permitting more animated, expressive poses. This made possible a second: the eye sockets were hollowed out and crystal orbs painted to look like eyes were inserted from behind, thus greatly increasing the verisimilitude of figures conceived not as decorations but as objects of religious devotion. They were spiritual presences, embodiments of the divine, or as the catalogue puts it, “enlivened images.” (To which end, sacred relics, texts, or miniature images would sometimes be deposited inside the sculptures.)
As such episodes of sweeping destruction often do, the Kamakura period created a climate conducive to fresh thinking.
The first work we encounter in the show is the head of a Guardian King, a type of figure that would have stood near the altar (or outside the temple), and the power of its fiercely grimacing visage is greatly increased by its bright, gleaming eyes. Writing in the catalogue, Hank Glassman, a Haverford College professor, conveys a vivid sense of what it would have been like to experience these works in situ:
[A] large wooden hall echoes with the rhythmic chanting of monks; the air fills with the heady fragrance of incense pressed from sandalwood, agarwood and camphor; and numerous oil lamps and candles flicker, set in their heavy iron bases. We can envision the gyokugan (inset crystal eyes) of the statues glittering in flashes of candlelight and the golden gleam of the ritual implements as the monks move them with practiced solemnity and grace.
At the same time, drawing on Song-dynasty art in China, sculptors of the Kamakura period adopted a more realistic approach to the figure: lifelike facial expressions, more naturalistic proportions, and a sense of movement.
The apogee of this naturalistic impulse is to be found in Standing Shotoku Taishi at Age Two (Namubutsu Taishi), one of the high points of the show. In this twenty-seven-inch-tall figure of the two-year-old prince Shotoku Taishi, shown naked to the waist and hands clasped in front of him, the sculptor has captured the smoothness of his bare scalp, the hardness of the cranium beneath, the soft pudginess of the flesh of face, arms, and, especially, his belly, and, in a shimmering grace note, the slight swish of the hem of his garment as if moving in response to a breath of wind or the slightest bodily motion.
To the list of defining characteristics of Kamakura sculpture, we must surely add the treatment of drapery. Here realism and stylization commingle. Folds set up a linear rhythm that is self-sufficiently decorative and at the same time convincingly evocative of the way material falls around a body in nature. At the same time, these artists use it to suggest something larger, more abstract. Seated Monju Bosatsu, a robed figure seated cross-legged and holding a sword upright in his extended right arm, is a symbol of wisdom. The fabric of his tunic is all rhythm. The sleeves lift and billow as if caught in a breeze, and the folds crisscross his legs in an endlessly looping linear rhythm. The overall effect of the sculpture is of continuous fluid motion in a way that calls to mind Leonardo’s studies of water.
This is a temporary show one wishes could be up forever.
Perhaps one reason this treatment of drapery is so striking is its contrast with Western sculpture. In a work like the Louvre’s Winged Victory, for example, flowing drapery functions as a kind of objective correlative, a sign of physical or emotional perturbation. In Seated Monju Bosatsu, however, drapery that gives the impression of movement seems to exist apart from—even in opposition to—the mood of meditative tranquility conveyed by the seated figure, with its stillness, poise, and delicate gestures. The two—the energy of the one and the sobriety of the other—should clash, yet they don’t. Instead, the drapery reinforces rather than interferes with the figure’s magnetic spiritual presence. This is a temporary show one wishes could be up forever.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 9, on page 53
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