Himalayan Art Resources

Publication: Approaching Buddhist Sculpture

Approaching Buddhist Sculpture with a Mind of Tension & Relaxation

Jeff Watt, October 2nd, 2013 (Capital Museum, Beijing China)

What is there really to understand about Himalayan and Tibetan style sculpture? Generally an individual either likes a sculpture, or dislikes a sculpture. For some it is much easier to walk away from a sculpture than a painting, or if the opposite, to be transfixed or mesmerized by a sculptural form. A sculptural object in figurative form conveys only the most basic information in support of its identity, often drawn from iconographic, religious or narrative sources.

The approach, the techniques and tools for understanding a sculpture are completely different than those skills required for understanding a painting. Painting is technical, iconographic and creative. It is intended and meant to describe something textual, something narrative, and often filled with hidden meaning (symbolism and with the Tantric images mnemonic devices).

Sculpture, fundamentally different from painting, tends to depict a single figure, simple in appearance or complex, seated or standing, sometimes riding in a chariot drawn by seven pigs, or seated atop a bird. It is most often the case that a sculpture has been separated from its original context. The clearest example of context with regard to sculpture are sets of objects where each individual sculpture helps to create the whole. Only by having enough of the pieces of the set can an understanding and appreciation for the complete sculptural work, the intention of the donor and artist, be properly grasped and identified correctly.

Individual sculptural pieces, three dimensional, do not have the many luxuries of a painted two-dimensional composition. A sculpture must stand on its own without benefit of secondary figures, colour, landscape, rows of teachers, or a donor figure - with a name inscription or otherwise. Sculpture is seen alone, naked, relying only on form, size, identified or unidentified. Identified means an object that is recognizable or understood by name such as a figure of the Buddha or Lokeshvara (Kuan Yin). Unidentified often means a figurative form simple or complex with multiple heads, animal heads, a human body, multiple arms, entwined male and female bodies. Aside from the most fundamental of these forms correct identification has traditionally been almost impossible except by an iconographic expert or scholar.

From a broad perspective when viewing a sculpture there often arises basic questions such as: what is it? What is the figurative form? What is the purpose or function? Where is it from,  where was it made? When was it made? What is the metal? What is the hierarchy of importance and value? What is the style? Is there a written inscription around the base, or an Imperial mark? These are the broad questions, the intellectual questions, but probably not the most immediate of the questions.

An individual sculpture most often holds the attention of the knowledgeable viewer, a scholar or collector, primarily because of aesthetics. An entirely different set of questions that are immediate to the viewing experience arise one after the other. The questions are generally - Is the form of the sculpture pleasing? How are the body measurements and proportions? Is the sculpture dynamic, does it seem fluid, is there motion? What is the size? Is it gilt with mercuric gold, or cold gold? Is the face attractive? Is there inlay of semi-precious stones or different metals such as gold, silver or copper? Is there attention to detail? Is there incising of the figure such as on the garments with decorative or natural patterns? Ultimately - Is the sculpture attractive?

The aesthetics of any particular sculpture are subjective and appreciation can vary greatly depending on the viewer. A very well made sculptural figure, technically precise, with excellent body proportions might lack feeling, appear stiff and rigid in form. Some less well crafted works might convey a warmth and fluid body movement. A beautiful face, smiling, or a wizened old face full of character that can add quality to the viewing experience. All of these considerations, both the immediate and the intellectual, work together to create a good or bad experience when actively involved in the viewing of a sculpture.

When we speak to each other we call that language. We call it communicating. When we look at objects, specifically art objects, we simply and ignorantly call it looking. It is a looking without fully understanding the depth of communication and dialogue that is taking place. When observing a painting, the painting is almost always in the dominant role. The dialogue is dominated by the painting. The painting is trying to tell a story. The painting is trying to tell the complete story all at once - washing over the mind with colour and form. The viewer must block, filter and edit, so that it can make sense of the story that the painting is trying to tell. The composition of the painting can be over whelming, the drawing intricate, free and robust, the colour palette rich even beyond words with which to be able to name all the shades and hues of colour. The viewer must be strong to withstand the intensity of the painting and to be equal in the dialogue and communication process. Opposite to the experience of viewing a painting, a sculpture is passive, singular, without contrasting colour or context. A sculpture does not offer itself so freely as a painting. It is not the first to communicate. Instead, the viewer's mind rushes to wash over the object endevouring to discover the story, the subtlety, and the reward - the aesthetic gratification.

Feeling is important for the viewer. Preferably a 'good' feeling. The Chaturbhuja Lokeshvara with one face and four arms pictured above is an extraordinary piece. It is well known as belonging stylistically to the group of sculpture known as 'Zanabazar School', first appearing in the late 17th century and possibly commissioned in Mongolia by the teacher of the same name - Zanabazar (Yeshe Dorje, 1635–1723). Why does this sculpture give rise to feelings? What style is it really? What were the influences? What do we like about it?

The common story concerning Zanabazar sculpture is that they were created by the hands of Zanabazar himself and rely upon his own designs and sense of aesthetics. Oh, that would be a wonderful story if it were true. The more probable narrative is a little closer to his actual life story. In the mid to late 17th century while visiting Lhasa in Tibet, Zanabazar hired upwards of 60 Newar (Nepalese) metal and sculpture craftsmen and traveled with them to Mongolia. After his return the production of Zanabazar School sculpture began. However, Zanabazar sculpture are not in a pure Nepalese style, although there are Nepalese elements. There are also Pala Indian elements. The most striking thing about Zanabazar sculpture are the figurative forms - the bodies - the perfect symmetry. Where does the symmetry come from? The answer is rather simple and somewhat obvious. Look to Kangxi sculpture both metal and wood. The body measurements and proportions are almost identical. The Zanabazar sculpture are slightly thinner especially with the faces. The gold mercuric gilding also follows the Kangxi style. The crown and ornaments are Newar influenced and the double lotus seat above a platform base is also Newar but copied from the earlier Indian Pala sculpture.

So, in conclusion, it can be said that the finest Zanabazar sculpture is a wonderful blending of Mongolian ingenuity, Kangxi period figurative art and Newar ornamentation and craftsmanship. Himalayan Style Art itself is a general term to describe dozens of different artist inspired and regional sculptural styles each with their own stories of creativity, blending and merging, each outdoing the other in their own way with their own sense of beauty and aesthetics.

Jeff Watt, October 2nd, 2013