Wednesday, June 28, 2017

North American Silk Road Collections: the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

The Asian Art Museum of San FranciscoーChong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture is the largest museum in the United States that is devoted exclusively to Asian art. The museum was originally established as a wing of the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in 1960s by the city of San Francisco to house the prestigious Asian art collection of Chicago industrialist Avery Brundage (1887-1975), who stated that “[the museum] will help San Francisco and the Bay Area become one of the world's greatest centers of Oriental culture.” In 1969, an autonomous institution was established to function as the foremost center for Asian art in the Western world which was renamed the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco in 1973. The museum was renamed again in 1996 upon receiving a generous gift from Chong-Moon Lee, an Asian Art Commissioner and Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Today, the Asian Art Museum of San FranciscoーChong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture boasts more than 18,000 pieces of Asian art, serving local and global audiences and bridging the diverse cultures of Asia and the United States.

Briefly introduced here are pieces from the museum that will join the IDP database through the current project. Reflecting the goals of the museum, these works consist of various media and came from various sites.

Two pieces belong to the Avery Brundage Collection, which consists of over 7,700 pieces. The first piece is the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara with Willow Sprig (B62D10) from Dunhuang, dated approximately to 800-900. Painted on ramie, this bodhisattva holding a willow sprig exhibits great similarity to a series of bodhisattva paintings housed now in the Musée Guimet and the British Museum (especially to MG.17783).

The bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Chinese: Guanyin) with willow sprig © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

The second piece from the Brundage Collection is the Bottle Vase (B60P506) from the Tangut (Xixia) Empire (1038-1227). A wide unglazed band around the shoulder has been identified as a feature of Tangut jars. Another Tangut piece is the Buddhist deity Green Tara (1992.59), who personifies compassion in action and is the female counterpart of Amoghasiddhi, one of the five important Buddhas of esoteric Buddhism. The IDP database has been incorporating collections of Tangut manuscripts from St. Petersburg and London, and this and other paintings and artefacts will enable the database’s users to access both the manuscripts and material culture of this prominent culture.

Bottle Vase © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

Buddhist deity Green Tara © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

The fourth and fifth pieces are both from the Kucha region. The Head of a Buddhist Deity (B79D2), painted with sensitive brush execution, is attributed to the Simsim Caves. According to its provenance record, this piece was originally found by Albert von Le Coq (1860-1930) in 1913. Le Coq presented it to Lucien Scherman, father of the piece's donor Dr. Richard P. Scherman. While its original location in the Simsim Caves awaits further discussion, the details of the face and curly black hair resonate with those of the figures in Cave 48. Also attributed to the Kucha region is the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (2004.23), a small wooden sculpture dated to 600 – 700.

Head of a Buddhist Deity © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

The next piece is the Fragments of calligraphy (2014.47), an album that contains six fragments of Chinese calligraphy allegedly discovered in the Turfan region. Three of them contain dates in era names, indicating 733, 791 and 729, respectively. This piece will be featured in the future blog post on North American collections.

Fragments of Calligraphy © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

The final piece is the Standing Buddha (B87B3). This rectangular plaque (28.2 x 17.1 cm), made of iron with gold and silver inlay, is a very intriguing piece. Sold in an auction in 1985 and then purchased from an art dealer, this piece’s previous owners and original provenance are unknown. However, many aspects of this figure closely resonate with buddha figures of the praṇidhi murals in the Bezeklik Caves: the standing posture with a three-quarter view of the face, drapes of the robe, and personal adornments which are not usually worn by buddha figures. One of them from Cave 20 especially shares similarities to the Buddha on this iron plaque. Based on this stylistic similarity, the piece has been dated to the tenth to eleventh centuries. While metal votive plaques or mirrors with Buddhist images existed in other parts of Asia around that time, there have not been any comparative pieces with the images of the praṇidhi buddhas. What do IDP blog readers think about the original function of this piece?

Standing Buddha © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Dr. Li He, Ms. Jamie Chu, and Mr. Jonathan Bloom for their help and support for the Georgetown-IDP Project.

Monday, June 5, 2017

A mysterious miniature implement

Shortly after I joined the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) team, almost a year and a half ago now, an item from the Stein collection caught my eye. Roughly dated from the 9th to 10th centuries, the artefact is catalogued as a ritual implement and comes from the ‘Library Cave’ (Mogao Cave 17), near Dunhuang. It was acquired by Sir Aurel Stein, along with many other manuscripts and objects, during his second Silk Road expedition in 1906-08.

Front of ritual implement IOL Tib J 1364 © The British Library

I showed it to a small group of post-graduate students from the Courtauld Institute just before Christmas in the context of their course on Buddhism, and when I saw that they were as fascinated as I was, I decided that it was high time to write a blog post about it!

The small octagonal object measures 18.2cm by 11cm, and is made of several layers of paper, glued together and mounted onto a pointed wooden stick. Its reinforced structure and size indicate that it could be held upright and could be carried. Although it bears no writing, it is decorated on both sides. At first I thought that it may be a fan, but a closer look revealed I had jumped to this conclusion a little too quickly...

The back is illustrated with some fairly intriguing geometric patterns. Have you ever come across similar designs before? Do you know what they represent? They remind me of a stylised cross-section of a vajra, a ritual object otherwise known as the 'thunderbolt' or 'diamond sceptre'. Quintessential in Tibetan Buddhism, it represents the fundamental nature of the enlightened state as unbreakable and indivisible.

Back of ritual implement IOL Tib J 1364 © The British Library

The association to the vajra makes more sense if we consider the iconography on the other side of the implement. The front depicts a cross-legged figure drawn in black and painted in blue and green. The swirling blue scarves, various princely ornaments and oval halo behind his head indicate that he is a bodhisattva (being on the path of becoming a Buddha). Sitting on a lotus flower, he is holding a vajra in the right hand, close to his heart, and a ritual bell called ghanta in the left hand, against his hip. He is also wearing a tall two-tiered crown displaying five Buddhas. These attributes allow us to identify him as Vajrasattva, the ultimate Buddha.

Detail of the front of ritual implement IOL Tib J 1364 © The British Library

Although it is not square, this object is actually similar to tsakalis or tsaglis, miniature painted cards used in modern Tibetan rites. Normally produced as thematic sets, such as the one in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see here), they can be laid together to form a mandala, or function individually to evoke a specific deity. Some tsakalis have been known to possess a stick so as to be placed on a shrine or held up during the ritual.

The precise function of this implement remains unknown, but it must also have played a role during religious ceremonies. In the Vajrayana, 'vehicle of the vajra', followers must receive an appropriate initiation or 'empowerment' before they are able to engage in the meditation practices derived from the tantras. One way to do this is to venerate Vajrasattva in order to purify the mind, so it is quite possible that the object presented here served such a purpose.

The Tantric deity, however Chinese in terms of its style, certainly suggests the presence of Vajrayana elements in Dunhuang, despite its distance from Central Tibet. As Stein remarked: 'Considering Tun-huang had been for fully a century under Tibetan domination and that the vicinity of Tibetan tribes made itself felt also later the presence of a certain number of pictures either showing the influence of Tibetan style or bearing Tibetan legends is no cause for surprise' (Serindia).

In conclusion, like some of the manuscripts found in the Mogao Caves, it is quite possible that our ritual implement originated from a community of tantric practitioners active in the region. Its exact function and iconography are still something of a mystery and I would be delighted to hear from anyone with any theories they would like to discuss.

Further reading:

Jacob Dalton and Sam van Schaik. 2006. Tibetan Tantric Manuscripts from Dunhuang, Leiden: Brill.

Sam van Schaik, Agnieszka Helman-Wazny and Renate Nöller. 2015. "Writing, painting and sketching at Dunhuang: assessing the materiality and function of early Tibetan manuscripts and ritual items", Journal of Archaeological Science 53: 110-132.

Aurel Stein. 1921. Serindia. Detailed Report of Explorations in Central Asia and Westernmost China. London & Oxford: Clarendon Press, vol 2: 839.

Susan Whitfield and Ursula Sims-Williams. 2004. The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith, London: The British Library: 210-211.