- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 20, 2002

Visitors feel as though they're in a sacred place when they enter the exhibit "Chinese Sculpture in a New Light" at the Smithsonian Institution's Freer Gallery of Art.
The softly illuminated 21 images were made for Buddhist worship more than a thousand years ago, beginning in the sixth century. Anonymous artists created them mainly for Buddhist cave temples carved from huge rock faces in northern China. They sculpted the figures both the free-standing and relief ones as parts of groups that told the story of Buddha.
Exhibit co-curator Jan Stuart, associate curator of Chinese art at the Freer and Sackler galleries, hopes to show viewers how to look at Chinese Buddhist sculptures in a more informed and enjoyable way.
The Freer has more than 200 Chinese Buddhist sculptures that rank as some of the best in the world. They, and others like them, were acquired in the first half of the 20th century, and this presents numerous problems for the museum. Many of the sculptures were removed from China without proper provenance and identification. China was desperately poor at the time, and genuine sculptures were sold along with highly convincing forgeries.
The exhibit's 4-foot-high sandstone "Bodhisattva" from Gongxian Cave 1 in Henan Province proves instructive in this light. It is a remarkably handsome image that holds a lotus bud and flask. (A bodhisattva is one who, from compassion, forgoes nirvana to save others.)
The high-relief figure dates from the sixth-century Northern Wei period, when Buddhism was relatively new to China. Gongxian was among the most famous of China's cave temples. At the time, sculptors flattened bodies of their images and conveyed religious fervor through electric, tensile lines.
If Ms. Stuart were with you, she would ask you to look carefully at the frontally displayed "Bodhisattva." The curator would point you to the figure's right and left sides. You would notice that the image's right side is scrubbed clean and the lines of the drapery are sharp and crisp. On the left, by contrast, the stone is blackened and the drapery outlines are rounded. Vestiges of a curtain also can be seen at the left, while none exists on the right.
Details such as these at first made Ms. Stuart suspicious when researching the work. "Fears about the Freer's image are not ill-founded: Its relatively large, evenly shaped background and almost pristine condition defy expectations of an ancient sculpture hacked from a wall. Some have also questioned the correctness of the bodhisattva's plain crown, but this is appropriate for an image on the side wall of a niche located away from the central pillar," Ms. Stuart wrote in this month's issue of Orientations Asian arts magazine.
A visit by Stanley Abe, the exhibit's co-curator, to Gongxian last year confirmed the bodhisattva's exact location in Gongxian Cave 1. The bodhisattva was placed to the right of a seated Buddha, and its mirror image is still in place to the left of the Buddha, Freer officials say. Both were intended to be seen from the side.
The bodhisattva's condition still poses problems. The figure was damaged in removal from the cave wall, and its halo and double-lotus pedestal are incomplete. Mr. Abe found signs of old water damage in the cave that may have led to later cleaning of the figure's right side. The drapery on that side also appears clear and sharp, showing a later recutting. The mouth and tip of the nose appear touched up.
On the plus side, the Freer cleaned the piece and uncovered some of the blue and red colors that originally covered it. Like Greek sculpture, the bodhisattva was originally painted with brilliant pigments.
In its collecting, the Freer has not escaped forgeries. In 1952 it purchased what looked like a particularly handsome gilt bronze "Buddha" in the Northern Wei style. Ms. Stuart determined that it is a modern forgery but could not pin down a date. She says it's an example of an awfully good fake.
Scientific examination showed the metal alloy as brass, a mixture of copper and zinc, not bronze. Brass was probably not used in China for Buddhist sculptures before the 15th century. Authentic corrosion in bronze Northern Wei images was created by malachite. Scientific tests here demonstrated a well-known trick of forgers: They poured chloride acids that created green patinas on the gilt surfaces. They probably also used a mold from a genuine Buddhist image to make what looked like the real thing.
The "Buddhist Stele With Dual Images of the Bodhisattva Maitreya" from Quyang in Hebei Province presented the challenge of an unusual iconography. An inscription on the back of the marble stele states it was made for patrons from Quyang and dates it to 565. Experts, however, questioned its authenticity because of the paired images. Dual figures were, however, typical of Quyang sculpture, and these pyramid upward into a particularly lovely image. The larger, pensive seated bodhisattvas that are mirror images probably represent Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future. Above them, sitting cross-legged in a niche, are Buddhas of the Past and Present. Near the top of the image is a pagoda.
There's much, much more to savor in this intriguing and handsome exhibition, such as the later, intricately carved ivory "Standing Figure of Guanyin as a Buddha" and the huge, early sixth-century figure representing Vimalakirti (said in a Buddhist sutra to exhibit a profound knowledge of Buddhist dharma, or common truth) from the Longmen Grottoes. This sculpture is installed at the Freer Gallery's Independence Avenue entrance. Ms. Stuart set it high to simulate its original position in its cave.

WHAT: "Chinese Buddhist Sculpture in a New Light"
WHERE: Freer Gallery of Art, Jefferson Drive at 12th Street SW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through May 3, 2003
PHONE: 202/357-2700

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