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Gilt Bronze Standing Figure of a Bodhisattva, Avalokitesvara

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Large gilt bronze standing figure of Avalokitesvara. The elongated figure is shown standing with right hand raised in vitarkamudra and the left hand in varadamudra. The face is crisply cast with well-proportioned features: a centrally placed urna above finely arched eyebrows and neatly formed nose and lips. The deity’s finely incised hair is drawn up in a tall top-knot, or usnisa, bound with plaits of hair, some of which fall in locks down the sides, while two long plaited tresses descend behind the elongated earlobes, with their heavy earrings, to the shoulders. The top-knot is adorned at the front with a seated figure of Amitabha Buddha upon a lotus base. A diadem ornamented with a central triangular motif encircles the forehead. The deity wears lavish jewellery including a beaded torque around the neck, bands on the upper arms, a bracelet and a belt studded with florettes.  A dhoti falls in U-shaped folds over the legs and is secured around the waist by a sash which is fastened with a floral stud and falls in a stylized vertical cascade between the legs. Another sash drapes over the front of the legs, is tied in loops at the hips and falls in vertical folds down the sides. Long rectangular projections are cast to the soles of the feet for attachment to the base and there are two rectangular openings (one now closed) to the back of the figure.
 

Height: 45.7cm 

Provenance:
Private collection, United States, acquired in Tokyo in 1946.

Private collection.

Robert H. Ellsworth, New York.

The Florence and Herbert Irving collection, no. 1949.

Published:
Christie’s New York, 6 November 1980, number 209.

Ann Ray Martin, "American Mandarin," Connoisseur, November 1984, p. 101.

Christie’s New York, 20 March 2019, Lacquer, Jade, Bronze, Ink, The Irving Collection Evening Sale, number 813.

Similar examples:
Similar examples are to be found in a number of museum and private collections which are published as follows:

Asian Art Museum of San Francisco
René-Yvon Lefebvre d’Argencé, Chinese, Korean and Japanese Sculpture in The Avery Brundage Collection, Japan, 1974, number 140.

British Museum, London (for a smaller figure)
W. Zwalf, Buddhism Art and Faith, London, 1985, page 206, number 297.

Brooklyn Museum of Art
Amy G. Poster, Journey through Asia, Brooklyn, 2003, number 13.

Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C. (two figures)
Hugo Munsterberg, Chinese Buddhist Bronzes, 1967, Rutland and Tokyo, plate 59 for one of the figures. Albert Lutz et al, Der Goldschatz der Drei Pagoden, Museum Rietberg, Zürich, 1991, page 69, figures 48 and 49 for both the figures.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
L. Roberts, Treasures from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, China House Gallery, China Institute in America, New York, 1979, number 22; Denise Patry Leidy et al., Wisdom Embodied, Chinese Buddhist and Daoist Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2010, number 32.

Museé Guimet, Paris
Hugo Munsterberg, Chinese Buddhist Bronzes, 1967, Rutland and Tokyo, plate 58.

National Palace Museum, Taipei
A Special Exhibition of Recently Acquired Gilt-Bronze Buddhist Images, Taipei, 1996, number 15.

Rietberg Museum, Zurich
Recently acquired; published Christie’s, Fine Chinese Ceramics, Jades and Works of Art, New York, 19 September, 2007, number 188.

San Diego Museum The figure is dated 1147-1172.
H. Chapin, ‘Yunnanese Images of Avalokitesvara’, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, volume 8 (1944 - 5), pages 131 - 86, plates 3 - 6. See also, Albert Lutz, Der Tempel der Drei Pagoden von Dali, Museum Rietberg, Zürich, 1991, page 122, figure 119.

Sumitomo collection
S. Umehara, Shin-Shu Sen-Oku Sei-Sho, (The Collection of Old Bronzes of Sumitomo), Kyoto, 1971, page 180.

Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Rose Kerr, Chinese Art and Design: Art Objects in Ritual and Daily Life, London, 1991, number 37.

Yunnan Provincial Museum
Ed. Yunnan Provincial Museum, Yunnan sheng bowuguan, (Yunnan Provincial Museum), Beijing, 1991, number 127 for a smaller figure made of gold with a silver mandorla.

There are also comparable figures in The Denver Art Museum, The Art Institute of Chicago and The Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

The present figure is clearly identified as the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, or in Chinese, Guanyin, the goddess of mercy and compassion by the presence of the figure of the Buddha Amitabha in the headdress.

This group of bronze figures of Avalokitesvara, with almost identical features and mostly of similar size from Yunnan province, have been studied by a number of scholars from the mid 20th century. The dating of this group of figures, cited above, is based on the example in the San Diego Museum of Art, which has an inscription referring to a ruler in Yunnan and provides a date which corresponds to 1147 - 72.

In a seminal study, Helen Chapin paved the way with her study of the painting Long Scroll of Buddhist Images by the 12th century Yunnanese artist, Zhang Shengwen, dated in two colophons to 1173 - 75 and 1180, which is now in the National Palace Museum, Taipei. From related images in the scroll1, she was able to identify a group of bronzes figures in Western collections, as having originated from the Dali Kingdom.

More recent studies have been carried out in China and also in the West, by scholars such as Albert Lutz 2. According to Lutz, although Buddhism had already reached Yunnan, probably from the western regions of Tibet and India, the major Buddhist construction projects were not completed until around the 9th century; this included the Chongsheng temple in Dali, formerly the main Buddhist temple in Yunnan, now called the Temple of the Three Pagodas. It was during the restoration of one of the pagodas in 1978 – the Qianxun pagoda – that a large reliquary deposit was discovered in its roof. The hoard included over four hundred objects dateable to the 12th century, including Buddhist figures and texts, seals, ceramics and ritual objects. Four ‘Yunnanese’ Avalokitesvara figures3 were discovered, including one in gold (rather than bronze) backed by a silver mandorla that is listed above.

According to Lutz, the Avalokitesvara may be identified as Ajaya Avalokitesvara or the ‘All Victorious Guanyin’, or Acuoye Guanyin, a ‘transfiguration of an Indian monk’ who visited Yunnan in the seventh century. This identification is based on a scroll dated to 947, the Nanzhao tuzhuan (now in the Fujii Yurinkan in Kyoto), as well as the Long Scroll of Buddhist Images. This Indian monk predicted and was closely associated the rise to power of the Meng family in the Nanzhao kingdom in the eighth and ninth centuries, which by 957 was controlled by the Duan family and known as the Dali kingdom.

A metallurgical analysis was conducted by Paul Jett, the Senior Conservator at the Freer Gallery, on the two figures in the Freer and eight others of this group4. He was able to demonstrate that the alloy used in this group of bronzes was very different from the alloy used in Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist figures. This in turn allowed certain figures which were of unknown origin to be identified as being from Yunnan. It is likely that the metal composition of the present figure is similar to the others in this group - they are identified as being cast from arsenical bronze in one piece by the lost-wax method. The openings at the back were left by core extensions that held the core in place in the mould during the casting. Later the core would have been removed from these openings and consecrated material possibly inserted inside.5

1 See Helen B. Chapin and Alexander C. Soper, ‘A Long Roll of Buddhist Images’, Artibus Asiae, volume XXXIII, Ascona, 1971, figure 99.

2 Albert Lutz, ‘Buddhist Art in Yunnnan’, Orientations, February 1992, pages 46 - 50. Albert Lutz, Der Tempel der Drei Pagoden von Dali, Museum Rietberg, Zürich, 1991.

3 Albert Lutz, Der Tempel der Drei Pagoden von Dali, Museum Rietberg, Zürich, 1991, figures 113, 114, 115 and 116 for some of the figures discovered in the Qianxun pagoda. See also Albert Lutz et al, Der Goldschatz der Drei Pagoden, Museum Rietberg, Zürich, 1991, pages 176 - 196.

4 Albert Lutz et al, Der Goldschatz der Drei Pagoden, Museum Rietberg, Zürich, 1991, pages 68 - 74.

5 Denise Patry Leidy et al., Wisdom Embodied, Chinese Buddhist and Daoist Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2010, number 32.