V&A sheds new light on Buddhist sculpture

By Adam Bambury | 29 April 2009
A robed stone Buddha, hands on lap with a disc behind his head

Buddha seated in meditation, 3rd - 4th century CE, Gandhara, Pakistan. Picture © V&A Images

Exhibition Review – The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, opens April 29 2009.

"If you ever meet the Buddha on the road, kill him," goes the old Zen saying. Visitors to the V&A's new gallery – the first dedicated to Buddhist sculpture in the UK – will have to ignore this imperative, because the place is full of the guy.

Small Buddhas, big Buddhas, Buddhas in rags, Buddhas in riches. Pre-enlightenment Buddhas, transcended Buddhas, seated Buddhas, standing Buddhas. Teak Buddhas, copper Buddhas, stone Buddhas, stucco Buddhas.

Throughout this variety, certain characteristics remain consistent – most obviously the face with its semi-closed eyes in meditative repose, and its unique expression, emotionless yet compassionate, gazing inward but with a precise attentiveness.

These sculptures are always recognisable as the Buddha, despite the differing stylistic traits and physiognomies. But if there's one thing the exhibition emphasises through its 47 objects dating from the 2nd to the 19th century it is that Buddhism is far from one static idea, or one static practice.

The four rooms each represent a different area of Asia, starting in India where it all began, then covering the Himalaya region, South East Asia and East Asia. The sculptures reflect both the evolution of Buddhism and the varied artistic traditions, techniques and aims of the people to which it spread.

The Buddha sits meditating in the middle of a painting while around him rush warriors and seductive maidens

Ajanta cave painting, AD 1872-1875, Maharastra, Central India. Picture© V&A Images IS.11-1885

It wasn't until 300 years after his death, in 405 BC, that the Buddha was depicted figuratively. Before then he had been represented with symbols, such as footprints or an empty throne.

Mathura, in India, is thought to be one of the most likely places for the leap into figurative representation to have taken place, and a torso of a Buddha made in the district during the late 2nd century CE is on display here. He is in the middle of a yogic breathing practice, his chest expanded with inhaled air, his robes sharply defined.

His hands have been lost, but it is thought the right one was held up open palmed, in a gesture bestowing freedom from fear. Such gestures are found throughout the exhibition, part of a neat system of signs that could quickly convey a figure's state of mind or spiritual qualities.

A right hand touching the ground means the Buddha is not yet enlightened, while a certain finger arrangement shows that a figure is engaged in a debate regarding a matter of doctrine.

Once the Buddha was depicted figuratively, each region of Asia that the philosophies spread to brought their own artistic techniques to bare on his depiction.

The "Hadda Head", from Hadda in Afghanistan, is one such example, an intriguing combination of the Indian Gupta and Greco-Roman influences dominant in the region at the time with its heavy lidded eyes and wavy, not curly, hair.

A Buddha head in a white material

Head of the Buddha, 300-400 AD, Hadda, Afghanistan. Stucco with pigment. Picture © V&A Images

The head contains two of the visual signifiers of Buddahood – a hair covered central lump on the cranium representing wisdom, and a raised bump in the centre of the forehead denoting supernatural power. One extremely rare 7th century standing Buddha made from copper alloy displays another – webbed fingers.

As Buddhism expanded into the Himalaya region, it branched into a new form known as Mahayana. In this school the emphasis shifted from being solely on the Buddha and his documented teachings and took on a new idea, the Bodhisattva.

Instead of taking the opportunity to leap off the endless wheel of death and rebirth into nirvana when they became enlightened, the bodhisattvas stayed on in the world of human suffering to help others become enlightened. This supreme altruism, coupled with what people perceived as a more approachable, worldly outlook than the Buddha, made these new teachers very popular.

The sculptures from these regions reflect this, with an array of bejewelled Bodhisattvas to be found amongst the Buddhas. One arresting example is a white Tara, the most popular bodhisattva in Tibet and also notable for being one of the few females in the gallery who is not tempting a meditating man with her womanly ways. She is set in golden gilded copper with semi precious stones, shining brightly and smiling gently.

Other new additions to Mahayana Buddhism's cast of characters were fearsome guardians of Buddhism, and transcended Buddhas living in heavenly realms. These bring an unexpected sense of action and lack of restraint to an exhibition dominated by a mastery of the emotions.

A fearsome guardian borrows from the wrathful Hindu goddess Kali with his flaming hair and four weapons. He stands on top of an unfortunate human figure, quite literally crushing the enemies of Buddhism.

A gold figure sitting in the lotus posture wearing a skirt, crown, and jewellery

Sita Tara (White Tara), AD 1650-1700, Nepal. Gilt Copper, inlaid with semi precious stones including rubies, emeralds and turquoise. Picture © V&A Images IM.28-1919

From the 13th century another school, Theravada, began to flourish in Thailand and Burma. Spurning the many deities and doctrines of Mahanaya it turned back to the historical Buddha – the self-enlightened human – as the model for spiritual development.

Consequently, Buddhist sculpture in these areas again portrays the Buddha, although this time often with a political twist that helped to reinforce belief in the semi-divinity of the secular ruler of the region.

One grand example is a four-metre high shrine in teak with gilded lacquer and semi precious stones from Mandalay in central Burma. Atop it all sits a Buddha in royal robes on a throne very similar to those of the Burmese monarchy.

The exhibition continues through into China and Japan, Buddhas changing accordingly, and finishes with two rooms of photography. Couple this with the two interactive displays in the main gallery – one showing documentary films about ancient and modern Buddhist practice, the other exploring the symbology of the sculptures – and you have a very comprehensive exhibition.

To walk through its spacious, day-lit blue halls is to be transported to a very different world from the hustle and bustle of Western life. It is a journey through philosophy, geography, art, and belief, recommended to practitioners and the curious alike.

Admission free. Check out Culture24's exclusive chat with Director Robert Yao Chung Ho about the Gallery and accompanying Festival.

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