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Pre-Buddhist Art
Buddhist Art
Contemporary Art

This is an exhibition about Old and New China: about hierarchy and anarchy; about contrasts and contradictions bound by a shared past.These dichotomies exist in my mind and experience both as ideas and as realities.The one I grew up with was an idea rather than a reality emanating from my father who, displaced from his motherland as a mature youth, sought to recreate the Confucian order and ideals which were integral to his emotional and intellectual outlook.

For me, that was a difficult order to live up to, with its belief in looking to the past to learn about the present – where the future was always going to be closely linked with the past and present because of the immutable principles of that universe. It was a universe of the mind, and the real world was merely an arena in which these concepts were applied and put in to practice. Needless to say, I always felt that I failed to live up to a standard of which I was rigorously reminded on a daily basis.

My father’s country was a China which had, in its distant past, invented meritocracy -the standard of excellence to which anyone with adequate intellectual and moral fibre could aspire, regardless of birth or family circumstance. It demanded obedience as well as an understanding of the order in which state; society and family were inextricable parts of the whole. Ancestor worship and the Analects of Confucius were its foundations; their practice, its nourishment. Authority in all its forms was the prime mover in this hierarchical system of order -parents, teachers, elders, officials and, above all, the Emperor.

As I first learnt about the arts of this distant China, I was both mystified and fascinated by its uncompromising criteria of quality and excellence, matched only by the incredible imagination and craftsmanship that went into fulfilling the demands of Imperial and aristocratic patronage. Status and prestige were signalled by the prescribed use of luxurious materials and motif-indicators.The fables of the dragon and phoenix; the various talismanic and mythical beasts that staved off evil and ill fortune, formed the decorative language of privilege.The earliest pictorial animals gradually disintegrated into various forms of scrolls and fretwork which are still the basis of secondary decorative motifs in Chinese art today.

In the decorative arts, it was largely an anonymous legacy.The scarcity of signed and dated works of art belies the rules and custom of the prevailing tradition.The patron wore the mantle of artistic standards rather than the craftsmen.The incredible imagery of the early pre-Buddhist artifacts in this exhibition; the spiritual grandeur of the Buddhist sculptures and works of art -these all result from this system of patronage.The fact that the arts survived on this singular platform for a period of more than 3,000 years, is a tribute to the endurance and continuity of the Confucian ideal.

In innumerable inscriptions on religious and secular works, we read of events, achievements, commissions, commemorations ,prayers for salvation, and for rebirth.Above all,there were the prayers for family, ruler and country, but in extremely few instances was there any mention of the makers of these works.These inscriptions are invaluable for an understanding of the unchanging order of ancient and more recent societies linked by a common ideal. A great number of changes took place; dynasties came and went, foreign and Han Chinese ruling houses held sway at different times, but, above all, the adherence to the Confucian code proved to be phenomenally successful in both Chinese society and its arts. In its evolution, the symbols in art became inseparable from its history.

The use of jade, gold, silver and bronze were strictly defined by status by the Zhou Dynasty (1100-256BC).The early examples of mythical beasts in this exhibition evolved from more mysterious origins.The world of animal spirits and their complex cosmology led to the creation of real and mythological animals in art representing the elements of nature which eventually became the talismans of people within China’s hierarchy. Animals were codified, the Dragon and the Phoenix ultimately symbolizing the Emperor and his Consort.The minutiae of this symbolist protocol extended from the Imperial family all the way down through the ranks of nobility and officialdom.The rules first broached in the Zhou Li were refined and retained through to the Imperial Household rules of dress in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

As Buddhism took root and became a state religion in the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-535AD), it was unsurprising that the most material and grandiose versions of Mahayanist Buddhism and its various classes and pantheons of deities were so quickly adopted.The great sculptors, carvers and metalworkers who had worked to create symbolic animals in bronze, stone and jade readily transferred their skills to representations with human attributes -at first relying on famous Indian images and prototypes, then quickly developing distinctly sinicised models. The skill here was in the portrayal of the varying degrees of spiritual grandeur in Buddhas, bodhisattvas and arhats.Their hierarchical status was unmistakable not only in their gradations of size, but also through the master sculptors’ innate ability to suggest through expressive means, their respective potency and prestige within the systemic order.

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Shandong Province
Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577)
35 1/2” (90.2cm) high
35 1/2” (90.2cm) high