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Jul 21, 2003 8:31:09 AM Archived Entry: "Discovering Buddhist Art at SAAM"I've added my review of the Seattle Asian Art Museum's "Discovering Buddhist Art" exhibit.
With so many excellent small galleries in Seattle, making a special trip to a museum to see religious art is a hard sell. This is not true, however, at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, the less-glamorous but infinitely more charming sibling of the Seattle Art Museum. Recently unveiled inside its art-moderne walls is "Discovering Buddhist Art: Seeking the Sublime," an exhibit that shows not only the diversity of Buddhist art, but the connections that unite it across twenty-six hundred years and (nearly) twice as many miles.
The theme of Buddhist art is a good vehicle to explore the Asian art museum's collection, since Buddhism has held sway over the centuries in places as culturally diverse as Afghanistan, Thailand, Indonesia, and Korea. The busts of Buddha displayed in the first room, which were generated across many nations and centuries, show nearly the same face, with the same long ears stretched out from the earrings Siddhartha threw away when he rejected his life as a prince. But while a limestone head from the Longmen caves in China (over a millenia old!) is crowned only with hair, the bronze 15th century Thai example wears a coronet that shows his position as "King of the Earth" (and making it look very similar to modern images of Thai temple dancers).
While the first room focuses on the basics of Buddhist art -- those created to preserve Siddhartha's words (in the sutras) and his body (both actual, in reliquaries, and conceptual, as statues) -- the second shows how its styles fragmented as the religion evolved. In Tibet and Nepal, Buddhism absorbed Hinduism, inspiring gaudy, heavily ornamented sculptures of multi-headed, multi-armed gods. Meanwhile, in China, Buddhism absorbed both Taoism and Confucianism and became focused on the afterlife. Paintings and sculptures from Korea and China show the Judges of Hell (Yama), in whose court a dead person's fate would be determined. Would it be the "Realm of Hungry Ghosts" or the "Western Pure Land?" The stern, iron visage of the Ming dynasty King of Hell promises little forgiveness.
Curator Yukiko Shirahara has laid out the final room in the manner of a Japanese Buddhist temple, and the entryway is suitably framed by two fierce-looking Chinese gate guardians. Inside the room is an recreation of a Japanese Buddhist altar, with a late 14th century centerpiece Amitabha statue escorted by its ever-present pair of Bhodhisattvas (Seisei and Kannon) and protected by the four-directions quartet of guardian kings (Shitenno) all stomping on disgruntled demons. The hanging scroll triptych behind the statues is obviously presented in the manner for which it was created: as a frame to set off the centered Buddha statue (note the gap in the middle of the center scroll).
The rest of the room is filled with the objects that might be used in a service: a patchwork silk monk's robe (not nearly as austere as it should be), ceremonial daggers (a coral-encrusted Tibetan one looking surprisingly functional), and a creepy miniature cup in the shape of a skull. The entire room is like a little kick in the pants to go see these things in their original context. But short the airfare, it's nice to look at the photos and dream.
As one of three newly opened shows (the other two being "Reflections on Water," a lovely series of Japanese woodblock prints, and "Textures of Daily Life," a delectable selection of utilitarian objects from Japan), this show is a reminder of what a treasure SAAM is. Any excuse to visit is good; why not make this show yours?
"Discovering Buddhist Art - Seeking the Submlime," "Reflections on Water: Japanese modern prints and paintings," and "Textures of Daily Life: Art from Japan"
Seattle Asian Art Museum
1400 E Prospect (Volunteer Park)
Exhibitions: ongoing (no end date)
"Only weak men fear able women" - Marion Boyars