Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 15, 2013
Donald F. McCallum Hakuhō Sculpture Franklin D. Murphy Lecture Series.. Lawrence and Seattle: Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas in association with University of Washington Press, 2012. 160 pp.; 50 ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780295991306)

The Hakuhō period (ca. 650–ca. 710) has tended to be treated as a time of transition overshadowed by its preceding Asuka and succeeding Nara periods; indeed, its time span and even existence independent of the Asuka and Nara are controversial. Nevertheless, the corpus of small gilt-bronze Buddhist sculpture, a genre of art pieces characteristic of this era, shows an extremely rich variety in style. Donald F. McCallum’s Hakuhō Sculpture is the first book-length publication exclusively devoted to gilt-bronze Buddhist sculpture from the Hakuhō period. McCallum examines the stylistic evolution of Hakuhō sculpture and reassesses its artistic achievement; he argues that Hakuhō sculptors were relatively free in producing works, primarily in the sense that no canon restrained their creativity and innovation after the canonical style of the Asuka period had declined due to the fall of its major patron, the Soga clan. He carefully analyzes select works, with focus on their formal and stylistic elements of head, face, body, posture, proportion, crown, jewelry, drapery, pedestal, etc., seeking subtle variations that manifest stylistic development and innovation. He finds it particularly important to detect detail variations in elements that a non-specialist might call minor (e.g., drapery and back, as opposed to face and frontal view), and were therefore less shaped by patrons’ preference, allowing sculptors to experiment and innovate designs of their own preference. McCallum also carefully reviews previous scholarship and critically evaluates evidence (especially because the credibility of the few written sources from that period is questionable) before he offers his own conclusions. His excellent visual analyses of artworks and informed comparisons against a few works with definite production years enable him to order the artworks chronologically and to maintain that the Hakuhō period can be subdivided into three phases (early, middle, and later), a new subdivision that has never been proposed in previous scholarship. (To the best of my knowledge, the only scholar besides McCallum who divides the Hakuhō period into three phases is Kuno Takeshi [Kuno Takeshi, Kodai shōkondōbutsu, Tokyo: Shōgakkan, 1982, 152–223], but he lumps together small gilt-bronze sculpture from late Hakuhō and early Tenpyō into one phase [697–748].)

Reflecting McCallum’s three Hakuhō phases, Hakuhō Sculpture consists of five chapters: introduction, three chapters each discussing one phase, and conclusion. Chapter 1 begins by briefly explaining McCallum’s methodological approach, namely a stylistic one. It then provides background information regarding Hakuhō small gilt-bronze sculpture, most notably continental prototypes, Asuka sculpture, and the history of the political and religious environment. In line with his other publications (viz., “Tori-busshi and the Production of Buddhist Icons in Asuka-Period Japan,” in Melinda Takeuchi, ed., The Artist as Professional in Japan, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004, 17–37; and The Four Great Temples: Buddhist Archaeology, Architecture, and Icons of Seventh-Century Japan, Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 2008), McCallum convincingly illustrates the Soga clan’s significance in the early development of Buddhism in Japan and its influence in the style and iconography of sculptures during the Asuka period. Representative Asuka-period sculptures coherently display a set of features that McCallum dubs the canonical “Soga-Tori style.” He also briefly describes the successive imperial reigns from Jomei (r. 629–641) through Monmu (r. 697–707) and their policies on religion aimed at the promotion and control of Buddhism and which affected the production of Buddhist icons. McCallum discusses the imperial edicts issued in 685 under Emperor Tenmu (r. 673–686) and in 691 under Empress Jitō (r. 686–697). Although scholarly interpretations vary, McCallum takes these edicts as requiring that a Buddhist image and scriptures be placed in a small, Buddhist box-shrine at each residence of the provincial elite. McCallum suggests that small gilt-bronze icons of the kind his book studies were mostly objects of private worship within residences of prominent families.

In chapter 2, after sketching the controversy over the periodization of the Hakuhō period and adopting the span of ca. 650–ca. 710, McCallum sets out to describe small gilt-bronze sculptures he dates to ca. 650–ca. 670, the first of his three subdivisions of the Hakuhō period. Characterized as the time of transition from Asuka to Hakuhō, this early phase witnessed a dramatic political shift from the Soga clan to the so-called imperial family, which gradually affected an artistic environment. Asuka-period traits still remain in Buddhist images, but with Soga’s downfall, these traits cease to be dominant and were integrated into a new, modified mode. One of the most prominent examples in the early phase is the so-called “boyish” group—images featuring childlike facial expressions and bodies with relatively large round heads in proportion to other parts. After detecting similarities and differences in formal and stylistic elements of objects (face, posture, drapery, etc.), McCallum sorts examples roughly in a chronological order and hypothesizes that all “boyish” images were produced in the same studio, perhaps by the same artist, at around the same time.

Chapter 3 focuses on “intermediate works” that McCallum believes to be from ca. 670–ca. 690, the middle of his three Hakuhō subdivisions. As McCallum admits in the introduction to this chapter, dating objects to this middle phase seems the most contentious among the three. To the best of my knowledge, the Hakuhō subdivision most scholars use in dating is early and later; many do not even subdivide and simply use the entire period of Hakuhō. The pieces in this chapter show a large variety and diversity in iconographic and stylistic details, some to a puzzling or awkward extent. Even among the pieces that can be categorized into the “boyish” group, McCallum finds divergences as well as sophistication in design and in proportion over typical “boyish” images from the early Hakuhō phase. McCallum explains this diversity using the term “complex variables” (49), i.e., each artist exercised innovation and creativity with new ways of assembling iconographic and stylistic elements from preceding works, as well as by introducing and experimenting with new designs.

Chapter 4 examines gilt-bronze images that show the maturity of Hakuhō sculpture, purportedly from ca. 690–ca. 710. Some of the images display features commonly seen in Nara-period images, indicating their evolutionary stage toward a more fully developed style. Perhaps the most famous piece in this chapter is the Tachibana Shrine Amida triad. The comparison between this triad and the Yamadaden Amida triad (which McCallum dates to the early Hakuhō period) sharply demonstrates the advanced technique and sophisticated rendering of the former, exemplifying the technical advancement and stylistic sophistication achieved through the Hakuhō period. McCallum concludes this chapter with discussions of larger statues and of statues that have been preserved in periphery regions, presumably as cases representing aspects of the later Hakuhō phase that foreshadowed the Nara period, in which large icons were worshiped publicly throughout Japan.

In chapter 5, McCallum discusses various issues surrounding Hakuhō sculpture and his study thereof: artists, studios, commissioners, fake objects, the literature on Hakuhō sculpture, and Meyer Schapiro’s visual analysis approach that inspired McCallum’s. In particular, McCallum discusses the dating of the Yakushi triad of Yakushiji, which he considers crucial to the study of Hakuhō sculpture and its chronology. He believes that the dating of this triad to the Hakuhō period (which he claims is incorrect) caused significant confusion in previous Hakuhō scholarship. The dating still remains unsettled among scholars; yet McCallum argues that it was made around 720–730 on the basis of stylistic analysis and comparison to the Kōfukuji Buddha head, as well as of recent archaeological evidence from the Yakushiji site. Although his argument is solid, I believe that a recent argument for the Hakuhō dating of the Yakushi triad should also be addressed. The Shaka statue in Kanimanji, stylistically similar to the central icon of the Yakushi triad, was commonly dated to the early eighth century; but its recent radiocarbon dating, along with archaeological discoveries at Kanimanji, supports the dating to the (late) seventh century, sparking an ongoing debate among scholars (Mifune Haruhisa and Oku Takeo, eds., Kokuhō Kanimanji Shaka-nyorai zazō, Tokyo: Yagi shoten, 2011). Based on stylistic proximity, some scholars, including Matsuura Masaaki, further claim that the Yakushiji triad also has to be dated to the late seventh century (697) (Matsuura Masaaki, Asuka Hakuhō no butsuzō, vol. 455 of Nihon no bijutsu, Tokyo: Shibundō, 2004, 61–74).

One thread of discussion in chapter 5 offers two comparisons, pitting Hakuhō sculpture against another period and another tradition of sculpture. The first is with sculpture in tenth-century Japan, which McCallum’s doctoral dissertation argued was not merely transitional but an independent style (Donald F. McCallum, The Evolution of the Buddha and Bodhisattva Figures in Japanese Sculpture of the Ninth and Tenth Centuries, PhD diss., New York University, 1973). McCallum argues for a parallelism between this period and the Hakuhō, characterizing both as times when sculptors had relative freedom to exercise innovation and creativity in the absence of a dominant canonical style. This freedom is illustrated in the second comparison, between Hakuhō sculpture and the tradition of Amida triads of the Zenkōji lineage. McCallum finds Zenkōji pieces lacking in the aesthetic excellence found in many Hakuhō works, and he attributes this difference to patronage. While Hakuhō pieces were produced for elite patronage, Zenkōji pieces were for worshippers of the Zenkōji cult from wider social groups. These patrons sought replications of the original “Living Buddha” in Zenkōji, rather than aesthetic quality; to them faithfulness to the original was the most important aspect, leaving sculptors with little freedom to be innovative or creative. In contrast, McCallum implies, Hakuhō elite patrons’ demand was compatible with, or even in favor of, aesthetic excellence attained through innovation and experiment. He concludes the book by sketching how Hakuhō sculpture came to an end with the establishment of government studios and the emergence of a fresh statuary norm under the new political and religious elites in Nara.

I would like to stress the challenge in McCallum’s endeavor, given the tension between his two theses: one, that Hakuhō sculptors enjoyed artistic autonomy, and the other subdividing the period into three twenty-year phases. The first thesis entails a large variety in style, not just among pieces from different times, but also among contemporary pieces from different authors. Take, for instance, McCallum’s discussion (17) of a meditating bodhisattva (TNM no. 156) with inscriptions dating it to either 606 or 666. Some scholars date it to 606 on the ground of its significant divergence in style from the meditating bodhisattva at Yachūji, which is dated more reliably to around 666; McCallum criticizes this 606 dating for being “premised on a failure to recognize that two or more styles can coexist simultaneously” (17). If contemporary divergence in style was so immense in the Hakuhō period that stylistic analysis leads some scholars to misdate contemporary pieces sixty years apart, it should obviously be difficult to date pieces within a twenty-year phase. This is why, as McCallum himself concedes, “we must acknowledge difficulties in establishing a firm chronology for Hakuhō sculpture” (38). Nevertheless, I find that McCallum makes a masterful use of stylistic clues, and that his three-phase subdivision of the Hakuhō period deserves serious consideration by scholars.

The book omits some information that I believe would contribute toward its theses. To mention one piece, analysis of the effects of different casting techniques―such as a supporting iron core remaining inside a statue, or diverse bronze surfaces of statues―seems to show that Hakuhō sculptors sought for innovations not just in styles but also in casting techniques, supporting McCallum’s thesis that the Hakuhō period was a time of artistic freedom to innovate and experiment. This technical analysis could also help McCallum to justify his three-phase subdivision by providing another clue for the dates and authorships of controversial pieces.

Hakuhō Sculpture serves as an excellent model for meticulous visual analysis. McCallum’s arguments through stylistic analysis are compelling in themselves, and they are further strengthened by his profound understanding not only of materials but also of the contexts surrounding them (although he does not stress contextual aspects). His book will be of great value in college courses in art history, religious studies, and history, and will benefit not only students and scholars of these fields who study Japan, but those who study other areas as well.

Naoko Gunji
independent scholar