Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 8, 2004
Hiromitsu Washizuka, Youngbok Park, and Woo-bang Kang Transmitting the Forms of Divinity: Early Buddhist Art from Korea and Japan Ed. Naomi Noble Richard. Exh. cat. NewYork: Japan Society, 2003. 384 pp.; 110 color ills.; 100 b/w ills. Cloth $49.95 (0913304549)
Japan Society Gallery, New York, April 9–June 22, 2003
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Many of us in the field of East Asian art history watched with curiosity, respect, and incredulity when the former National Museum of Korea in Gyeongbok Palace, Seoul, was imploded with fanfare in 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of Korean liberation from Japanese occupation. The structure, erected in 1926 to house the Japanese Government-General, stood directly in front of the throne hall, symbol of Korean sovereignty. Even after its postwar conversion for use as the National Museum, the building’s inauspicious position and painful history were a national affront. Despite substantial practical and financial drawbacks, the structure was razed; such recent events remind us of palpable and lingering tensions between the neighboring nations.

In 1998, when the Korea Society and Japan Society in New York, both nonpolitical cultural organizations, began planning a collaborative exhibition, catalogue, and symposium on early Buddhist art and cross-cultural exchange between Korea and Japan, the organizers knew that the very concept would raise both eyebrows and hopes. The result was the exhibition Transmitting the Forms of Divinity: Early Buddhist Art from Korea and Japan, and a scholarly catalogue of the same name. The thick, lavishly illustrated book reviewed here is not only a remarkable pioneering work, but also a testimony to successful modern diplomacy and collaboration. The careful wording of the catalogue’s preface and the balanced selection of both artworks and contributing scholars suggest the tact, skill, and finesse that facilitated the movement of objects and transfer of information. Exhibitions of Korean art are exceedingly rare in Japan unless they are part of a pan-Asian theme. There had also been no major Japanese art exhibitions in Korea, and never anywhere a collaborative show. The works exhibited in Transmitting the Forms of Divinity provide us with a tangible picture of the visual strategies and religious ideas that flowed from Korea to Japan—and occasionally back again—demonstrating through representational or stylistic modes and methods of construction a range of regional differences and distinct cultural continuities.

Korea introduced Buddhism to Japan in the sixth century by sending clerics, sūtras (scriptures), and small gilt-bronze icons similar to those in the exhibition. The collaborative exhibition, however, was more balanced and less unidirectional than the ancient transmission. Organizers tactfully designated an equal number of objects to be loaned from Korea and Japan, and the same number of National Treasure groups (five) from each country. There are almost sixty gilt-bronze, iron, wood, and stone Buddhist statues, a stele, and a portable shrine; sūtras, reliquaries, and other ritual goods; and thirty-five plaques, roof tiles, and earthenware molds, all thoughtfully grouped. The catalogue contains an excellent bibliography and a glossary and concordance of terms that will help the reader navigate technical terms and several languages. (This review reflects the new romanization of Korean established by the the Korean goverment.)

Once past its rather awkward title, readers of Transmitting the Forms of Divinity: Early Buddhist Art from Korea and Japan will find little to fault and much of interest. In a year of exhibitions with, as one headline put it, “A Buddha in Every Borough,” this publication will remain a useful and important source for scholars, teachers, curators, and students for many years to come. Like the seventh-century nested reliquary set from Sūfukuji Pagoda (cat. no. 63), the transmission of Buddhism across Asia was layered, complex, and splendid. The book’s essays and catalogue entries explore connections between the ancient cultures of Korea and Japan, introducing China perhaps too sparingly for some readers. Most of the ninety-two catalogue entries carry a full-page color illustration of the object and substantial descriptive text on the facing page. Famous works are featured, but this book is not just the glossy companion to a blockbuster event (although the exhibition was well attended and positively reviewed). The utter worldliness of some objects (e.g., tiles), the small scale and simple worn lines of many statues, combined with what modern viewers interpret as an expressive charm, make the whole enterprise more approachable than one would expect of such relatively obscure material.

Although the descriptive texts that accompany each catalogue entry tend to analyze the illustrated object without comparative comments or cross-referencing, they typically provide excellent information on appearance, iconography, and context. Thirteen essays (plus two by Kim Song-gu and Mori Ikuo on tiles in the catalogue section) make up half the book’s pages. The texts deal with Buddhist history, iconography, sculptural technique, artistic styles and motifs, reliquaries, architecture, Chinese sources, ideology, and philosophy, among other subjects. The authors do not pull their punches: long-standing claims (typically Japanese attributions) about provenance and cultural significance are disassembled, and new histories are deftly inserted in their place. Scholarship on recent Chinese finds from Shandong provides new links to motifs and styles found in Baekche and then Japan (Tanabe Saburōsuke, “From the Stone Buddhas of Longxingsi to Buddhist Images of Three Kingdoms Korea and Asuka-Hakuhō; Japan” and Ōnishi Shūya, “The Monastery Kōrūji’s ‘Crowned Maitreya’ and the Stone Pensive Bodhisattva Excavated at Longxingsi”). But we learn from several essays that the intensity of contact and artistic connection between China and Japan prior to the eighth century has been stressed over the importance of Korean influence, and that southern Chinese influence on Korea and then Japan has been neglected in favor of northern Chinese import.

The essays are divided into three sections but can be read in any order. Jonathan Best’s opening essay shows how the transmission of Buddhism and its arts related to shifts in relations among powers in northeast Asia; it is a splendid introduction to the catalogue and to East Asian Buddhist history, and I plan to assign it as a reading in my courses. Dividing the period 350–907 into four chronological groups and themes, Best discusses the ways in which Buddhism served governments and people alike, without resorting to facile and sweeping statements about political agendas versus popular needs; he also tracks the “shifting nexus of international affiliations and antagonisms” that determined the channels of religious transmission (23). Lena Kim’s essay gives us a lucid introduction to icons. “Early Korean Buddhist Sculptures and Related Japanese Examples: Iconographic and Stylistic Comparisons” delivers even more than the broad title suggests, with good references to Chinese works, a discussion of standing and seated figures and regional types, illustrations of lesser-known and newly discovered works—all in clear art-historical terminology. This essay, too, will function well as assigned course reading.

Connections between rule and religion often determine the fortunes of each. Portending the imminent death of the Silla king, a sixteen-foot stone Buddha at the monastery Hwangnyongsa is said to have shed tears that moistened the earth a full Korean foot (148). An important essay by Park Youngbok, “The Monastery Hwangnyongsa and Buddhism of the Early Silla Period” provides a fascinating history of this mid-sixth-century state temple, named after a yellow dragon that appeared at the construction site of a royal palace in the Gyeongju capital. Park’s is a wonderful study of the painstaking archaeology that accompanies the reconstruction of not only a monastery, but also its history. Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt takes up Japan’s best-known ancient temple in “The Monastery Hōryūji: Architectural Forms of Early Buddhism in Japan.” Indeed, “the number of unanswered or unresolved questions surrounding Hōryūji is almost as great as the number of superlatives lavished upon it” (154). Although she does not dispel the myth of Prince Shōtoku, Shatzman Steinhardt’s essay is fabulously useful as both a comparative early Korean-Japanese-Chinese architectural study and a history of Hōryūji. She takes a hard look at the Korean sources for plans, forms, and motifs of the Japanese monastery, while incorporating recently published Chinese tomb designs and models and Korean Goguryeo sites in her discussion. Ariga Yoshitaka’s essay, “Korean Elements in Japanese Pictorial Representation in the Early Asuka Period,” considers phoenix motifs on the Tamamushi shrine and the embroidered banner at Hōryūji, among other examples, relating them to the Goguryeo artists of the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C.E.–668 C.E.). This short subject will fascinate even experts.

The best-known eighth-century temples of each country are considered in two essays in which ideals of Buddhist central-state ideology are indirectly contrasted. Kang’s second essay benefits from his extensive research on the man-made cave temple of Seokkuram. He explains the geometry of the site and a common unit of √2 measure that informed not only the architectural space, but also the main icon’s placement. His brief concluding discussion of the Avatamsaka Sūtra narrative complements “Tōdaiji’s Great Buddha: Its Foundation in Buddhist Doctrine and Its Chinese and Korean Precedents,” one of the best pieces I have read by the prolific Konno Toshifumi. Konno suggests that a Vairocana representation in Japan may be created based on context and preconceptions about appearance more than on textual prescriptions or prototypes. A similar line of reasoning might be applied to our study of statue construction. Washizuka Hiromitsu’s “Techniques of Early Buddhist Sculpture in Japan” provides useful information on sculpting methods. Although he mentions new knowledge about the eighth-century bronze Yakushiji triad’s method of construction (clay mold, not lost-wax method), he does not consider new ideas on lacquer and wood construction, botanical names and technical terms, or comparative studies between Japanese and Korean materials. With the majority of extant seventh- and eight-century statues in Japan made of wood, and most of these made of camphor (kusunoki), why persist with the notion that the choice of material was driven by textual prescription, that is, as a “sandalwood substitute”?

There is evidence of contemporary diplomacy in discussions concerning the provenance of the images themselves. Among those treated with kid gloves are two seventh-century bronze statues in a pensive hanka (literally, “legs half-crossed”) pose, one with gilding extant (cat. no. 33) and the other stripped bare and pitted (cat. no. 20). Both icons have been in Japan since ancient times. The seated pensive form of a bodhisattva, usually Maitreya, represents an important early image-type in Korea. Based on their style and construction, the two bronze figures were until recently given Japanese provenance, but in Transmitting the Forms of Divinity they are described as possible Korean works. As scholarship in Korea has advanced and more works are studied, statues excavated in Japan or housed for centuries within its temples are increasingly likely to be attributed to Korean artists in Japan or designated as imports.

The most famous Japanese example of the pensive Maitreya bodhisattva, an early-seventh-century wooden statue at Kōryūji, Kyoto, resembles several of the smaller bronze figures featured in the exhibition. It turns out that the Kōryūji Maitreya, a Japanese National Treasure, is most likely not Japanese but Korean; for decades, the red pine from which it was carved directed even the most stubborn Japanese scholar toward the Korean peninsula, as did its strong stylistic affinities with Korean examples. Kim Lena provides a good summary of the issues debated (78). The Kōryūji icon (although not exhibited) is the subject of a thoughtful essay by Ōnishi, who compares several of its specific iconographic features to those of a pensive stone bodhisattva excavated in Shandong Province, China. Ōnishi’s essay informs us that even with limited evidence, “continuing research on the Silla hanka images in Korea has created a scholarly consensus that the image transmitted in Suiko 31 (616) would have been Kōryūji’s Crowned Maitreya” (55). Ōnishi examines the full potential impact of the Shandong example on our understanding of this image-type. Discovered in 1996, it provides evidence of the source for the distinctive Silla-style hanka (Baekche area). The Shandong find complicates and enriches the map of transmission of Buddhist divinities to and from Korea. Other pensive figures presumed to be the Maitreya bodhisattva are represented in the catalogue (cat. nos. 17, 39, and 52), although locating them is difficult because the index, which has numerous oversights, cross-references Maitreya in every language but does not include a Maitreya entry.

Kwak Dong-seok’s contribution, “Korean Gilt-Bronze Single Mandorla Buddhist Triads and the Dissemination of East Asian Sculptural Style,” considers statue mandorlas (aureoles). Small Korean triads with a single lotus-shaped mandorla may derive from larger Chinese examples, but they became a “standard category based on distinctively Korean sensibilities” that not only “exerted considerable influence over ancient Japanese sculpture” but also reversed directions and reappeared in Shandong (90). Of interest is Kwak’s assertion that the mandorla and drapery style of a 673 stone stela from the Baekche region (early Unified Silla period) are a more rational prototype for the Hōryūji Golden Hall triad of 623 than Chinese works.

Many statues show Chinese influence, transmitted through Baekche’s ethnic connection to clans in Goguryeo or imported along the maritime or land routes to the Korean peninsula. All these elements were transmitted to Japan, along with an expressive mouth, in the sixth century. Missing their mandorlas and bases or the flanking bodhisattvas of the original triad, many of the solitary divinities present themselves to the viewer as more familiar or intimate icons than would originally have been the case. Missing mandorlas present other problems as well. In “A New Theory: Ki as Represented in Koguryo [Goguryeo] Murals and Buddhist Haloes from the Three Kingdoms Period,” Kang Woo-bang (inspired by a 1976 paper by Inoue Tadashi) suggests that formless ki, a generative force, is represented on the mandorlas of statues and on other metalwork by meaningful patterns previously designated as swirling dragon, cloud, or flame motifs without regard to ki energy.

The makers of the Korean images during the sixth and early seventh centuries, especially those from Baekche, invariably seem to cleave to a kinder, gentler model and bestow upon the figures a mouth posed in a smile—or so it appears to the modern viewer. This reviewer is still waiting for a satisfying explanation of what is referred to throughout the catalogue as a bright, innocent, childlike, or benevolent smile. Are we to understand it as we understand a smile today? One entry offers that there is a “universal artistic desire to represent human beauty” even—or perhaps especially—in sublime religious art, and that “it seems a common instinct to seek to represent the ‘perfect’ in concept as the ‘beautiful’ in visual art” (214).

My personal favorite among the essays concerns the disarmingly corporeal subject of relics. “Early Korean and Japanese Reliquaries in Relation to Pagoda Architecture,” by Choi Eung-chon, should be required reading for every East Asian history, Buddhism, and art-history class as a window into early Buddhist belief and material culture. Choi gives careful thought to comparative aspects of relic worship from India to Japan, incorporating earlier important studies by Kang. One dreams of a future exhibition comprised of precious relic containers alongside sturdy pagodas.

Fast forward to New Year’s Eve, 2003. The popular Japanese band Tube took center stage in Seoul to celebrate the imminent lifting of the last postwar Korean regulations banning the importation of Japanese films, music, computer games, and manga. The symbolic intent was clear: the laws manifested a passionate response to Japan’s forced imposition of its culture on the peninsula in times past. Transmitting the Forms of Divinity celebrates an ancient, shared Buddhist tradition, one that finds support in both nations today. The successful exhibition and its impressive catalogue cleared yet another historical and diplomatic hurdle—and we on foreign soil are among the lucky beneficiaries.

Cynthea J. Bogel
Art History Division, University of Washington

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.