Glimpse a “Promise of Paradise” in Freer Gallery’s Chinese Buddhist Sculpture
In honor of its 90th anniversary, the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art presents “Promise of Paradise: Early Chinese Buddhist Sculpture,” one of the finest assemblages of Chinese devotional art outside of China. Finely carved stone figures, architectural reliefs and gilt bronzes—some of which have never been on display—represent Charles Lang Freer’s original gift to the Smithsonian and the nation. The exhibition opened in December 2012 and will be on view indefinitely.
“Remarkable in themselves, these icons of Buddhist teachings align with Charles Lang Freer’s vision of a museum whose objects please the eye and stimulate the mind,” said Julian Raby, The Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art. “These wondrous stone carvings form the foundation of a collection that places a strong emphasis on transcendent beauty and profound cultural significance, both informed by our ongoing scholarly research.”
Most of the sculptures on display were created as objects of worship or for religious instruction and were used in temples, cave chapels or domestic shrines across northern China during the sixth to eighth centuries, a period marked by rapid evolution in both artistic expression and religious belief.
During this period, Buddhism enjoyed broad appeal in China, led by strong imperial support. Many of the more monumental works on display come from building projects supported by emperors and empresses, while others were commissioned by lesser aristocrats and commoners who sometimes pooled their resources to fund religious projects of a more local character. They are made of a variety of materials, including sandstone, limestone and marble, depending on where they were produced.
“Promise of Paradise” also traces the expansion of Buddhist subject matter during the sixth century, chiefly the rising popularity of Pure Land Buddhism, a tradition that offers devotees release from the rigors of karmic rebirth with the promise of salvation in a Buddhist “Pure Land,” or paradise. The title of the show is inspired by the earliest known depiction of Sukhavati (Western Pure Land of the Buddha Amitabha), one of the museum’s great treasures. In this powerful, evocative relief, reborn souls emerge from lotus flowers blooming in a pond at the feet of the Buddha.
“I chose to emphasize the sixth century, a pivotal period in Chinese Buddhist belief, and a transformative era reflected in extremely important sculptures in the Freer collection,” said J. Keith Wilson, exhibition curator and curator of Chinese art at the Freer and Sackler galleries. “The exhibited works show how artistic techniques and expression evolved at revolutionary speed in just a few decades. These artistic achievements paved the way for later Tang styles, represented by naturalistic eighth-century sculptures that are treated more three-dimensionally and seem to move freely in space.”
“Promise of Paradise” is part of a comprehensive transformation of the Freer’s six galleries of Chinese art, a process that began in 2010. Each gallery was reinstalled to celebrate a classic epoch in the development of Chinese art, such as the emergence of archaic ceremonial jades during the Neolithic period, remarkable ritual bronze vessels created for ancestor worship during the early Bronze Age, devotional Buddhist sculpture of the sixth through eighth centuries and luxury objects of the international Silk Road during the same time span. These topics reflect strengths of the Freer’s collection, each widely considered to include the greatest treasures of Chinese art outside of China.
A new research collaboration generated by this re-examination of the Freer’s Chinese collection centers on one of the most arresting figures in “Promise of Paradise.” The “Cosmic Buddha,” a one-of-a-kind life-size figure covered with dense narrative carvings depicting the Buddhist Realms of Existence, provides a conceptual map of the Buddhist universe from the heavens of the devas to the hells of the less fortunate. High-resolution photographs and 3-D imaging of the sculpture will be used in an interactive digital feature coming later this year.
The Freer Gallery opened in spring 1923 as the Smithsonian’s first art museum. Founder Charles Lang Freer was an industrialist and early Western collector of Asian art who assembled a significant collection of objects from China, Japan and the ancient Near East. Freer was also a contemporary and patron of James McNeill Whistler. He acquired more than a thousand works by Whistler and other American artists, including the famous Peacock Room. Fascinated by the rich cultural history of East Asia, Freer built his remarkable collection guided by personal taste and self-taught connoisseurship; his emphasis on aesthetic connections across cultures continues to influence the gallery today.
“Promise of Paradise” is one of several exhibitions on view in 2013 that feature individual collectors whose contributions to the Freer and Sackler galleries have revolutionized the understanding and appreciation of major areas of Asian art. Other exhibitions will feature the vision of notable collectors Paul Singer (“One Man’s Search for Ancient China: The Paul Singer Collection”; Jan. 19–July 7) and Gerhard Pulverer (“Hand-Held: Gerhard Pulverer’s Japanese Illustrated Books”; April 6–Aug. 11).
The Freer Gallery of Art, located at 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W., and the adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located at 1050 Independence Avenue S.W., together form the Smithsonian’s museums of Asian art. They are on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day (closed Dec. 25), and admission is free. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, visit www.asia.si.edu. For general Smithsonian information, call (202) 633-1000.
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