The Silk Road
From 130 BCE until 1453 CE, the Silk Road was a network of trade routes that linked the two major civilizations of Rome and China. Silk went westward from China; and wool, gold, and silver went eastward from Rome. The Silk Road was primarily used for commercial trade, but the journey across Asia also provided opportunities for the trade of ideas, religion, and artistic traditions, such as in the transmission of Buddhism from India to China and Japan. In each region, Buddhist figures were created with the local physiognomy, using popular local materials and techniques.
Image of Old Silk Road, ARTstor
Ming Dynasty, 1368 – 1644
Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy
Late 16th century
Wood, pigment, and gilding
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Don Solomon, 65.045.361
Guanyin is a Buddhist bodhisattva whose name means “one who hears the cries of the world.” Often known as the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin is known for kindness, grace, and compassion. In Mahayana Buddhism, Guanyin is considered a potential Buddha in training. In original Indian depictions, Guanyin was a male figure known as Avalokiteshvara, but the figure’s representation gradually shifted to the female image of Guanyin in China. Guanyin’s combination of male and female characteristics led to her status as one of the most beloved Buddhist figures; ancient followers believed she had powers to make miracles happen.
This sculpture exemplifies many of Guanyin’s physical and philosophical characteristics. She is a contemplative figure with downcast eyes and a relaxed face. Like the Buddha, her elongated earlobes suggest that she wore heavy earrings in a former wealthy life. She often wears elaborate robes and a crown on her head, depicting the Amitabha Buddha.
Chinese artists often carved these statues in stone or cast them in bronze but carving sculptures in wood allowed artists to apply color and gilding to the figure. Unfortunately, wood is not as durable as other materials, and this figure’s limbs have broken off, and the pigment and gilding have faded. Originally, her hands likely would have been in the Abhaya mudra—a gesture that represents protection, peace, benevolence, and the dispelling of all fears.
Muromachi Period, 1392-1573
Jar (Tsubo) 15th – 17th century
Pottery and glaze (shigaraki ware)
Gift of the Rubin – Ladd Foundation, 2012.9
Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami
This jar (tsubo) is an example of the long history of ceramics in Japan. The Asian gallery at the Lowe currently features a long-term loan of contemporary Japanese ceramics from the collection of Carol and Jeffery Horvitz that connect with the country’s rich ceramic traditions.
The term shigaraki, as exemplified by this jar, refers to a number of kilns scattered over a wide area at the extreme southern part of Japan’s Shiga prefecture. The area has long been known for its clay beds, which have been used by potters since as early as the thirteenth century. The early history of the ware indicates that the kilns were originally operated by a community of farmer-potters, and the pottery produced was confined to local use.
To match its simple functions, shigaraki ware was sometimes decorated with cross-hatched designs, or with a simple glaze derived from the clay of the area, as in the case of this jar. The ware has a high quartz content and the body itself is often embedded with granules of quartz. By the sixteenth century, shigaraki ware had attracted the attention of tea masters, resulting in the production of jars and bowls specifically for the tea ceremony. Tea ceremony aficionados had a deep appreciation of the simplicity, roughness and rustic qualities of shigaraki ware.
Religion is a major theme in Asian art. The Lowe Art Museum holds sculptures that relate primarily to Buddhism and Hinduism, many of which have shared figures, symbols, and meaning.
For instance, Buddhism has figures that are represented in similar ways across time and place. The Buddha has 32 physical attributes that convey his identity. He often sits on a lotus flower; presents a mudra (gesture); features an ushnisha (three-dimensional bun on top of the head to convey enlightenment); has large feet (to represent the Buddha’s long travels); displays elongated earlobes (to draw attention to the Buddha’s former self as an earthly prince who wore heavy earrings); and has an urna in his forehead (symbolizing a third eye that represents vision into the divine world). Buddhist figures differ in description and meaning, depending on their representation and mudras.
Buddhist Bodhisattvas are also represented prominently in the Asian art collection. Unlike the Buddha, who is often humbly dressed in monk’s clothing, Bodhisattvas are shown wearing elaborate adornments that refer to their intercessor roles between the earthly and heavenly realms, as well as their purpose of assisting individuals to achieve enlightenment.
The Asian art collection at the Lowe also includes sculptures that depict figures from Hinduism. One such figure is Shiva, who is the creator and destroyer deity. Shiva is depicted with multiple arms, contained within a circular structure that represents the cycle of creation and destruction. Ganesha is the son of lord Shiva and is shown with an elephant head. During an argument, Shiva cut off Ganesha’s head and then replaced it with the head of an elephant. Ganesha is seen as the remover of obstacles and was often displayed for private devotion. Vishnu is also represented in the Asian art collection. In Hindu religion, Vishnu is one of the primary deities who is known as the Preserver of the Universe.
The lotus flower is represented in sculptures from both Buddhism and Hinduism. Because the beautiful flower blossoms out of the murky water, the lotus flower in Buddhism is a symbol of enlightenment, beauty, purity, rebirth, and spiritual awakening. In Hinduism, the lotus flower has similar associations, as well as being a symbol of spirituality. The lotus flower appears in many sculptures in the Asian gallery.
The Asian art gallery also features many examples of secular artworks—objects not intended for religious purposes. These include ceramic pottery, ceramic figures, sculptures, and works on paper and silk. Included in these secular works are Japanese netsuke, which are small sculptures designed to be worn from the obi (kimono sash) by stringing a cord through a hole in the sculpture. These became popular among Japanese men beginning in the seventeenth century. Many museums have collections of these small, intricately designed netsuke works. The Lowe’s collection includes netsuke made from a variety of materials and designs, as well as tabakoire (tobacco pouches) and inro (medicine boxes).
Asian art at the Lowe Art Museum comes from countries across East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia
South and Southeast Asia
Asian art at the Lowe Art Museum includes a wide array of materials and techniques used to produce sculpture and two-dimensional works of art.
Silk and handmade paper are materials that originate from Asia; artists there have used them for centuries, and they are still treasured today. Although silk is often associated with clothing, it is also used to create Asian screens and scrolls. Because silk is flexible, it can be rolled for easy transport. Rolling also helps prevent fading, which occurs when fabric is left exposed to light.
Asian handmade paper is revered for its strength and chemical stability. Other commercially produced paper can be acidic, but Asian handmade paper often has a neutral pH that promotes preservation.
Both silk and handmade paper are sensitive to light, so the Lowe only exhibits artwork with these materials for about six months at a time.
Calligraphy, decoratively written script created with brush and ink, is one of the most highly revered art forms in China, Japan, and Korea. Related to the literati tradition, calligraphy is a direct expression of education, cultivation, and beauty.
Chinese brush painting and calligraphy require the same fluidity and mastery of brush and ink, but rather than representing characters as in calligraphy, brush painters traditionally depicted scenes from nature.
Printmaking within the Lowe’s Asian collection is most represented by Japanese woodblock ukioy-e (floating world) prints. These were primarily produced during the Edo period (1603-1868), a time when Japan limited its contact with the outside world. As a result, Edo prints often depict the uniquely Japanese themes of nature (e.g. Mount Fuji), geisha, samurai, and the tea ceremony, amongst others.
Materials to cast
Indian artists began casting in bronze nearly 4,700 years ago, and Chinese artists employed the technique over 3,700 years ago. Bronze casting produces stable metal sculptures that are replicable as long as the mold remains durable. Copper alloy is another type of metal used in casting that is comprised of copper mixed with other metals.
Materials to carve
Many of these materials that Asian artists have carved are common in other areas of the world, but a few are specific to Asian regions. Jadeite is a version of jade that is typically pale green in color; it has been found in Burma, China, and Japan, as well as other places around the world. Throughout history, it has been a common material for jewelry and ornamental carvings. In some ancient cultures, jadeite was even more valuable than gold.
Nephrite is considered an older and softer version of Chinese jade but is more common and therefore less expensive. In China, nephrite was known as the Yu stone or the Stone of Heaven.
Materials to fire
Ceramics is the practice of making clay objects that are hardened by heat. The early spread of this art form from China influenced ceramic artists throughout the world, with important traditions of ceramic production also arising in Japan and Korea in particular.
Porcelain is a type of ceramic material that is produced by firing clay at high temperatures, whereas stoneware is produced by firing at lower temperatures.
Techniques for the surface
Asian artists use several techniques to enhance the surface quality of their objects and sculpture. Artists gild the surface of sculptures with gold leaf to give artworks the appearance of solid gold or add glaze to their ceramic works to create colorful surfaces and decorative motifs. Japanese artists pioneered the use of lacquer to add a dark, glossy surface to their sculptures and utilitarian objects.
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