February 22, 2010

At the Met: Buddhist Sculpture

Seated Luohan, ca. 1000, Yixian, Hebei Province, China. Earthenware with 3 color glaze.

Sometimes it happens that an artwork which I've found silent, and far from my understanding, will suddenly, marvelously, open itself to my previously closed heart. I remember this happening with the paintings of Henri Rousseau at the MOMA exhibit 25 years ago. One day I walked into a gallery at MOMA which contained several Jackson Pollock paintings, and they stunned me with their beauty, which had completely eluded me before then. This same kind of electric bolt struck me when I visited the Metropolitan Museum back in December. I'd been wandering through the Asian galleries, visiting some favorite ceramic pieces, such as this Tang dynasty Horse and Rider, when I walked into a gallery containing a selection of Buddhist sculpture, including two remarkable ceramic sculptures of seated Luohan, each larger than life size, and of compelling presence.

Seated Luohan, ca. 1000, Yixian, Hebei Province, China. Earthenware with 3 color glaze, 41 inches high.

Why had I not noticed these powerful works before? I don't know, but something in me has changed, so that I now see humanity, compassion, strength, and patience in these portraits of guardians awaiting the Future Buddha. I think that the portrait above is one of the most humane, and penetrating, that I've ever seen. He has an air of proud authority, but at the same time seems full of quiet understanding; his gaze penetrates, demanding a deep response.

Seated Buddha, Tang Dynasty, ca. 650, China, dry lacquer with traces of paint and gilt, 38 x 27 inches

Another beautiful sculpture in the same gallery, of a seated Buddha, was made much earlier than the Luohan, using a complex process of dry lacquer. With its more idealized and simple form, rendered with subtle and refined modeling, it is full of grace and repose. It seems an embodiment of quiet, of introspection, and of peace.


  1. a pleasure to see these here. I've often wondered how Luohan would look lit differently. so much is determined and fixed by the dramatic lighting. in natural changing light what would be revealed?

  2. It would be an interesting thought experiment to imagine these works in natural light. My favorite idea is seeing them in a temple setting, with light flowing in from a high side window, which would still illuminate the form clearly, but with less drama. (I think of Vermeer's window light.)

  3. Thanks for posting these! They are annual part of my pilgrimage to New York and the Met. This past January the Buddhas,Luohans and Bodhisattavas revealed again points of concentrations and planes of consciousness that transpired through form in new ways. They feel so alive! I have heard of potters experiments that measure chi in forms and I suspect the Luohans to be off the charts. While sitting quietly with them, I was joined by a group of small schoolchildren who struck the various poses and opened further extensions of sweet bliss.

  4. Cathy, yes, aren't they so alive! it makes me go back to rappel's comment about light, thinking they'd look even more animated in fluctuating natural light. I love the image of the children copying the poses, from art to life.