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Tracing Buddhist art to Japan via Korea

By
FREDERICK M. WINSHIP

NEW YORK, May 8 (UPI) -- A landmark exhibit of the Buddhist art of Asia traces the transmission of sculptural forms by Korea to Japan for the first time, putting to rest a long-held belief that Japan got much of its artistic heritage directly from China.

The show at the Japan Society, titled "Transmitting the Forms of Divinity," is not only a turning point in scholarship in regard to a murky area of Asian art history but marks the first collaboration on a large scale by South Korean and Japanese art and archaeological experts.

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It is also the first comparative examination of the interdependence of Korean and Japanese art, proving that Korean influence was more than just marginal.

Korea and Japan were antagonistic throughout much of the 20th century due to Japan's occupation and colonization of the Korean peninsula beginning late in the 19th century, followed by the divisive Korean War of 1951-53. The situation has begun to improve in the past decade, culminating in Japan and South Korea's co-hosting the World Cup in 2002.

Despite the contentious political climate that persists in Northeast Asia, the national museums of both countries loaned works to the show, a $2 million cooperative effort by the Japan Society and the Korean Society, non-political American cultural organizations. It is without argument the most important cross-cultural event of the current New York art season and can be seen through June 22.

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There are 92 displays from the 6th through the 9th centuries including 60-odd images of Buddha and his attendant Bodhisattvas, divine spirits who remain on earth to help others attain Enlightenment, and sacred texts known as Sutras, decorative tiles from Buddhist temples, reliquaries, and an assortment of ritual objects including miniature pagodas used as temple offerings, gold ingots, and silver mirrors.

Due to the violent history of the Korean peninsula, temples and monasteries were destroyed and most of the Korean artifacts in the show have been excavated in the past 50 years, whereas Japanese religious sites have remained untouched and active through the centuries, their treasures intact or preserved by museums and private collectors.

Almost none of the objects have ever left their countries of origin prior to this show and may never again be seen in the West. Included are six Japanese and Korean-designated National Treasures and important objects from the Horiyu-ji Temple in Nara, Japan, that have never before left the 8th century temple complex containing the oldest wooden structures in the world.

Appropriately, the first object on view is a Korean national treasure, a gilded bronze statuette of Buddha at birth. The childlike image joyfully holds his right hand up in greeting, one of the many stylistic traditions transmitted from Korea to Japan beginning in 538 A.D., only two centuries after Buddhism -- a religion that originated in Northern India in the 5th century B.C. -- had entered Korea from China's northern kingdoms.

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Small Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, including the popular agent of Buddha's compassion known as Avalokitesvara, were sent from Korea's three competing kingdoms to the Japanese court as gifts, often in the form of portable altars, or by diplomatic pouch as an encouragement to the ruling elite to adopt Buddhism.

One of them could have been an elaborately crowned 7th century Bodhisattva on display, elbow on knee and hand to chin, a pensive posture that shows up in a Japanese Bodhisattva of the same era possibly sculpted by a one of the Korean immigrant artists who were working in Japan in that era.

By the late 8th century and 9th century, enough Korean-inspired work was being done by Japanese artists to create an international style of Buddhist art. Koreans preferred to work in iron and stone in this period, however, and Japanese showed a predilection for working with wood and dry lacquer. Gilded bronze, prevalent in earlier objects on display, had fallen out of favor.

A large seated Vairocana, the supreme Buddha who rules over the universe, is a splendid example of Korean iron sculpture, its blissful face, snail-shell curls, and draped robe sharply defined. An equally impressive example of Japanese wood sculpture is a life-size heavenly king with an angry visage and threateningly raise right arm, an important cultural property from Nara.

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A variety of stone sculptures find their best representation in a small Korean seated Buddha, hands clasped in meditation, with a childlike face carved in a soft, round style that extends to puffy cascades of his robe and in a gigantic Buddha head with the same sublime childlike smile. This iconic facial expression likens Buddha's nature to a child's innocence and was particularly popular with Korean artists.

A fine example of Japanese colored lacquer sculpture is a standing Buddha guardian, known as a Vajrapani, a fierce-looking, bearded strongman fashioned from layers of hemp cloth saturated with lacquer that adhered to a clay core. The clay was removed when the sculpting was completed and replaced with wooden splints to hold the shape.

Many such secrets of Asian art can be learned by a leisurely visit to this exhibit and by reading the groundbreaking, sumptuously illustrated book that accompanies it ("Transmitting the Forms of Divinity," Harry N. Abrams, 384 pages, $45).

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