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Hakuhō Sculpture by Donald F. McCallum (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 40, Number 1, Winter 2014
pp. 147-150 | 10.1353/jjs.2014.0039

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Donald McCallum’s most recent book, first conceived as a set of lectures for the Franklin Murphy seminar at the University of Kansas, focuses on Buddhist sculpture of the Hakuhō period (650–710). Against the broader trends to view the Hakuhō period of Japanese art as an extension of the Asuka period or as a transitional phase leading to the celebrated artistic accomplishments of the Nara period, McCallum argues for the essential uniqueness of this 60-year period. Unlike sculptors of the Asuka, Nara, and Heian periods, who, McCallum argues, were more likely to comply with “dominant stylistic lineages,” sculptors of the Hakuhō period enjoyed “considerable freedom,” commonly producing innovative works that blended various styles (pp. 4, 80). Such freedom of expression, he contends, enabled sculptors or artists of this period to create many works that belong “within the highest level of Japanese Buddhist sculpture” (p. xii).

The primary objects of McCallum’s study are small, gilt-bronze sculptures. Most of the works he introduces in the book are 15–30 centimeters in height (although a few are as tall as 80 or 90 cm). While there are some wood and clay sculptures that date to this period, gilt-bronze is the medium that best characterizes this age (pp. x, 4). For scholars of Japanese religion, several intriguing issues come to the fore. First, the popularity of small, gilt-bronze images during this period is consistent with larger trends of contemporaneous East Asia: such icons were also popular in China and Korea during the sixth and seventh centuries (p. 4). Second, the fact that sculptors of this period focused on small icons rather than large ones suggests that much of the Buddhist activity of this period took place within the private shrines of aristocratic families in the capital and major households in the provinces. It was in such private shrines, McCallum suggests, that devotees installed small sculptures, since temples would have required larger icons (pp. 13–14). Finally, McCallum notes that the most common icon in his study is that of the standing bodhisattva Kannon (p. xi). Although he does not offer much in the way of explaining why Kannon was so popular among sculptors and patrons of this period, this observation may be of use to historians of Japanese religion.

McCallum divides his study into three main chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion. The introduction offers a brief account of Asuka sculpture (for the purposes of comparison), as well as a short overview of the political and religious contexts of the period. The main chapters are categorized chronologically: “Early Hakuhō Sculpture” (650–70), “Middle Hakuhō Sculpture” (670–90), and “Later Hakuhō Sculpture” (690–710). In these chapters, McCallum examines dozens of sculptures in order to define the basic contours of Hakuhō sculptural style. Many of his examples point to the ways in which Hakuhō sculptors drew upon but ultimately modified Asuka-period prototypes, as well as continental ones. In some cases, he suggests, artists may have “adopted elements from various traditions” without understanding any single tradition all that well, a process that sometimes resulted in what he characterizes as “awkward, unattractive,” or even “weird” stylistic features (p. 46). Still, this climate in which artists were “striving” to create icons “different from the norm” gave rise, he explains, to many “superb” works of art (pp. 44, 46).

To this admittedly nonspecialist reader, these middle chapters, in which McCallum performs close visual analyses of dozens of works, make a strong case for the distinctiveness of Hakuhō-period Buddhist sculpture. The volume’s 50 large and beautiful illustrations enable the reader to follow McCallum’s discussion with relative ease. Still, due perhaps to the fact that the book originated as a set of lectures, the analyses often feel abbreviated, at times even incomplete. McCallum introduces and describes many sculptures—especially those that rank among his personal favorites—without lingering to treat any in depth. Moreover, at times it is unclear how, exactly, the visual analysis of a particular image contributes to the larger arguments of the book. Chapter 3, for example, ends with a brief discussion of the Kōfukuji Buddha Head (pp. 57–59). Although the discussion is interesting in...



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