- Exhibition Review:Buddhist Sculpture from China: Selections from the Xi'an Beilin Museum, Fifth through Ninth Centuries, China Institute Gallery, New York City (2007)
"Buddhist Sculpture from China: Selections from the Xi'an Beilin Museum, Fifth through Ninth Centuries" was presented at the China Institute Gallery, directed by Willow Weilan Hai Chang, from 20 September through 8 December 2007. The guest curator was the well-respected scholar Annette L. Juliano, whose previous exhibitions include "Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China, Gansu and Ningxia, 4th–7th Century," undertaken with Dr. Judith A. Lerner in 2002 for The Asia Society, New York, and the path-breaking "Art of the Six Dynasties: Centuries of Change and Innovation," held at China Institute in 1975.
"Buddhist Sculpture from China" tapped into one of the great collections of China's Northwest. The Beilin (Forest of Steles) Museum is a rich depository of sculpture executed in Xi'an and the surrounding area. Originally the museum's prominence was based on its astounding collection of steles, but over the last fifty years it has also become the custodian of a body of Buddhist stone sculpture excavated in Shaanxi Province that represents the northwestern school of carving through successive periods of history from the Northern Wei (386–534) forward, with particular emphasis on the Northern Zhou (557–581) and Tang (618–907) periods. One cannot but appreciate the administrative difficulties of arranging this exhibition, the huge bureaucratic and logistical hurdles that must have been surmounted in order to bring more than seventy stone and clay objects from the interior of China to New York City.
Juliano is the primary author of the attractive scholarly Catalogue, which includes contributions by Zhao Liguang (Director of the Beilin Museum), Stanley K. Abe, Susan L. Beningson, Selena Shen Wang, Eugene Y. Wang, Dorothy C. Wong, and Xiuqin Zhou, as well as excellent photography. The exhibition was further accompanied by a symposium "Art and Practice: Buddhism in China from the 5th–9th Centuries" organized by Juliano and France Pepper, Director of Arts and Culture Programs. This outstanding interdisciplinary program, held on 17 October 2007, brought together historians of religion with art historians to constructive effect.
Mixing questions of popular worship with ideas about the personal, dynastic, and monastic use of Buddhist sculpture, the exhibition provided a compelling opportunity to rethink our notions of some of the early Chinese Buddhist movements, patronage systems, and visual styles. The Catalogue similarly provides opportunities for critical reassessment. This review essay focuses on the Catalogue as the most enduring record of the exhibition. Also, inspired by the project as a whole, we offer some broader comments relevant to the state of the field, specifically to the handling of questions of provenance and the employment of Buddhological methods of inquiry.
The stated aims of the exhibition and Catalogue were to break new ground in the study of familiar masterworks, introduce unfamiliar works, and deepen our understanding of the development of Buddhist sculpture, practice, and patronage between the fifth and the ninth centuries in the Xi'an area.1 Ideally such an exhibition gathers works of secure provenance that effectively embody the religious culture, beliefs, and art style(s) of the given historic period. This is important, because viewers, including academic and general audiences as [End Page 89] well as art collectors and dealers, derive lessons and make decisions on the basis of the works shown in exhibitions like this one. Whereas most of the sculptures on display in the exhibition served these ends well, some prompted questions regarding provenance.
The provenance and age of objects that the Beilin Museum acquired in the 1950s must be scrupulously interrogated. Some works that appear at first glance to fit neatly into well-established stylistic categories actually display anomalies (see Cats. 13, 17, 33, 46, 47); others are of such naïve, even crude workmanship that new categories have to be created to account for them (Cats. 6, 7, 9). These works sounded a discordant note when displayed next to undisputed masterpieces, and arguably diminished the integrity of the exhibition. Although the selection of objects generally reached a high standard, the exhibition suffered...