Robin Urton: dimensional paintings on glass


Art of Asia

India: Birthplace of Buddhism

Detail of Yakshi at Great Stupa, Sanchi

East Gate of the Stupa, Sanchi

It would be difficult to approach Indian art without considering its religious traditions. Early on, images of nature gods pervaded India's sculpture and architectural reliefs. This tradition continued long after Buddhism became a major religion. Guatama Siddhartha was born a prince in India around 563 BCE. Having renounced his royal status (at around the age of 29), he wandered into the wilderness to seek enlightenment (nirvana). Having achieved this, he began his life as a teacher and spread his wisdom to a group of devotees, who would spread his knowledge - creating the foundation for Buddhism. By around the third century BCE, Buddhist imagery and architecture began to appear, as in the elaborately sculptured gates that surround the Great Stupa in Sanchi.

The Yakshi above is a female fertility spirit, a leftover symbol from an ancient religion which venerated nature gods. Though Buddhism is often seen as a religion of renunciation, it actually embraces sensuality in order to transcend it. The voluptuous body of the yakshi suggests her powers of fertility. She wraps herself around the branches, causing it to flower.



Seated Buddha, 5th c. CE

Head of Buddha, Gandhara style, 5th c. CE

Gandhara Buddha on Lotus

The very earliest Buddhist images did not even depict the Buddha, instead symbolizing him with his empty throne or the Bodhi tree under which he is known to have attained enlightenment. Several centuries after his death, we begin to see images of the Buddha seated on his throne or on a lotus flower (symbol of enlightenment).

This tilted head of Buddha would have once sat on his full body, similar to the one at right (they are from the same region, now part of Pakistan). This area had extensive contacts with the Roman empire at this time, which influenced the western-style of hair, linear carving of features and graceful swirls of Greco-Roman draperies.


By the end of the 7th century, Buddhism had spread its influence to China, Japan, and Southeast Asia. It was, however, supplanted in India by a revival of Hinduism, which now remains the dominant religion.



The Rise of Hinduism in India

Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu

Sleeping Vishnu, Gupta Temple, Deogarh - 5th C. AD

Hinduism is populated by a pantheon of distinct deities... too many for me to mention in this brief introduction. The three major Hindu deities include Brahma (Creator), Shiva (Destroyer), and Vishnu (Preserver), which constitutes the Great Trinity. The Vishnu at right dreams the world while he sleeps. He is usually thought of as benevolent and mild, granting salvation to his followers for their devotion.


Shiva, Lord of the Dance

Shiva, Kailesh Temple, Ellora

Shiva (or Siva) is often presented in his form as the cosmic dancer.Ê He is believed to be the source of all movement within the cosmos, and so his dancing is what makes the world go round.Ê The dance is said to be performed in a sacred place called 'Chidabaram', the center of the universe, which is in reality within the human heart. The many hands form gestures called "mudras", each intending to represent a different aspect of the god.


Hindu Temples of Angkor

Angkor Thom, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Some of the most interesting archeological sites are the many temples and palaces built in Angkor, India. Created by Khmer kings, the imagery tends to combine both Buddhist and Hindu traditions. The gateways to the ancient temple city of Angkor Thom were protected by immense towers carved with giant faces of Boddhisattvas surveying the four directions.

The Temple of Angkor Wat was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu during the middle of the 12th Century. The temple took over 30 years to construct, and it enshrines some of the world's most beautiful examples of Khmer, Buddhist and Hindu Art. Covering an area exceeding 80 acres, the ancient complex consists of five towers - representing the five peaks of Mount Meru, the Home of the Gods, and the center of the Hindu Universe. The site was left by the Khmer people in the 15th century, and was not rediscovered until 1861, when the French hacked it out of the jungle that crept up around it.



The temple's richly decorated reliefs and sculptures are in ruins due to the humid climate, the algae and fungi covering its surface, the roots of trees that have grown up around it, the acidic content of bat droppings , insects infesting the crevices, and water erosion. In addition, since its discovery, vandals have become a huge problem. Eager to sell sculptures to collectors, they have even cut reliefs out of the rock. Cambodia has long been in a war zone, so there is also much damage from bullet and mortar wounds at the site.

Monks Amid the Angkor Ruins



The Great Dynasties

Xian Soldier and His Horse, earthenware

In 1974, well-diggers accidentally uncovered part of the tomb complex of the first emperor of China, Shi Huang Di. Buried since 210 BCE, the life-size soldiers guarded the tomb in military formation, accompanied by horses and attendants... totalling over 7000 figures! The scale of such a project is an amazing feat in itself, but one's appreciation increases when we discover that each sculpture is an individual persona. None are replicated, and the degree of naturalism in each suggests that the emperor had a large group of very accomplished sculptors. More recently, further archeological digs in this region have unearthed a similar array of scribes (clerks), suggesting that the entire court may have gone into the tomb.



The Spread of Buddhist Imagery

Colossal Buddha, Shanxi (45 feet tall), 5th century

Guanyin, Song Dynasty, 1100

Buddhism was introduced to China from India in the first century CE. The Colossal Buddha at the entrance to Yungang cave is an early example of the Buddhist influence in China. The figure appears archaic (old style), given a very simple form, geometric folds of drapery, and smooth planes to his serene expression. The Guanyin, by contrast, sits in a very active pose. It is asymmetrical in balance, with a lively swirl of drapery animating its princely pose. The Guanyin is a favorite subject, a beloved and powerful Boddhisattva that combines feminine and masculine characteristics (both graceful and robust).


Guanyin the Merciful, 1700

Shukongojin, Nara, Japan 8th c.

To clarify masculine and feminine characteristics in Asian sculpture, I will contrast a porcelain Guanyin figurine from the Quing Dynasty (China's last dynasty before becoming a republic) with that of a larger wood sculpture created in Japan. The Shukongojin is a guardian figure for a Buddhist temple. Known as the "thunderbolt-bearer", he is meant to ward off demons and evildoers. His animated pose and ferocious expression carries an aggressive masculinity. In contrast, the porcelain is a feminine version of a Bodhissattva, expressing containment, modesty, and delicacy.



Chinese Traditional Painting


Han Gan, White Night Horse, T'ang Dynasty, 780

Lu Hu, from Album of Miscellaneous Subjects 1891

The origins of traditional Chinese painting reach far back into China's distant history. Before the Tang Dynasty, humans were a common subject, but by the mid-T'ang dynasty (618-907 A.D.), landscape, animal and flower-and-bird paintings began their rise to prominence. No matter the subject, the fundamental component of Chinese painting is the line, as it is in Chinese calligraphy. Han Gan's ink-drawn horse is surrounded by calligraphic stamps and an inscription of a poem written by the emperor. The painting by Lu Hu, created over 1000 years later, is more complex in design, yet still retains a sense of graceful simplicity.

Wang XiMeng (1196-1120), A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains, Song Dynasty

For the Chinese, God is most evident in the world of nature. Paintings of mountains, forests, fields, and gardens have the ability to transport one away from the vexations of the material world into a peaceful, carefree realm. Because of this, landscape paintings have always been highly regarded in China.



Court Ladies Preparing Silk, Song Dynasty

Chinese paintings are frequently created with watercolors on fine silk, in long scrolls. Sometimes a painting is meant to tell a narrative story and is "read" like a book. A handscroll is one long horizontal piece of material which is held in the hands and rolled from end to end.


Whether Chinese painting is "realistic" is the object of frequent debate. The kind of "realism" sought after in Chinese painting is not an objective reflection of the existence of an object as perceived through the sense of sight, but rather is an expression of a subjective kind of recognition or insight. No effort is made to represent the shadows cast by a particular type of lighting, and for this reason the painting does not have a clear three-dimensional effect. Instead, the artist strives for an understanding of the graceful lines within nature, and prefers to set the imagery against a plain background.


Song Wenzhi

Tang Yin, Mountain Landscape

When humans are present within landscape painting, the artist frequently minimizes their importance within the vastness of nature.


He Tianjian, Autumn Scene

Qi Bashi, Pond Plants

Wu Hufan, Scholars

After the painter sets the lines down on the paper, he uses watercolor wash techniques to achieve a chiaroscuro effect of light and dark, representing the forces of "yin" and "yang", to express his grasp of the eternal quintessential nature of his subject. There is a very strong relationship between poetry, calligraphy, and painting in China. After the Song Dynasty, it is rare to find a Chinese painting that does not include calligraphic inscriptions of poetry prominently displayed within the work.


One artist well known for paintings inpired by poetry is that of Ren Xong. Above are two out of a suite of 120 leaves of an album the artist created while staying with a poet-friend, Yao Xie. The paintings are reportedly inspired by his friend's poetry and all were created over a two month period in the winter of 1850 and 1851. The artist takes great liberties with nature in these paintings, achieving instead a world of rich fantasy.

See Chinese Painting After Socialist Republic


Japan: Masters of Woodblock Printing


Kunisada, Warrior-Monk 1830

Kuniyoshi, Oniwaka Fighting Giant Carp 1830

Kuniyasu, Girl with Samisen, c. 1830



Shoun, Winter scene from The Four Seasons, c. 1900

Hiroshige, Rain Shower



Hokusai, The Great Wave, 1823

Hokusai, Courtesan 1812

Hokusai (1760-1849), Japan's best known artist, lived during the Shogun period - at which time Japan had sealed itself off from the rest of the world. Contact with Western culture was forbidden. Nevertheless, Hokusai discovered and studied the European copper-plate engravings that were being smuggled into the country. Here he learned about scientific perspective, shading, coloring, realism, and landscape perspective. He introduced all of these elements into woodblock and ukiyo-e art and thus revolutionized and invigorated Japanese art. Although Chinese and Japanese paintings had been using long distance landscape views for 1,500 years, this style had never entered the woodblock print. Ukiyo-e woodblocks were produced for bourgeoisie city gentry who wanted images of street life, sumo wrestlers, and geishas. The countryside was ignored; it was for peasants. Instead of shoguns, samurai, and their famous geishas, Hokusai placed the common man into his woodblocks, moving the emphasis away from the aristocrats and down to the rest of humanity. In The Great Wave, tiny humans are tossed around under giant waves, while enormous Mt. Fuji is a hill in the distance.


Next: Mesoamerican Art