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Snippet of The Lonely Palette: Episode 19 - Guanyin, Bodhisattva of Compassion (Song Dynasty, 12th c. CE)

Last Played: December 25, 2021
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The Lonely Palette discusses the Chinese sculpture, Guanyin, Bodhisattva of Compassion. The meaning of the sculpture, gender, and reactions to it.
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Guan Yin Bodhisattva of Compassion from the early 12th century CE. So remember when we were first talking about museums way back in the very first episode, we talked about them as deliberate, curated spaces. That's not news. There's a reason why the museum's chief storytellers are called curate er's, but it's true they actively create the space that you're experiencing every square inch of it. And beyond their expertise with the content Curator is have to have an incredible amount of empathy with the visitor to make sure that the space that they curate around the objects that they're displaying resonate with the visitor as deeply as possible and considering how fast people move from gallery to gallery as quickly as possible. They don't have a lot of time with you on an object by object basis, so they've got to make it count, all right. Most people who move through a museum are unaware of this, or at least there subconsciously aware of the resonance that is the consequences of the manipulation but not of the manipulation itself. And that's how it's supposed to be. For example, it's on Lee after you've walked into the gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts allowed your eyes to adjust to the low lighting and the warm, rich chocolate brown walls and taken a seat in front of this sculpture of Guan Yin, the 12th century Song Dynasty bodhisattva of compassion that you realize that just maybe, there's been some handling going on. Rooms don't feel this calm all on their own. And even though there's no actual soundproofing, everything gets quiet. People just know that it's not a space for chatter, but it's also not intimidating the way that most museum quiet can be. It's just relaxed chill, and this chilis helped along by the fact that when you look straight ahead, you're being gently received by the warmest, most loving face that's ever been carved out of Empress Tree wood almost 1000 years ago. So okay, you say, and probably without even realizing it, you've got me. I'm yours. Tell me a story. Fortunately, storytelling is religious art specialty and Buddhist art is no exception. Buddhism evolved in India based on the teachings and spiritually practices of the Buddha between the 6th and 4th centuries BC that were delivered largely through storytelling. When Buddhism arrived in China from India in the third century BC. It brought with it a cast of characters that play critical allegorical roles in these stories. Ah Bodhisattva is one of these figures. It is one who has, like the Buddha, achieved humanity's end goal of enlightenment. But unlike the Buddha, stayed back on Earth among us and all of our imperfections. The Bodhisattva is therefore a personification of empathy and compassion, the one who passed up eternal glory to stay back among the brutes and help us out. And for this sculpture in particular, compassion is the order of the day. There are four great bodhisattvas in Chinese Buddhism, and the one that we have here is commonly called Guan Yin. The name is a shortened form of guanxi, in which translates as the one who hears the cries of the world. Justin. Looking at this face and in the complete, relaxed openness of the pose, you feel yourself relaxing. It's not so unlike Van Gogh's postman. The object in the context of the gallery is telling you a story, and yet you feel like you're just with a friend being listened. Thio and the super chill tone is clearly being projected by the figure itself. I mean, just look at it. The seated bodhisattvas all share and especially languid pose, and especially during the song period that give a sense of heaviness and release like that delicious moment when my cat forms on me for a nap. This pose, described by art historians as opposed of royal ease, is only one iconographic way of identifying a bodhisattva and Guan Yin. In particular. There's several ways to recognize the iconography of a bodhisattva, all of which pushed the narrative of its story. One is that they're usually pretty decked out. Unlike we see here, the figure will be covered in jewelry and finally decorated Dre Pary Ah, seated Amitabha Buddha of eternal love in its crown and then the figure cruise jewelry as a ceremonial ritual throughout generations of worship. When you stand here and look closely at the decoration in the skirt, you can make out a slim, elegant cut gold leaf decoration, which was achieved by hammering fine gold leaf, heating it, cutting it into narrow strips and applying it to the surface. A new equivocally for fussy and exacting technique on this kind of opulent meticulousness isn't usually associated with Buddhist iconography, considering the value that an aesthetic like the Buddha placed on impermanence, whenever you see a depiction of the Buddha, he's spare and plain rejecting material wealth. But since Bodhisattvas stayed back on Earth, they're still playing by Earth's rules and material. Wealth is the name of the game, so the richer a bodhisattva appears to be, the more powerful It's compassion, another iconographic element, and one particular took one in. Is that the eyes air looking downward modestly, almost coquettishly. Ah, more generalized interpretation for this is that Guan Yin is looking down on all of us from this higher plane, poised to hear our cries. More specifically, though, this sculpture has been identified as a moon water Guan yin, meaning that the downward stairs focused on looking at the reflection of the moon in a pool of water. We're catching this figure in a moment of gentle, intense impermanence. I mean, what could be more relaxed and more fleeting than watching the moon's reflection in a pool on? This is a common theme in Buddhist art. Something so subtle, like slightly downcast eyes, is representative of one of the core tenants of the religion writ large namely, the ability to process the concept of impermanence you may have noticed by now and believe, May I'm working like hell at it that I've been avoiding the use of pronouns. I'm sure you've been wondering. Is the Guan Yin male or female? Well, it's both, and it's neither. You can imagine that a figure who transcends humanity would transcend gender and assume any form necessary to relieve the suffering at hand. And it's considered best practice, at least by art historians today to try to avoid making the call one way or another. But that hasn't always been the case. Thin the iconographic evolution in India you'll see the Guan Yin described and illustrated as male pretty consistently. But that's what makes the Song Dynasty in China and this sculpture in particular so interesting because as you look at it, you see the confluence of both male and female, the relaxed curve of the belly, the flat chest beneath the necklace is the elegant pose of the fingers, yet topped by a distinctly heart shaped feminine face. Try as they might decide, step it, the literature in the museum and around this figure describes the Guan Yin as female. Why, Why now? Why in this period? Well, let's talk a little bit about the Song Dynasty. To put it in a little bit more perspective, this dynasty was flourishing from the period that the West was coming out of the Dark Ages and just embarking on Romanesque cathedrals. The level of realism and sophistication that was seen in Chinese art wouldn't even be attempted in the West for another 300 years at the onset of the Italian Renaissance. But the aesthetic principles of the Renaissance and of the song Dynasty weren't that different. Both valued humanism both felt that there was a sense of the divine in sensitive renderings of nature in the human body. On the song came by this humanism. Honestly, it was preceded by the Tang Dynasty, which was considered the golden age of Chinese art and which Waas, like the military that defined it, characterized as confident, aggressive and expansive. This'll was the period of the Silk Road of diversity and vibrancy and their artwork, which was heavily influenced from neighboring countries and regions like Persia and India and the Middle East. There was an incredible sense of outward nous expansion and innovation in the Tang Dynasty. They were inventing everything from porcelain toe air conditioning. But what goes up must come down, and the tang was eventually brought to its knees by rebellions that broke the country apart. For 50 years, the country was divided into north and south, into multiple dynasties and 10 kingdom states. Until the emergence and reunification of the Song Dynasty in 1960 c, you can imagine what song must have been like relative to Tang. Everything outward and confident turned inward. It was a quieter, gentler, more introspective period in Chinese history, with a weakened military and a tentative new unity on the art reflected this this quieter disposition, along with an increase in wealth that led to a flourishing of the arts, the like In the Italian Renaissance, there was an increase in patronage, and artists were able to heighten the sophistication of their portraiture, their landscape drawing and their sculpture on. This sophistication was characterized as realism. Larger abstract ideas like divinity and spirituality were rendered as beauty as naturalism, as close to an ideal ized realism as possible. So it makes sense that this imagined idea of compassion would materialize as a maternal female figure from song onwards, Guan Yin is most often represented as female as the divine personification of maternal love. Universally comforting. No matter what sect of Buddhism you practiced, no matter if you were even religious or not. It's not much of a stretch from Guan Yin to the Virgin Mary, at least in terms of popularity and that universal sense of benevolent security and beloved nous. But it's interesting to think about the Guan Yin's gender fluidity as an example of the constant, continual aesthetic, fluidity and evolution of the sculpture throughout the ages. Until now, really, where it sits in a glass box in a museum, beautifully curated, no question, but suspended, arrested. Think about it. This'll Sculpture was a ritual object in a northern Chinese temple for over 700 years. Yeah, we have a tendency to forget that objects in museums are really, really old. Yeah, part of the ritual was accumulation, adding mawr jewelry and layers of paint as ceremonial rituals and even tastes and trends in Buddhism evolved. And when this sculpture was acquired by the museum in 1920 it kept right on changing even in a time period that we can actually wrap our heads around. That's also something that can happen in a museum. If curator is determined that an object is in a current state that's inauthentic to its period of creation, then they can take it upon themselves to fix it. And this is what happened with this Kwan Yin. When it arrived, it was completely white, covered in white paint from top to bottom, the result of a more recent Buddhist act of devotion. But in 1956 WGBH in Boston came to the museum to do a documentary and included the Guan Yin. Enormous bright lights were set up in the gallery, and curator is noticed traces of color beneath the white paint. They embarked on an extensive process of restoration to remove the multiple layers of white and exposed the gorgeous Polly chromatic colors that we see now all thanks to the magic of television. Guan Yin was returned to its full Technicolor glory. It was then on permanent exhibition until the late nineties, beloved by its visitors, although without proper upkeep and after some paint started flaking and some would started cracking, it was taken into storage until a generous patron paid to have it fully restored yet again. And only 18 months ago it was reinstalled into a gallery created for its return. Complete, relaxed, static under glass. No, and this is where we began walking into this gallery. We're meant to feel Guan Yin's com compassion even before we see it's royal ease or feel the love emanating from its face. And while we happily consent to the Zen of the room and welcome the colorful golden sculpture back home, it's important to remember that there's a very specific story being told to us about bunions, origin, point restoration or determining an objects most authentic point to restore it. Teoh is, as you can imagine, a powerful and problematic thing, because someone is always making a choice. Who is to say that Guan Yin was most at home when it was carved, and not any time in the years of ritual? Sense is a ritual object on Leigh truly itself before the ritual. And who's to say that the white paint wasn't meant to be its final stop? A newspaper clipping from The Boston Herald in 1956 states that Guan Yin was quote restored to its original coloring for display to television audiences, which is hardly an art historical arbiter. Furthermore, there's evidence of additional colors of paint beneath the current surface, meaning that what we see isn't even how it was originally intended to be seen. There's more, but they chose to stop. It's a sticky wicket restoration. It's a different kind of storytelling, and at least now it's the only kind that will ever actually reach a conclusion because Guan Yin lives in a glass box untouched, removed from its ritual home and stripped of its layers of history. But it's also soulful, inviting and presented as a jewel in the crown of the museum's narrative of song dynasty aesthetics, not telling but showing feeling. Maybe there is no starting point for compassion, and maybe that's the part of the story that really counts.
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