The Fluency of Asian Art

“I know it when I see it” might be just the catch-all phrase to describe traditional Asian art. Think of Buddha statutes, ink scroll paintings, jade carvings, Indian miniature paintings and so on. Amid the sheer diversity of it all, there are a few underlying features that make Asian art, uniquely Asian. the “X factor” as it were that gives it its timeless allure.

I think this X-factor may be summed up by the word ‘fluency’. Whether it is a gilded statue of a Buddha, or the free form dance of ink in Chinese or Japanese calligraphy, the viewer’s eyes are immediately drawn to fluent lines and fluent curves. You see this expressed in sensual ways in the shape of a figure’s eyebrow, lips or flowing robes and in the case of calligraphy, in the lightness of vibrant brush strokes “flying” over negative space as if they wrote themselves. You also see the fluency of colors and materials that project a pleasing harmonious effect, whether it is a monochrome yellow imperial bowl of the Chinese court, or the tri-color glaze of a Tang horse, or the lushly sensual hues of an Indian miniature depicting nobles and courtesans. In all these cases and more, fluency is the over-arching effect, the X factor that gives Asian art its mystique and allure.

In today’s post, I’ve curated a small selection of art works to make my point. If these images pique your interest in Asian art, you may have just begun a new journey of discovery, one that will lead you into a portal where immense treasures lie in wait, in the collections of museums and private collectors. I guarantee that this will be a hugely rewarding experience.

Head of Buddha, Gupta era, circa 430-435, Mathura, pink sandstone, 20 x 12 in. Musee des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet, Paris.

Eyes half-closed, as though shutting out the agitations of the world, this head of the Buddha is ultimate expression of detachment. It is sculpted in the beautiful pink sandstone from Mathura in northern India. The body is missing but it is probably that of a seated Buddha. There are no unnecessary embellishments or gratuitous details. This is a genuine “icon” in the service of faith, with a subtle blend of realism and idealism expressing the supra-human nature of the Enlightened One, captured with consummate skill.

To Remain in Tranquility, horizontal scroll, China, Ming dynasty, ink on paper, height: 11.25 in. Musee des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet, Paris.

Like a silent musical score, this magnificent horizontal scroll is in the pure tradition of the “mad” style of cursive writing. Here, saturated with diluted ink, the brush rids itself of all constraints to become the instrument of the artist, the divine breath. Yet, there is nothing gratuitous in what, to the untrained eye, may appear as a meaningless painterly frenzy. The lines, dots, commas, spirals and snags are a veritable hymn to tranquility in the twilight of life. For it is written that “it is in the heart of silence that one hears the call of the phoenix.”

Starling, from an album, Liang Kai school, early 13th century, southern Song dynasty, China, ink on paper, 22.5 x 15 in. Musee Cernuschi, Paris.

Although unsigned and undated, this sublime scroll is clearly in the style of the great early 13th-century independent painter, Liang Kai. With only a few light-handed strokes, the artist was able to capture the fragile figure of a little starling perched on a twig. The bird is hardly more than an evanescent mark with a few touches of black for its eyes, beak and feet. The audacity of this type of off-center composition, with its marvelous alternation of full and empty, was a hallmark of China’s Song dynasty (960-1279), and was later taken up by the masters of the Japanese print, and much later, exploited by the French Impressionists.

Head of a horse, northern China, Early Han period, 3rd-2nd century BC, terracotta with traces of slip and polychrome, length: 9.75 in. Musee des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet, Paris.

In China, the horse, accompanying man through all the great social developments, enjoys unrivalled prestige. The horse is to Earth what the dragon is to Heaven, an emanation of fire, the yang emblem par excellence. Such was the impact of these proud creatures on the imagination of poets that they forged an entire language of dreamlike epithets for them: “flying horses,” “horse dragons,” “divine horses,” and so on. And sculptors masterfully captured the vigor of these “celestial messengers: in clay and bronze.

It was the Emperor Qin Shih Huang (of Xian’s terracotta soldiers fame) who made calvary the spearhead of his army. His distant nomad ancestors – equestrian connoisseurs and renowned horse breeders – had once been charged with keeping an eye on the imperial stables. The Han emperors in turn accentuated the place of the horse in military hierarchy, developing stud farms to improve stock. At the beginning of his reign, Emperor Han Wudi (140-86 BC) sent his ambassador Zhang Qian into the wild, almost unexplored regions in the west to seek out sturdy breeds. He returned many years later, victorious, introducing into China the famous tianma (heavenly horses) from the lush Ferghana Valley of Turkestan (now Uzbekistan). China then introduced a succession of new breeds, perfected equestrian equipment and exalted the beauty of their fierce mounts in bronze and clay such as this head.

Beautifully modelled in dark clay, this early Han head is strikingly expressionist in treatment, the globular eyes, gaping mouth, and arched nostrils all lend the horse a commanding presence. The polychrome further accentuates the overall dramatic effect. If this head was carved in marble instead of clay, it look almost Parthenonian Greek.

Nayika Longing for her Lover, gouache on paper, Rajasthan, India, second quarter of the 18th century, Patna Museum, Patna.

The miniature painters of the Mughal empire in India took great delight in exalting love’s games and infusing them with amorous and heroic episodes laced with lyricism, playfulness and even humor. But there is more to these images than mere delight. Each gouache, with its codified colors and gestures, is a “mini drama” as exemplified by this lovely example of a voluptuous dancer swaying seductively with her long dress twirling. Is this a goddess or a common mortal, a joyous or despairing lover? As if in reply, with her large lotus-shaped eyes, she looks down at the marble floor, its sparkling whiteness enlivened by the floral pattern of a priceless carpet. This elegant young woman is none other than a nayika, one of the heroines whose torments and longings are described in great details by the delicate brush strokes of the artist. Here, the heroine, is depicted as beautiful and erotic. The drama is reduced to its essence: every last ounce of her wildly undulating body, from her gesture of her raised arms to the tips of her twirling toes, yearns for her absent lover. One can almost hear the little bells on her belt jingling and her strings of pearls quietly clinking as though they sounded in proportion to the intensity of her heart’s desire.

Detail of the above painting.
Mother goddess, Mathura region, India, 3rd-2nd century BC, terracotta, height: 7.25 in. Musee des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet, Paris.

This fertility idol from the Mathura region of northern India hails from the depths of time. It dates to the 3rd century BC, making it more than 2000 years old. A marvel of poise and grace, this “mother goddess” is modelled in beautiful pink Mathura clay and epitomizes India’s reverence for woman as a symbol of fertility. Only the head and neck are rendered in some detail, while the goddess’s sweet face is accentuated with magnificent earrings and topped with a floral crown. Her neck is adorned double necklaces, and the rest of the body is highly stylized, with her arms reduced to mere stumps and her body basically flat with two tiny nipples like dewdrops as the only signs of femininity.

Shiva, Cola dynasty, 11th century, southern India, Tamil Nadu, bronze, 96 x 80 cm. Musee des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet, Paris.

India is the cradle of two of the world’s greatest religions – Buddhism and Hinduism, both of which has been the wellspring of a stream of artistic languages whose harmonious forms have inspired all the peoples of Asia. A single thread runs through these art forms – the omnipresence of the sacred. In the land of Buddha, Vishnu and Shiva, every artwork is a prayer to the gods. Originally kept in the sanctuary of a temple devoted to Shiva, this magnificent bronze was admired by the faithful during processions. With a formal poise touching on perfection, it depicts the god destroying and recreating the world in a cosmic dance of rare violence. Haloed with fire, Shiva’s ascetic’s chignon is undone in the heat of the action in which he tramples on a dwarf, symbolizing ignorance and evil.

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