The exhibit, “The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara,” has just opened at the Asia Society, and will be up through October 30, 2011. Many consider the exhibit a place of wonder. The statuettes and friezes of Buddha and other figures inside and outside of the Buddhist canon are on loan to the Asia Society from the National Museum in Karachi, the Central Museum in Lahore, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Asia Society Museum, and private collections.
Most of these pieces have never been exhibited before in the United States. The traditional images of the Buddha are accompanied by many figures and styles and influences, not all religious, which may be new to Western viewers.
Expect to see an unexpected artistic synthesis of East and West, Indian and Pakistani, Greek and Roman, of Buddhism and of Greco Roman religious syncretism. Some pieces exuberantly merge all of the above, such as the groups of the Indian-Buddhist Goddess of Childbearing, Hariti (the protector of children, and of easy delivery) grouped together with Roman Abundantia and Greek Tyche (Abundance and Fortune). When you consider that Hariti is also the goddess one prays to if barren, the association makes a lot of sense!
As the Asia Society emphasizes, the exhibition “reveals the complex cultural influences — from Scytho-Parthian to Greco-Roman traditions — that fed the extraordinary artistic production of this region from the first century B.C.E. through fifth century C.E.”
What is not immediately clear to the viewer is that this remarkable show very nearly never made it to New York. The strained relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. nearly halted all trade activity for nearly a year. Ancient Gandhara, the area in question, is in the middle of the Taliban insurgency.
Not surprisingly, the death of Osama bin Laden created chaos, slowing down and nearly halting international and intercultural exchanges. Asia Society exhibit curator Melissa Chiu notes, “[Furthermore,] one shouldn’t forget the Taliban’s hostility to Buddhist art: They destroyed the Giant Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001.” We can only be thankful for curator Chiu’s persistence. It would be a great shame to have missed this show. It bears the shock of the old and the new.
My exposure to Buddhist art, by which I mean art depicting the Buddha himself, has conditioned me to expect a certain figure. A tranquil haloed figure in lotus position with a half smile and half lidded eyes, set against an ornate and richly colorful carven background, with tiny god attendants all about his face and body. An amazing bas-relief, the great centerpiece of the new show, fits this pattern almost perfectly.
As the Asia Society says, “the fourth-century [vision] of a preaching Buddha on a lotus…eloquently embodies the European-Asian synthesis of Gandharan culture in the first to third centuries. It was there [in Gandhara]…that Alexander the Great’s incursion into India ultimately spawned an artistic expression. Gandhara produced the first sculptural representations of the Buddha, a thousand years after he died.”
There are also images of the Buddha that are not so familiar, which may even be shocking to Westerners. Images of an emaciated grimacing Buddha. His body is sometimes depicted in grim detail at the extremes of fasting and pain. Two keynote images of this suffering Siddhartha/Buddha are shown accompanied by ascetic disciples turning the wheel and four guardians of the world.
These images, controversial also in their home countries, added fuel to the fire that nearly caused the Asia Society to be denied permission to bring them out of the country for this particular exhibit. On a lighter note, Buddha’s body and its imprints were revered as a source of miracles, as the show makes clear. A set of images is entitled “Miracle of Fire and Water” are brought forth from Buddha’s body.
Even more powerful, the second signature image of the entire collection is a huge, footprint of the Buddha, which is richly ornamented, with swastikas on his toes. An object of profound veneration. But then the pattern diverges. You see some rough carvings, and nearby rich gold and silver images of the Buddhas of Gandhara. But you also see figures, which are entirely outside of the Buddhist tradition and stem from Greco Roman art, architecture, and religions. Free standing images of Apollo and Daphne-very Greek sculptures; date from the first century BCE to the fifth Century CE.
A charming but graphic frieze of voluptuous naked couples seen from the rear drinking wine. An elegant Roman statuette of Eros. One male and one female river god, Roman. And a figure of fantasy – an elegant, sleek leogryph - a lion and a hippogryph merged- a Greek/Parthian incense bearer and temple guardian. Leogryphs combine the lion and the griffon in their mythical anatomy—and have long been the symbol of the Asia Society.
These figures are utterly different from the Buddhist figures in theme, execution and style but they too spring from stations on the Silk Road trade from the Mediterranean to China. Art is, after all, sometimes a commodity; it can be held hostage. It can be a political tool as well.
Gandharan art, which produced the first sculptural representations of the Buddha, was a product of Alexander’s conquest and by the influx of Hellenistic art. Thousands of years later, the Asia Society’s attempts to bring this stunning Gandharan art to the West were nearly halted at the time of Osama bin Laden’s death. Perhaps we can thank the leogryphs for their intervention and protection.