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Massive Chinese Buddhist Sculpture Installed at the Freer Gallery’s South Entrance; Coincides with New, Related Exhibition

A huge, early sixth-century stone figure from the Binyang cave at the Longmen Grottoes in Henan Province China, now looks down upon visitors entering the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art south doors (Independence Avenue at 12th Street S.W.). A recent bequest, this figure represents Vimalakirti (“Weimo” in Chinese)—said in a famous Buddhist sutra to exhibit a stunningly profound knowledge of Buddhist dharma, or common truth. The sculpture is an awe-inspiring example of the huge Buddhist sculptures found in this famous cave-temple site in northern China. Removed from China in the 1930s, the sculpture subsequently underwent restoration in the United States and now is available for the first time for public view.

The figure’s installation announces the opening on April 14 of a related Freer exhibition that discusses issues of authenticity and attribution of other Chinese Buddhist sculptures that left China in the first half of the 20th century and now reside in the Freer, which holds some of the best Chinese sculptures in the Western world. “Chinese Buddhist Sculpture in a New Light”—featuring 6th to 20th-century ivory, metal and stone sculptures—will be on view through May 4, 2003.

Objects on view include:

  • two stelae, both previously dated by Western scholars to the Northern Qi dynasty (550–577); one of which is now considered to be genuine and the other fake
  • two unusual four-sided miniature marble stelae from the Six Dynasties Period (220–589)
  • a gilt image of a standing Buddha thought in the 1950s to be from the Six Dynasties Period but now considered to be a fake
  • an ivory statue of the figure of Guanyin in the guise of Buddha holding a sacred jewel with a spurious inscription of 1025, now re-dated to the Ming to Qing dynasty (17th–18th century)

During the first half of the 20th century China’s depressed economy fed the antiquities trade. Collectors were able to buy stellar Chinese artifacts that were hitherto little known in the West. But many of these sculptures were removed from Buddhist religious sites without proper documentation as to their provenance within China. Until recently, difficulties in scholarly exchange between East and West and the paucity of well-documented comparisons outside China perpetuated confusion as to the dating and attribution of some Buddhist sculptures. Establishing which sculptures were real devotional objects and which had been manufactured for sale was sometimes problematic.

Now, however, it is possible for Western scholars to visit likely sites such as the Longmen Grottoes, from which the objects in their collections might have been removed, and make comparisons with similar sculptures that remain there. In the case of the Vimalakirti sculpture, for example, the figure’s now-missing left arm is still visible at the site from which it was removed. Access to a greater number of similar objects whose provenance is well established or archaeologically confirmed, as well as improved methods of scientific analysis have also led to more accurate dating of these Chinese Buddhist sculptures.

In “Chinese Buddhist Sculpture in a New Light” the Freer’s curators provide contemporary opinions about the objects on view and review some of the dramatically changed opinions about the objects that have been offered over the past few decades.

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call 202.357.2700 or TTY 202.357.1729, or visit the galleries’ Web site at