Nirvana Personified: Terracotta Enlightenment at the Musée Guimet

Of the many fine arts museums in Paris, France, the Musée Guimet (6, Place Iena) is a standout for both the institution’s collection and the conscientious ways it displays it.  This 16th arrondissement academy possesses one of the world’s largest collections of Asian art, encompassing 59,000 square feet of display area. The building’s updated structural interior fluctuates from one section to the next and the Guimet takes advantage of that; pieces large and small command attention in divergent contexts that complement the artistry.  My visit to The Guimet was well rewarded with astonishing works that linger in my mind with unusual clarity, such is the impression left with so many masterpieces, mostly illuminated with varying casts of natural light.  But the plain and somber space that surrounds the monumental sancai-glazed Luohan sculpture, attributed here with the name Tamrabhadra (the sixth disciple of the Buddha) confronts the viewer with a straightforward and inspiring visual experience.  The statue is set alone in one quarter of a small, dim, and rounded room under a strong spotlight that casts a stark chiaroscuro effect.  Long and deep shadows accentuate deep reliefs and organic contours before falling away across the floor.  I sat on the bench placed in front of the piece and cast a long, studious gaze.  Before long I found myself almost meditating—not at the statue but with this terra-cotta disciple.

The body is near life-size, and the height of its display table brings the figure’s face to standing eye level.   This strategic positioning compels the viewer to examine the remarkably natural visage.   Found a century ago with nearly a dozen other arhats in a cave near Yixian (northern Hubei), this sculpture bears an extraordinary level of realistic modeling.  Like the other figures found with it (two of them on display at The Met in New York), he wears a carefully-crafted attention to detail that suggests the ceramicist was commissioned to create a unique, personal portrait of each specific monk.  Save for the long-rendered ears, the face defies the idealized canon of period Buddha figures.  The bold masculine countenance stares outward with his muscular brow slightly furrowed, gently parted lips tense.  His deep dark eyes hold intense focus.  Additionally, the figural realism is not inhibited by the three-color glazing common of period ceramics: iron umber, copper green, and lead white combine with the clay body’s tonal qualities that add to the human dimension of this monumental pottery piece.

Strong hands of natural proportion rest on his lap with palms facing upwards, angular fingers clutching (now broken) strands of beads, each thumb counting prayers through them.   These hands are too focused on recording his inner reflections to acknowledge his audience with any inviting outward mudras poses.  We see this figure in a moment (or lifetime) of concentrated meditation and prayer.  He is spellbound with such a penetrating personal experience—staring straight ahead, looking through the viewer, transfixed on extraordinary visions in space—that suggests he is straddling the very edge of Nirvana.   A long gaze at this extraordinary portrait produces an intensely-personal, almost voyeuristic experience.  The penetratingly passionate qualities expressed in this figure defines the sweetest Buddhist expression of enlightenment.

The unexaggerated proportions of the body add to the overall realistic rendering.  His taut frame is accentuated with solid draping cloth that cover him from his shoulders to the floor, only partially parted around his heart to accentuate the elongated milky face.  The rich, tinted glazes are judiciously applied in geometric patterns that conform with the falling folds of fabric.  This figure appears fresh, almost alive, and he glows under the bright precision spotlight above.  Overall, this installation successfully conveys a scene that feels profoundly personal, a transcendent moment that beckons the blessings of enlightenment.  To observe this master work at the Musée Guimet is to witness a little bit of Nirvana, too.

– Frank Gordón-Quiroga, University of Hartford

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