|November 17, 2001 - April 14, 2002|
Angkor period Baphuon style, early 11th century
H. 38 in. (96.5 cm); 1979.65
When I observe the "performance in stone" that is the early eleventh-century Baphuon-style female figure, I wonder what was the artist's intent. If this is in fact the goddess Parvati, I struggle with the tension generated between this work's idealized abstraction and its mastery in eliciting from stone the most sensual supremely human aspects of a living body.
What is the function of this work?
If this goddess
in meditative repose is intended to elicit the same in her follower, she
is simultaneously a feast of suggested volumes, crevices, and lines that
in fact titillate and arouse. Below the ample smoothness of her breasts
and belly, there is the maddening promise of movement in her sarong as
it slips downward past the swell of her hips. An austere cascade of line
representing the garment's folds plunges past her sex, reserving the privilege
of a flirtation in its airy fluting. Does this fluting "fishtail" catch
a bit of breeze like the playful tie of her belt as it reveals the delicious
recess of her navel?
India, probably Bihar
late 6th century
H. 27 in. (68.6 cm); 1979.8
To engage the late sixth-century Bihar Buddha is to experience sound. Hands, face, body, and garment convey this impression.
First the hands, slightly exaggerated in size, obviously composed according to a prescribed vocabulary of holy mudras, give the impression that this personage has been caught up short, in surprise at some sudden sound. The elegant right hand is at once a salutation, "Behold!" and a command, "Listen!"
The sensitive scowl of the face does suggest trance-like introspection. However, the sage seems to be listening as well. Is it to a sound from within or to some other, detected by his aristocratic ears with their divinely elongated earlobes? Maybe both?
And Buddha's garment, a film of otherworldly transparency and lightness, responds like a pool of water to a breeze or some strong vibration. The navel, like a bright stone beneath the surface, seems to be its origin.
His lithe inert body
could have been moving a moment before, but has been immobilized now by
that sudden awesome sound that was just released like a bell, a clap of
thunder, or a scream.
of a Man
Japan, Ibaraki Prefecture
Tumulus period, 6th-7th century
Earthenware with traces of pigment
H. 56 in. (142.2 cm); 1979.199
The haniwa figure of a man from the sixth or seventh century, Japan's Tumulus period, standing precariously on a cylinder of clay with outstretched arms-as if to balance-is as mysterious in its representation of human anatomy as is the culture that produced him.
This is not a celebratory dancing figure. Tight faced with piercing gaze and tiny arms, it is obviously intended to project an aura of stasis and power. Conditioned as we are to read power and authority in muscular strength, we are bewildered by the "lack of body" and the emphasis placed on the inflated trousers and sharp, funneled skirt covering them. If power and authority are suggested here, they are undermined by the spindly, childlike arms in awkward, frozen reach and the doll's feet, turned inward, barely holding the curved surface of the base.
And yet the figure
has command. There is an urgency and aloofness in the expression that
seem to imply that the possible destab-ilization below has been taken
into account and mastered. The intense reserve of the face is epitomized
by tiny eyes, like slits that allow nothing out, but take everything in.
In this face there is such confidence that we can imagine this warrior/priest,
springing down from his perch, or flying away. The world he commands is
represented in fragile clay, suggesting politics, intrigue, and/or natural
disaster, but the face speaks of cool assessment, unabating ambition,
Krishna Dancing on Kaliya
India, Tamil Nadu
Chola period, late 10th-early 11th century
H. 34 1/2 in. (87.6 cm); 1979.22
In the entire pantheon of Hindu deities, Vishnu, in his incarnation as the avatar Krishna, most flamboyantly represents divine charm and attractiveness. Be he the adorably mischievous tyke stealing his mother's clarified butter, the supreme lover capable of engaging every woman-married or not-in his village, or as he is represented here, Kaliyahimarddaka dancing on one of the heads of a monstrous, poisonous serpent-he personifies the childlike glee, sensuality, and charismatic accessibility of all great performers.
In this Chola-period rendering of the avatar, every element lends itself to seduction. His moon-shaped face, framed by divine ears, though somewhat mask-like, possesses full, pouty lips that are slightly parted with delight in his dancing. Flawless skin covers his broad shouldered torso. His dance on Kaliya's head is obviously rhythmical, sprightly, brimming with that insouciance and wit that star performers use to capture and hold their audience. His right foot, gracefully pointed as it leaves the serpent's head, produces a provocative lifting of his hip and an eye catching bunching of the soft flesh round his middle. This divine entertainer is male/female, child and man. His impudent little penis keeps its own time in stark contrast to the muscular sinuous rhythm of the snake's tail held elegantly as if it were a musical instrument.
Hindu tradition has
it that even the most hideous monster is gratified to be chastised or
killed by the seductive god as its soul is immediately freed from the
endless cycle of birth and death and achieves cosmic consciousness. Witnessing
this performance, one can only envy the vanquished snake.
India, Tamil Nadu
Chola period, early 11th century
H. 35 in. (88.9 cm); 1979.19
Confidence--that is the overriding impression given by this particular eleventh-century Chola-period Parvati. As she was certainly an attendant figure in an ensemble that featured her divine consort, Shiva, performing his dance of bliss, Parvati here embodies her role of showgirl with supreme confidence.
Her large, wide eyes and subtle smile suggest contentment and approval at the spectacle of her husband's dancing. Sturdy strength enlivens her amazing anatomy.Her boyish shoulders soften into firm shapely arms that taper into elongated gestures of grace.
The copper alloy out of which the goddess is fashioned embues the gravity defying perfection of her breasts with the power of two vibrating cymbals. The nipples mesmerize with their intense focus projected outwards like a pair of all seeing eyes. For all their wonder, the breasts cannot hold the giddy descend of our gaze as it travels down the coastline of her impossibly fine waist delivering us to the plush expanse of her undulating hips.
With languor and sway, Pavati is marking time-both musical and cosmic-with her magnificent hips and ass. She is confident in her role as spiritual complement to one of the pantheon's most complex deities-Shiva-an entity who, when not immersed in an eons- long trance of introspection, is performing a fearsome dance that signals the destruction of the universe. This delectable showgirl with the calm smile, elegant demeanor, and swaying hips is completely secure. She knows the nature of form and its transformation. Within her comely incarnation, there are many others. One of these is Kali, the monstrous witch, wearing a belt of sculls, whose womb spits out life even as her hideous tongue drips blood and her jaws chomp human flesh.
But here, this beauty
projects a confidant, dangerous allure. "Come dance with me, with us"--she
seems to say--"if you dare."
India, Uttar Pradesh
H. 49 1/2 in. (125.7 cm); 1979.13
In the world of the Hindu gods, body shape and mass are of no concern when it comes to the mastery of gesture and the outrageous undulating placement/displacement of skel-eton and flesh that we recognize as grace. This eighth-century Ganesha from Uttar Pradesh makes a convincing case.
One can only marvel at the understanding of anatomy, the visceral sense of movement and rhythm, and the choreographic skill of the artist who produced this performance in stone. This multi-armed, squat little figure with dimpled paunch, thick legs, sensitive hands and feet, has the head of an elephant. He is in fact a dancing elephant, presaging Walt Disney's Fantasia by roughly twelve hundred years.
Ganesha is caught in an ecstatic off- centered swirl of movement. Yet there is nothing frantic or out of control here.
The alert attentiveness of his large ears make palpable his celestial accompaniment. The elegant placement of his many hands-all performing effortlessly complex mudras-are in sophisticated counterpoint to the graceful rhythm of his belt and swaying trunk.
This is a suave and
elegant dancer who throws out his left hip with sensual-I dare say sexy-finesse
while observing us with aloof tiny eyes, as if to say, "Jump on in! Let's
see what you can do! I dare you."