Afterlife: Asian Art from the Weldon Collection

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China, Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Guanyin, wood, straw, stucco, gilding and pigment; The Weldon Collection T.2014.211
China, Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Guanyin, wood, straw, stucco, gilding and pigment; The Weldon Collection T.2014.211

Afterlife: Asian Art from the Weldon Collection journeys across Asia to explore the fascinating role of art in this life and the next. Inspired by the bequest of Henry and June (“Jimmy”) Weldon, this exhibition includes a wide variety of sculpture and ceramics that reflect ancient fashion trends, entertainments, status symbols and religions throughout the ages. Over 80 works span thousands of years of history from China, Japan, India, and Southeast Asia.

Many of the objects represented in the Weldon Collection were originally created to accompany the spirit. According to Chinese cultural belief, the dead should have all the luxuries and comforts they enjoyed in life. In earliest times, these offerings consisted of food and drink, and perhaps a piece of jewelry or a vessel. The burials of kings, however, could include hundreds of sacrificed people, horses and other animals, as well as chariots, elaborate sets of ritual bronzes, and musical instruments. Over time, humans and animals were replaced with clay or wooden replicas. These tomb figures were intended to serve, amuse, and help the spirit of the deceased in the afterlife.

Tomb artifacts are often our best sources of knowledge about what people might have worn or the types of homes in which they lived. On the left, this watchtower details the architecture of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.), including a tile roof, balconies with windows and railings, and a moat filled with turtles, frogs, geese, and fish. Crossbowmen watch at the top of this piece, which may have been created for the tomb of a warrior.

Many of the artworks represented in this exhibition, including tomb figures and sculptures for religious practice, were made of clay. The oldest ceramic traditions in the world originate in China, and recent excavated shards from southern China date back some 20,000 years. Over the following centuries, a variety of technologies and styles evolved. Green-glazed earthenware from the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.), three-colored glazed stoneware of the Tang dynasty (618–906 C.E.), and porcelain from the 6th century are but a few of the many wares  (types of pottery) developed.

Guanyin of the South Sea, glazed stoneware, Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Yongle period (1403–1424), Longquan ware, Zhejiang province, China T.2014.206
Guanyin of the South Sea, glazed stoneware, Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Yongle period (1403–1424), Longquan ware, Zhejiang province, China T.2014.206

On the left, Guanyin of the Southern Seas is an example of Longquan ware from the Zhejiang province of China. This Buddhist Deity of Mercy sits on a lotus throne in a grotto surrounded by clouds and mist. With palm trees, worshippers, and waves below, the full moon shines above. The faces of the figures have been left unglazed in contrast to the soft, sea-foam green colored glaze that covers the rest of the elaborate setting.

In addition to tomb artifacts, the Weldons collected Buddhist sculptures from Tibet, Nepal, China and Japan. Representations of the Buddha and his followers first began to appear in India in the 1st century. These sculptures helped guide people through their meditations, thoughts and prayers. As this imagery spread, artworks came to reflect local styles and politics.

Japan, Fujiwara period (898–1185), Amida Buddha, wood; The Weldon Collection T.2014.347
Japan, Fujiwara period (898–1185), Amida Buddha, wood; The Weldon Collection T.2014.347

The Japanese Amida Buddha is remarkably tall and thin, giving it an ethereal, other-worldly appearance. It was originally lacquered. Amida Buddha presides over the Western Paradise in the Pure Land sect of Buddhism. He was very popular in the Fujiwara period (898–1185 C.E.), when many people believed the end of time was approaching and wished to be reborn in his paradise.

By contrast, the Buddha created in Gandhara in modern Pakistan/Afghanistan is more rounded in form. His toga-like robe with its heavy drapery also illustrates the influence of Greek trends. Gandhara was a great crossroads at the far western end of the Silk Road, an ancient series of trade routes. Alexander the Great conquered this area in 330 B.C.E. and introduced classical western traditions that remained influential for centuries to come.