Buddha, the Golden Legend

by Renzo Freschi

Another exhibition about the Buddha?
Yes, but at the Musée Guimet in Paris, one of the most important Asian art museums in the world!

I have seen my fair share of exhibitions on Buddhismand I hope to see many more but even if the themes are more or less always the same, each exhibition has a peculiar slant making it different from all the others. So also Buddha, the golden legend, celebrating the 130th anniversary of the Museum’s foundation, is special in that it seems to be a general introduction to the knowledge of Buddhist art and of its founder’s image through 162 exhibitsalmost all of them the property of Musée Guimetfrom the various countries where the doctrine of the Enlightened One  flourished, from India to Tibet, to South-East Asia, to China and Japan.

The exhibition is divided into eleven sections with an excellent setting showing each piece to best advantage. Particularly remarkable in the first two sectionscovering the spread of Buddhism and the lives of the Enlightened One before his historical incarnation in the 6th century B.C.is a statue from 15th–century Thailand in which the Enlightened One touches the earth with his right hand calling it as witness to his determination to reach knowledge.

It is the absolute icon of the Buddha image known all over the world and for this reason it stands at the beginning of the exhibition. Just after that one is enchanted by a long three-part relief from the Tumshuq oasis (China) along the Silk Road. The figures are inspired by the Hellenizing Gandhara style common in the whole East, but in forms adapted to the local taste.

Some of the most impressive works for quality and size are to be found in the third section devoted to the historical Buddha, from his birth to the salient moments of his life. Seven large high reliefs (H. 81 by L. 272cm) from the Borobudur monumental complex (Indonesia, 8th-10th century) almost pictorially illustrate as many events in the Buddha’s life. Three of them are faithful reproductions of the originals and four are lifesize photographs taken on site by Hugues Dubois, one of the best French art photographers.

From a strictly museological or philological viewpoint one could be puzzled by the decision to present reproductions of the originals (donated to France by the Dutch government in 1900) but it should be considered that in this way the visitor can admire some of the highest expressions of Buddhist art of all times. Furthermore, the size and quality of these reliefs create a stunning effect which allows even the less expert observer to capture the charm of this art.

In this sense also the presence in the exhibition of a contemporary work, Reduction by Takahiro Kondo, a famous Japanese artist, confirms that Buddhist art is still alive and continues to inspire an aesthetic search which in this case matches the intensity of more ancient works. Takahiro Kondo had himself cast in plaster in the classic posture of meditation and reproduced the figure mixing different materials. The result is a simple but absolute figure, capable of raising emotions thanks to the spirituality it emanates.

The section themes are a true educational path in the most significant aspects of Buddhism: the Buddha image, his doctrine, his disciples, the sacred texts, the miracles, and lastly his death, or rather his entering nirvana. Particularly striking among the numerous exhibits are the beautiful relief in Gandhara schist (2nd century) of the Sravasti Miracle, one of the high moments of Buddhist mythology, and a large gilded copper and turquoise stupa from Tibet (H. 220cm) dating from the second half of the 18th century.

Relief in Gandhara schist (2nd century) of the Sravasti Miracle.

Large gilded copper and turquoise stupa from Tibet (H. 220cm).

The visit ends with a series of heads and figures of the Buddha from various locations showing the different national styles and the aesthetic mutations that took place in the over 2,000 years of Buddhist art.

The exhibition is curated by Thierry Zéphirone of the top experts in Buddhismand all the objects are published in the excellent 240-page catalogue including contributions by various French scholars.

Renzo Freschi
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