If you’ve ever visited Gump’s department store in San Francisco — a venerable emporium that had traded in luxury goods since 1861 until its closure in 2018 — you might recognise the huge golden figure that towers above Chinese works of art specialist Ruben Lien. For decades it greeted shoppers, and was described as ‘the only item displayed in the store that is not for sale’.
In the early 20th century, Gump’s was one of the foremost purveyors of Asian art and furnishings in the United States, offering teakwood furniture, silks, satins, rugs, silver and bronzeware, porcelains and jade. Martin S. Rosenblatt, who served as Senior Buyer for Gump’s between 1936 and 1957, acquired this sculpture for the store in Kyoto in 1957. Shortly after its arrival in San Francisco it became the store’s emblem, replacing a Japanese bronze sculpture of the Buddha that the Gump family had given to San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden.
Carved from wood and covered with lacquer and gilt, the sculpture represents the Medicine Buddha. According to Lien, it is typically Tibetan in style.
‘He was made in northeast China sometime in the 18th century, during the Qing dynasty, and is by far the largest of his known type,’ the specialist explains.
The sculptures closest in style and appearance to the ‘Gump Buddha’ are the two representing the Buddha Shakyamuni in the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing. Yet whereas these stand just 17.5 cm high, the Gump Buddha, including its pedestal, measures almost two-and-a-half metres in height.
Conservation work undertaken in 1994 revealed a cavity in the sculpture’s chest that had been stuffed with scrolls, seals and fabric swatches covered with Tibetan text. The items — which would have been deposited within the sculpture during a consecration ceremony to bestow upon it religious efficacy — were returned to the cavity and the opening resealed with a wooden cover, which was subsequently gilded.
Two other monumental wooden statues offered in Glories of Buddhist Arts, on 29 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong, represent standing bodhisattvas — compassionate beings dedicated to helping others reach nirvana. The sculptures were made around 1,000 years ago between the 10th and 11th centuries, and stand at an equally impressive 1.7 metres high, including stands. ‘Wooden sculptures from this period are incredibly rare,’ explains the specialist. ‘To have a pair surviving together is almost unheard of.’
One is identifiable by a Buddha on his crown as representing Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of infinite compassion. A water vessel on the head of the other indicates that he is Mahasthamaprapta, the bodhisattva of the power of wisdom.
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With their rich attire, elegant coiffures and bangled wrists, the pair are typical representations of bodhisattvas from the period and show influence from Chinese traditions as well as Indian Buddhist iconography. They were originally embellished with brightly coloured mineral pigments, of which traces remain.
‘When comparing these three sculptures, what’s fascinating is seeing how their styles illustrate the shifting alliances of the Chinese court with its neighbours over the centuries,’ says Lien. ‘They tell a much wider story of the region’s history.’