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The thangka is superbly painted depicting the Luohan Kanakavatsa seated on a rock with a halo surrounding his head, holding a running knot in his hands, accompanied by a monk on the left holding a parcel wrapped in brocade, both gazing at a dwarf on the lower left corner offering a transparent bejeweled vase containing a coral branch, all set in a verdant landscape with rugged mountains rendered in the ‘blue and green’ style, with a blue goat and peony shrubs in the foreground. The thangka is framed with its original brocade mounting.
Thangka: 31 1/8 x 19 7/8 in. (79 x 50.5 cm.); Overall: 55 5/8 x 27 9/16 in. (141.3 x 70 cm.)
Joachim Schlotterbeck (1926-2007), a well-known painter-collector, Wurzburg, acquired in 1955 from a German diplomat based in China before 1930, by repute

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Marco Almeida (安偉達)
Marco Almeida (安偉達) SVP, Senior International Specialist, Head of Department

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Lot Essay

This rare thangka depicting Luohan Kanakavats is a great example showing the increasing influence of Chinese court painting styles on Tibetan art. Kanakavatsa is one of a grouping of 16 or 18 arhats, believed to be Buddha’s original disciples. He is shown haloed and seated on a rock surrounded by Chinese ‘blue and green’ style landscape. He is holding a necklace in his hands, wearing elaborate brocade robes, and accompanied by a younger attendant holding an alms bowl. There is a foreign devotee holding a red coral tree on the bottom left, and a blue goat on the bottom right. Notably, the thangka retains its original brocade mounting.

Kanakavatsa was thought to have been born in Bihar in eastern India to wealthy parents. His name means ‘baby gold elephant’, as legend has it that a baby elephant that excreted gold was born at the same time as he. This elephant followed him everywhere, even after he became a Buddhist disciple. This became very distracting to the other monks, and Sakyamuni asked his student to get rid of it. Kanakavatsa told the Buddha that he has been trying to get rid of it without success, as the elephant always finds its way back to him. The Buddha said, ‘if you tell the elephant “I will not be reborn, and I do not need you” three times, it will disappear.’ He did and the elephant disappeared into the ground. Another story relating to Knakavatsa is that he once begged alms in the Naga Kingdom, preaching the dharma and converting many to Buddhism. As a token of gratitude, the Naga King gave him a necklace made of precious gems, which he is shown holding in the current thangka.

The cult of Luohan was introduced to China in the Six Dynasties (4th-6th Centuries), and became a favourite subject for artists from the Tang period. The monk Guanxiu (832-912) painted a well known composition of sixteen Luohan that survived as rubbings. His Luohan, following the style of Wu Daozi (680-740), are solitary figures sitting on fantastic rocks, and have foreign, almost grotesque features (fig. 1). By the 12th century, the depiction of Luohan has gone through dramatic stylistic changes. The court painter Liu Songnian (1174-1224) refined the features of the monks to that of court portraitures, showing them haloed, wearing elaborate robes and accompanied by fine accoutrements (fig. 2). The monks not only look like nobilities, they also have attendants, often foreign figures bearing treasures. Liu Songnian is also renowned for painting ‘blue and green’ style landscape paintings, and it is interesting to see his influence on this 14th century thangka of Kanakavatsa in the British Museum (fig. 3), where the artist has incorporated both his figurative and landscape styles to create a new composition. The British Museum example was found in a ruined monastery in Shigatse, and most likely painted by a Tibetan artist. As Tibetan Buddhism was decreed the national religion by the Yuan court, there was increasing cultural exchange between the two nations, and Chinese court painting styles were being creatively adapted on Tibetan thangka, as artists moved away from the earlier, more Indian-influenced painting styles. The British Museum example is obviously the precursor of the Yongle Kanakavatsa composition, one of a set of Luohan paintings commissioned by the Emperor as gift to Tibet, as they share many features, such as the depiction of the haloed Luohan, the young attendant, the foreign devotee, and the small crouching beast to the foreground. A group of nine paintings from the Yongle series is illustrated by Gisèle Croës in Splendor of Yongle Painting: Portraits of Nine Luohan, Brussels, 2002 (fig. 4). The group of Yongle Luohan paintings are some of the most refined examples of Imperial Buddhist paintings ever produced. The court artists that painted these have obviously seen examples from Tibet, like the British Museum example, or were themselves Tibetans working at the court. The current painting follows the Yongle composition closely, but the painting style and colouration show a distinct Tibetan flavor and is most likely painted in Tibetan workshops. Later, this same composition was revived in the Qing period by artists working in the Imperial court (fig. 5), showing its enduring appeal.

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