The grottoes at Tianlongshan, 'Mountain of the Heavenly Dragon,' near Taiyuan, Shanxi province, are smaller than the more famous cave-monasteries at Dunhuang, Yungang and Longmen, but as they had been almost continually active from the late Northern Wei, through the Northern Qi to the end of the Tang period, its buff sandstone sculptures traced almost comprehensively the development of Buddhist sculpture from the fifth to the tenth century. Regrettably, Tianlongshan was heavily pillaged during the early twentieth century, as evident in the historic documentation of Japanese archaeologists, Ono Genmyo and Tanaka Toshiitsu, who published 'Tenryuzan sekkutsu' in 1922, a vital photographic record of the site relatively intact. Upon the appearance of Osvald Sirén's important 1925 monograph on Chinese sculpture less than three years later, photographs reveal that exquisitely expressive heads of Buddhas and bodhisattvas had already been removed, and as evident from the photographs of Tokiwa and Sekino from 1928 to 1935, further heads and complete decapitated bodies had also been taken.
The re-appearance, therefore, of the Bareiss head, with its site-specific location, immaculate condition, and clear provenance, is a significant tribute to the research of these early Japanese and European scholars, but also to the efforts of Sun Di, a mainland Chinese scholar, who published 'Tianlongshan Shiku; Tianlongshan Grottoes; Research on the Overseas Stone Statues,' in 2003, an attempt to match and track surviving fragments with original photographs. The present head is firmly and unassailably identified as that of the major seated Buddha Sakyamuni on the West wall of Cave 10, an early cave executed during the Northern Qi dynasty. Within a simple arched niche rising from pillars surmounted by phoenixes, the massive Buddha is flanked by two pairs of bald disciples and crowned bodhisattvas, while trident-bearing crowned guardian-kings flank the southern cave entrance. On the East wall opposite, a massive Maitreya seated with crossed ankles is set within an identical niche of similar pentad configuration. Both these central figures, Sakyamuni and Maitreya, are much larger in scale than the subsidiary figures and would therefore appear to be having a dialogue across the cave, while also being enthroned within their own niches. See Sun Di, ibid., Beijing, 2003, pp. 116-20, figs. 102, 105 and 107 (the Bareiss head), and see O. Sirén, Chinese Sculpture from the Fifth to Fourteenth Century, London, 1925, vol. I (1998 reprint), pls. 220-23, and p. 51, for a discussion of the cave as Sirén viewed it just before 1925.
While the pinnacle of sculptural achievement at the historic Tianlongshan site is usually perceived as the sensuous curvilinear figures of the 'high' Tang period of the mid-eighth century, the caves of the Northern Qi, Caves 8, 10 and 16, reveal sculptures of a different but equally powerful aesthetic; more static but robustly proportioned, their chests swelling with prana, or meditational breath-control, and less sensuous or ornate, their faces executed extremely sparingly but imbued with sublime compassion and joy. Surprisingly, many fragments from Cave 10 are traceable. A bodhisattva head from the East wall (the Maitreya pentad), in the Nezu Institute of Fine Art, Tokyo, was exhibited at the Osaka Municipal Museum of Art, Chinese Buddhist Stone Sculpture: Veneration of the Sublime, 1995, no. 31, as well as no. 41, the right hand of the Bareiss head's Sakyamuni. New research on a similar bodhisattva head in the collection of Columbia University may also suggest a link with Cave 10. See L. Swergold et al., Treasures Rediscovered: Chinese Stone Sculptures from the Sackler Collections at Columbia University, New York, 2008, no.11, pp.69-71. The torsos of the two trident-wielding Guardian-kings on the South or interior entrance wall of Cave 10, incorrectly matched with crowned heads of Vajrapani from the exterior entrance walls of Cave 10 by Yamanaka & Co. in the 1930s, are also in Asian collections. See Sun Di (ed.), Comprehensive Illustrated Catalogue of Chinese Buddhist Sculptures in Overseas Collections, vol. 3, Beijing, 2005, pp. 626 and 628. Finally, the Bareiss head of Cave 10 compares notably with corresponding Buddha heads of Cave 16, which was also executed during the Northern Qi, such as two in the Nezu Institute of Fine Art, Tokyo, ibid., pp. 487 and 489, on the North and East walls respectively.
Walter Bareiss, a textile manufacturing magnate from Munich, Germany and Stamford, Connecticut, formed famous collections in many areas including Modern and Contemporary art, primarily in prints and drawings, African art, classical antiquities and Asian art. Briefly an interim director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, his collection of African art is on long-term loan to the Birmingham Art Museum, Alabama; another of classical Greek ceramics was acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu; a third collection of limited-edition artists' books was bequeathed to the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio; and major examples from his 20th-century American, European and German contemporary paintings are in major museums worldwide.