PROPERTY FROM THE YIQINGGE COLLECTION
SERENE CONTEMPLATION: AN EXCEEDINGLY RARE SOUTHERN SONG QINGBAI GUANYIN
ROSEMARY SCOTT - INTERNATIONAL ACADEMIC DIRECTOR, ASIAN ART DEPARTMENT
This beautifully serene figure of Guanyin belongs to a very small group of finely-modelled religious figures made at the Jingdezhen kilns during the Southern Song period. Inscriptions and the date of tombs in which these figures have been found suggest that they were made in the second and third quarters of the 13th century. The majority of the extant figures of this type have been discovered in the south of China, within territory controlled by the Southern Song (1127-1279), but at least one has been found in the north, in an area which would have been controlled by the Jurchens of the Jin dynasty (1115-1234).
These beautifully modelled figures are characterised by the fact that part of their robes and/or rocky pedestals are covered with a qingbai glaze, while the remainder of the figure, including the face and throat, is biscuit fired and would, originally, have been cold painted. Since the painted pigment was not fired on, it is fugitive and very little remains on any of the published surviving figures. In the case of the figures of Guanyin, the other characteristic of this group is the intricate detail of their necklaces and headdresses.
A partially glazed figure of Guanyin, very similar to the current example, was found in 1964 in the foundations of a Jin dynasty pagoda at Fengtai, Beijing. This Guanyin is now preserved in the Capital Museum, Beijing, and is illustrated in Zhongguo wenwu jinghua daxidian - taoci juan, Hong Kong, 1995, p. 290, no. 405 [fig. 1]. Another seated Guanyin with outer robes and rocky pedestal covered in qingbai glaze, but with other areas biscuit fired, was excavated in 1978 from a Song dynasty well in Changzhou City, Jiangsu province and is now in the Changzhou Museum (illustrated in Gems of China's Cultural Relics, Beijing, 1997, no. 16) [fig. 2]. A third figure of this type, also a seated Guanyin, is now in the Shanghai Museum and is illustrated in Zhongguo taoci quanji 16 Song Yuan Qingbaici, Shanghai, 1984, no. 76 [fig. 3]. This figure, which has glaze on the edge of her outer robe and a little more pigment adhering to the unglazed areas, also bears an inscription dating it to the 11th year of the Shunyou reign of the Southern Song dynasty, equivalent to AD 1251. A fourth Guanyin figure belonging to this group was excavated in Quzhou, Zhejiang, from the tomb of Shi Shengzu, dated to the 10th year of the Southern Song Xianshun reign [AD 1274]. Although this latter figure is somewhat damaged it is clear that the rocky pedestal on which it sits is covered with qingbai glaze, while the Bodhisattva herself is biscuit fired and would have been cold painted. In view of a connection with later figures, it is interesting to note that this bodhisattva appears to have been seated in Maharajalilasana with one leg pendent and the other raised to allow her arms to rest on the raised knee (illustrated in Dynastic Renaissance - Art and Culture of the Southern Song, Antiquities, Taipei, 2010, pp. 210-11, no. III-79).
Daoist figures were also made using the same technique of partial glazing and cold painted biscuit fired areas. A figure of a Daoist sage accompanied by deer and crane was excavated in 1975 from a tomb, dated to the 4th year of the Southern Song Xianshun reign [AD 1268], in Poyang county, Jiangxi (illustrated in Zhongguo chutu ciqi quanji 14 Jiangxi, Beijing, 2008, no. 70). Similar technique can be seen on the figure of a smiling Daoist sage with his hair in a double topknot, from the Falk Collection, which was sold in our New York rooms in October 2001, lot 106 [fig. 4]. On the Falk figure the inside of his wide sleeve and the rocky pedestal on which he stands have been covered with qingbai glaze, while the remainder of the figure was fired in the biscuit and would originally have been cold painted. It is notable that all of these Southern Song figures - both Buddhist and Daoist - are less than 30 cm. in height.
In the Yuan dynasty it seems that, in some instances, lacquer replaced cold painting on partially-glazed qingbai Buddhist figures. A seated, qingbai glazed, figure of the Buddha Amitabha is in the collection of the Beijing Art Museum (illustrated in Treasures from Ancient Beijing, New York, 2000, p. 16, no. 7, and cover). This figure, dated to the Yuan dynasty has robes, which are partially lacquered, probably over areas of the porcelain left free of glaze. Gilded designs, representing the patterns on the robe are painted on the lacquered areas. The partial glazing of a similar Yuan dynasty seated qingbai Buddha in the collection of the Shanghai Museum (illustrated in Shanghai Museum, Hong Kong, 2007, p. 81, no. 96), suggests that it too would originally have had lacquer applied to the unglazed parts of its robe. Both these figures are somewhat larger than the Southern Song examples discussed above, at 51 cm. and 41.3 cm., respectively.
However, the majority of the Yuan dynasty figures are both fully glazed and sometimes significantly larger than the Southern Song figures. The famous qingbai glazed Yuan dynasty Bodhisattva seated in Maharajalilasana, which was excavated in 1955 from Dingfu Street in the western suburbs of Beijing, is 67 cm. tall. This figure is now in the Capital Museum, Beijing, and is illustrated in Zhongguo wenwu jinghua quanji - taoci juan, op. cit., p. 353, no. 618. The fully glazed seated Guanyin in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, dated by inscription to AD1298 or 1299, is 51.4 cm. tall (illustrated by Sherman E. Lee and Wai-kam Ho in Chinese Art Under the Mongols: The Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), Cleveland 1968, no. 26), while another qingbai glazed seated Bodhisattva in the collection of the Rietberg Museum, Zurich is 52. cm. tall (illustrated ibid. 25). The Yuan dynasty qingbai glazed seated Bodhisattva in the Metropolitan Museum, New York is 50.8 cm. tall (illustrated by S. G. Valenstein in A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics, New York, 1975, p. 127, no. 120). This appearance of larger figures in the Yuan dynasty at the end of the 13th century can be explained not only by changing tastes, but also by changes to the porcelain body material used at Jingdezhen. The new body material contained more kaolin and thus more alumina, facilitated the production of larger figures, and indeed vessels. The Southern Song figures, like the current example, which were made earlier in the century, appear to be made of the true china stone body material, which precluded the production of very large figures.
The use of this china stone body makes the exquisite detailing of the headdresses and the beading on these Southern Song figures even more remarkable, since they would have been prone to collapse during firing. The current figure and the similar excavated figure in the Capital Museum have particularly delicate headdresses. It is also interesting to note that these two figures may have come from the same mould. The basic form of such figures was moulded and then they were hand finished and the intricate appliques were put in place. In the case of the current Guanyin the decision was taken to glaze the whole of the outer robe, while in the case of the Capital Museum figure, only the edge of the outer robe was glazed.