|Dunhuang Art in the First Half of
the Tang Dynasty...
IVThe Tang Dynasty saw an extraordinarily high level of achievement in the fields of culture, art, poetry, prose, music, dance, painting and calligraphy. The Mogao art of theTang dynasty is an integral part of this whole.
As mentioned earlier, Buddhism developed in China as a result of government patronage. Monasteries mushroomed from Chang'an and spread to the length and breadth of the country. The main form of moulding art, i.e., statues and murals, also appeared mostly in the monasteries. Innumerable anonymous artisans were the creators of these religious works of art. Meanwhile, painters led by Wu Daozi and sculptors led by Yang Huizhi also made monasteries one of their main arenas to give full play to their talents. The murals and statues inside the monastery-caves were not only products of religious propaganda, but also exhibits of their artistic talent. Famous artists and unsung artisans vied with each other to convert their artistic labour into high values thus elevating Buddhist art of the Tang Dynasty to its farthest limits.
With the reunification of China during Sui, the cultural influence from heartland China on Dunhuang increased steadily. After the founding of the Tang Dynasty, there were brisk movements of monks, merchants and envoys. Sketches of the temple murals which used to be circulated in interior China also found their way to Dunhuang. Cave No. 17 at Mogao (the once famous repository of manuscripts) has yielded a large number of samples of mural illustrations of, say, Maitreya and Raudr¡kÀa. Though these are rough sketches, they form complete samples with all the characters and plots of stories. They were used by the Dunhuang caves as the basis or reference for their creation. Moreover in the illustrations of the s£tras during this period we find water-side pavilions, tropical plants like bananas and palm, ships of various shapes and sizes as well as sailors dressed in southern style --- sufficient to prove the tremendous influence from heartland China on Dunhuang cave art after the reunification of north and south.
|Due to the expanded cultural contacts
and exchange of friendly visits with foreign countries, the Tang culture and art absorbed
the outstanding cultural achievements of other countries. We should not overlook the
important factor which contributed to the development of the Tang culture and art. During
the Zhenguan Era, Xuanzang brought back large number of paintings which helped preaching
the scriptures. Wang Xuance who was four times on an embassy to India carried back sketch
The famous painter Weichi Yiseng of the Yuechi nationality came from the Western Regions to establish his reputation of expertise in painting foreign countries as well as Bodhisattvas.17 The Dunhuang art of the first half of Tang was both directly or indirectly influenced by the art of Gupta Dynasty of central India as is manifested in the dresses and postures of Bodhisattvas as well as in the three-dimensional colouring method.
However, borrowing and influence are no substitution for creation. The art of the Thousand Buddha Caves grew in the rich soil of Dunhuang. Here, the rich life source at this strategic midway station on the Silk Road has played a decisive role. It is the profound tradition and hard work of the artists of Dunhuang that gives Dunhuang art its distinctive character and individuality apart from being an integral part of Tang culture and art. We offer a brief analysis of the five major aspects of Dunhuang art.
Bodhisattva, Cave No. 45, High Tang
In the early Dunhuang art figures there is an excessive element of exaggeration and imagination. Through forty years of experimentation during Sui, both the Tang statues and portraits have moved towards realism. The Tang figures distinguish themselves by their having good proportions, plummy faces, physical beauty, solemn and serene expressions. While discussing Tang painting, Dong You of Song Dynasty observed, "Human figures are painted in exuberance and in full bloom....This is the Tang style. It is often said that Lady Yang had a delicate frame in full bloom. After seeing the paintings, I can appreciate what Master Han has described about the past, the arched eyebrows and plummy cheeks. It was the Tang fashion to admire plump figures."18 His is a faithful observation: these Tang figures often recall the "fat model which emerged from real life and represented royal and aristocratic aesthetic criterion." It became a rage during High Tang. This is not only true for Dunhuang caves, but also true for Tang works of art passed down or excavated elsewhere.
|Another characteristic of the Dunhuang
model is the humanization and femininity of the Bodhisattvas. The sitting Avalokite¿vara
in Cave No. 205, the standing attendant Bodhisattvas in Cave No. 45 and the Bodhisattvas
in the murals of Cave No. 217 are all strong and beautiful with the full figure and
graceful posture of a woman. Moreover, the hair is tied high in a bun, with hairpins and
decorations typical of the palace ladies. They wear the typical transparent linen shirts
and silk skirts and scarf of high society ladies, true to the saying, "Viewed with
compassionate eyes, there is no formidable sight."19 As Daocheng said, "The
Buddhist statues during Song and Qi of the Southern Dynasties had thick lips, drooping
noses, sharp eyes and prominent cheeks, typical looks of men. Since the Tang Dynasty
Buddhist figures have been drawn as delicate female singing girls. No wonder people these
days compliment the palace women as Bodhisattvas."20 And the Buddhist devakany¡s
painted by Han Gan in the murals of Baoying Monastery look like the real portrait of
Xiaoxiao, and other prostitutes patronized by Master Qi.21 We see here that the Buddhist
celestial images/dunhuang of the Tang Dynasty were but copies of human figures of the mundane
world. In this context, we have the observation of Guo Ruoxu of the Song Dynasty:
"The painters today have made it a vogue to depict pretty faces to please the mass
viewers in total disregard of the ideas behind the paintings."22 Although the remark
is evidently critical, it also shows that the feminization of the Bodhisattvas was viewed
with favour by the masses and had hence become increasingly popular.
Here we shall discuss mainly the compositions of illustrations of the Sµutras. The huge compositions of the Sµutra illustrations in Early Tang were inventions within the parameters of dharma born out of great pain and after lengthy trials by the artists. Illustration of the Amit¡yur-dhy¡na S£tra underwent a process of expansion from individual episodes about "Aj¡ta¿atru", "âo·a¿a-vipa¿yan¡", and "Nine categories of Rebirth" into an integrated comprehensive gigantic composition. Illustrations of the Saddharma-pu¸·ar¢ka S£tra multiplied from one chapter to many chapters, and even to the extent of covering one whole cave, then could a definite pattern take shape. The compositions can be broadly categorized below:
1) In the centre is painted Buddha and his attendants, interwoven with story scenes on all four sides like stars surrounding the moon in a unified entity. Illustrations of Amit¡bha and Maitreya usually adopt this composition.
2) The painting is divided into three columns of left, centre and right. The centre shows a large-sized painting of the BuddhakÀetra-loka world, and two vertical columns with serial paintings on the two sides; thus there is both unity and prominence of the focal theme. Illustrations of the Amit¡yur-dhy¡na S£tra often adopt this format with the two side columns accommodating stories of "Aj¡ta¿atru" and "âo·a¿a-vipa¿yan¡".
Similarly, illustrations of the BhaiÀajyaguru-S£tra also have stories from the "Twelve vows" of BhaiÀajyaguru and "Nine Kinds of Irregular Deaths" painted on both sides respectively. On both sides of the illustrations of Avalokite¿vara are painted the "Eight Hardships" and the "Thirty-three reincarnations" of the deity.
3) In the centre of the upper portion is the BuddhakÀetra-loka. On its left and right and below are inserted various stories which surrounded theme in a U-shape. Illustrations of the Saddharma-pu¸·ar¢ka S£tra and the Amit¡yur-dhy¡na S£tra sometimes adopt this composition. The opening chapter of the Saddharma-pu¸·ar¢ka assumes the main theme. On its left and right are paintings of the "illusiory city" and "dharma guru" while the rest of the stories of the s£tra are painted on the lower portion. The main theme of Amit¡yur-dhy¡na S£tra is the western paradise of Sukh¡vat¢ while on both sides are painted the stories of "Aj¡ta¿atru" and the "Sixteen Meditations" while the stories of "Nine categories of Rebirth" are painted on the lower portion.
4) A variety of the above composition is this type, with the paintings, on the left, right and lower portion forming a U and the shape is further divided into small squares each containing a story, exactly like the comic strips of our times.
Illustrations of the Amit¡yur-dhy¡na S£tra are the sole possessors of this composition and Cave No. 171 of High Tang provides a typical example.
5) Illustration of the Vimalak¢rtinirde¿a S£tra and the story of the
Conversion of the Heretic Raudr¡kÀa provide this pattern the focal theme being torn apart and the main exponents concerned, Ma¸ju¿r¢ and Vimalak¢rti in one and á¡riputra and Raudr¡kÀa in the other, are
painted on the two sides. Surrounding the two main characters are interwoven various celestial plots. This is a lively, vivid composition attracting a lot of attention of the viewers.
6) Illustrations of the Mah¡parinirv¡¸a during Early Tang form a rectangular horizontal scroll with the episodes moving from left to right and then, from right to left. This vivid free composition is a departure from the earlier stereotypes of Nirv¡¸a paintings.
In all these compositions the BuddhakÀetra-loka is shown in a prominent position. But the presentations of ideas and ideals vary even within the same categories of compositions. The Sukh¡vat¢ of Early Tang often has a stage emerging from the ratna-pond. Bodhisattvas, musicians and dancers are all on the stage; there are blue waves rippling in the lower portion and a clear sky in the upper portion portraying a carefree uninhibited mood. Beginning from High Tang, Sukh¡vat¢ became a place of magnificent palaces and pavilions where the deities gather and watch performances of music and dance. The atmosphere is one of royal living. The palace perspective of Sukh¡vat¢ is a demonstration of the internalization of spiritual divinity into the mundane life.
With the maturity of development of S£tra paintings during High Tang, the outstanding feature of art composition is its "fullness". The illustrations of various s£tras are rich in content with numerous characters, leaving out virtually no details of the s£tra texts. With such paintings filling every corner of all four walls of the caves, the viewer is overwhelmed and even at a loss. However, because of the overall harmony and stability in the composition the viewer is impressed by the sense of order. The arrangement and distribution of the characters and scenes have moved away from the earlier method of flat presentation. There is mastery in highlighting the main features, in the treatment of density, and in the distribution of figures and objects according to the will of the artist. The magnificent presentation of the BuddhakÀetra draws the viewer into this world. At the same time, such a composition also presents a highly decorative mood.
Worth noticing is the technique of perspective drawing in the composition. In addition to the usual focal-point perspective a method of combining the bird's-eye view with focus is judiciously adopted. For the first time, there appears a horizon in the painting creating the effect of:
Typical examples are seen in the scene of travelling in Cave No. 217, and in the painting of Kang Seng Hui setting sails towards Nanjing as well as Gao Li's obtaining the Buddha statue in Cave No. 323. These are landscape paintings embodying human stories in which mountain peaks rise and fall and water waves flow into unfathomable distance: "a few inches of picture highlighting the scenes of a thousand miles."24 We see here the process of creation of the traditional Chinese landscape painting technique of "sanyuanfa" (three dimensions of distance). The perspective technique used in these illustrations of s£tras has gained new heights in perspective drawing of architecture.
Cave No. 217, Early Tang
The early Dunhuang murals mainly used "iron-hard lines" in sketches. While continuing with this during the Sui Dynasty a freer orchid-leaf style was created which became very popular during Tang. Wu Daozi excelled in this style. The most typical example of the orchid-leaf line sketch is seen in the illustrations of Avalokite¿vara at Mogao Cave No. 45 of High Tang.
|The Tang murals employed draft lines,
final lines, decorative lines, in various stages of painting. The draft lines used a light
black ink to outline the contours of the figures. The sketches of Bodhisattvas in Cave No.
201 show that in the drafting stage before colouring, dark black lines were used to
finalize the figures. Then the faces of the characters were retouched by vermilion lines
which appeared golden to the viewers. White-powder lines were also applied on the twists
and turns of the scarves and the folds of skirts to express the movements of their free
flight. These are the decorative lines. The whole process of using these lines to create
the figures can be seen in the murals of Cave Nos. 220 and 217.
The Tang Dynasty painters had already judiciously alternated between primary lines and complementary lines. The outline of the face and figure of a character is made with primary lines which are broad and solid. The folds of the clothes, hair and beard are drawn in complementary lines which are thinner and more obscure. This combination of both has achieved a harmonious balance between the solid and the obscure and a judicious dispensation of emphasis, creating an impression that the figures are firmly planted in the background, with a three-dimensional appearance. The celestial warriors on the north wall of Cave No. 220 and the disciples of Buddha inside the altar of Cave No. 217 not only have vivid facial features being highlighted by broad and firm contour lines but also have their bodies revealed behind their clothing. This style of "penning the bones" achieved a new height during the Tang Dynasty.
The Tang painters of Dunhuang have proved their mastery of the brush with firm landing, heavy pressure and swift movement. As Gu Kaizhi observed, "Light objects betray the mastery of the brush."25 The swift movement of the brush can be ascertained from the movement of the whirlwind dancer depicted in Cave No. 220 and the flying scarves of the apsaras in Cave No. 321. Here we are reminded of what Su Shi has said in his poem complimenting the painting skill of Wu Daozi:
Like a storm with its swiftness
His broad sweeps begin,
The atmosphere is within him
Even before his brush reaches.26
Such a difficult technique combining with the artist's sense of a stormy atmosphere has created works of art with remarkable vitality, converting the mural walls into a dynamic vision.
However, swiftness was not the only characteristic of the Tang painters. In drawing the solid aspects of the characters, like facial contours, limbs and joints, the movement of the brush must slow down, just as Gu Kaizhi has observed, "weight is required for displaying the substance." In sum, the Tang painters freely varied their brush movements according to the needs of expressions, occasions, apportioning varying degrees of weight and speed, upward and downward sweeps of the brush as if orchestrating a piece of music with well-concerted rhythm and beat.
The Tang murals are rich in colours of various kinds and degrees in addition to various mixed colours. The colours used are azurite, mineral green, cinnabar, vermilion, earth red, gamboge, indigo blue, gold, black ink, etc. It is mainly due to the highly developed skill in colour creation and colouring that paintings of the first half of Tang become the most magnificent in Mogao paintings. Today, we can see more or less the original colours of this phase in Cave No. 322 of Early Tang, Cave No. 220 (cut in 642) and Cave No. 217 (705-707) to appreciate their magnificence.
Unlike earlier murals, the Tang works show a masterly manipulation of colour as the main instrument in depicting reality and achieving a decorative effect. Differences in mood and style at various developing stages are expressed through different colour schemes. Great attention was paid to the background colour by the Tang masters; some preferred earth-red to achieve a sense of density and candour which betrays the influence of the past. Others preferred the earthen colour of the wall as background which gave an effect of harmony, creating a new style of Early Tang. There were still others who preferred using the white-washed walls of earlier period as background to achieve a vivid and bright colour tone which became the artistic style of High Tang. The colouring result of a mural is to a large extent dependent on the colour of the background.
|The Tang colouring scheme
differentiates between the adding technique and contour-controlling technique. The adding
technique is to add different tones of the same colour layer by layer to create tonal
complexity and three-dimensional effect. A lotus petal painted in High Tang could be the
result of 16-20 layers of colour additions. This technique produces tonal richness,
thickness and a lustrous effect. The contour-control technique was mostly used for showing
the three-dimensional effect of the deity figures. The ancients had one kind of such
technique imported from the west and another being invented in China. A synthesis of the
two was developed during the Sui Dynasty which further developed in Early Tang into a new
technique of varying accents. One of them was the traditional Chinese contour-control
technique with Tang innovations such as adding red on the cheeks referred to as "red
face", "lotus face", "peach blossom make-up" and the
"twilight make-up" in the Dunhuang Songs. We can find examples of these in the
Bodhisattvas of Cave Nos. 57 and 322. Another technique is the slight application of light
on a white background to create shining smooth jade faces, examples of which are the
Bodhisattvas in Cave Nos. 45 and 217. There was yet another modified technique as
presented by the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Cave Nos. 321 and 220 who have a white line
on the bridge of their noses, faithful to its Indian influence.
Besides Buddha and Bodhisattvas, the Devar¡jas, Lokap¡las and arhats have a strong three-dimensional effect with a towering frame and vibrant muscles. Amongst them, Lokap¡las in Cave No. 220 and arhats in Cave No. 217 are particularly outstanding.
|Delineating the Mood
During the first half of the Tang Dynasty, the talented artists at Mogao effectively adopted the line drawing and colouring techniques discussed a little while ago to create a large number of deities and other figures full of artistic vitality. First, the artists attempted a bold innovation in stylization and characterization, revealing the innate straits of the characters and their inner dynamics while depicting them sitting, walking, sleeping or speaking. The inner tranquillity and outer calm unite in the beautiful form of the Bodhisattva in meditation with his head bowed and his cheek resting on his palm, a vacant look in his eyes, as seen in the illustration of the Pureland S£tra in the mural of Cave No. 71. The Bodhisattvas attending the preaching, drawn on the top of the altar in Cave No. 321, look like a group of lively and cheerful young girls leaning on the railings of the balcony of Devapuram and looking into the distance or looking down.
|Their graceful postures and emotional
eyes display their individuality. The Bodhisattva statues in Cave No. 45 (cut in 713-741)
are graceful, plummy and healthy with such facial expressions bordering between a faint
smile and non-smiling, making their viewers puzzling. The painted stucco Lokap¡las
the same cave present a Northern Devar¡ja clenching his fists towards the demons with
righteous indignation while the Southern Devar¡ja
has a disarming smile showing his
valiant nature of a warrior.
The Tang murals have characters echoing and contrasting with each other to create an organic whole in the total picture. In the painting of the wife of the Governor on the south wall of the corridor in Cave No. 130, the individual liveliness of the attendants contrasts with the solemnity and devotion of the mistress thus helping to highlight the theme.
The depiction of an emperor enquiring about the health of Vimala-k¢rti in the illustration of the Vimalak¢rti-nirde¿a S£tra in Cave No. 220 is also an outstanding masterpiece. The emperor wearing a crown and in royal attire is striding forward with both arms open. In the front is a courtier, his eagle-like nose and sharp eyes show his astuteness. Among the attendants clustering behind him, some are carefree while others cautious. The heads of various nationalities are standing around with folded hands in postures of simplicity and obedience. The great painter of the period, Yan Liben, painted his famous painting"Emperors of past dynasties" some thirty years later than the date of Cave No. 220. Yan's masterpiece does not compare favourably with this mural as far as the grandeur of scene and vividness of characters are concerned. The capturing of mood is a high skill in artistic characterization processed by religious imagination and idealism and mastery of art. Thus, vivid images/dunhuang of the human world are transformed into deities of the celestial kingdom. The success of painting the celestial kingdom stems from the artists' profound observation and understanding of human life. The unification of the country and the relative stability and rapid social and economic development of a century and a half opened up unprecedented vistas for the people's artists in their quest for idealism and inspiration.
The fanaticism of religious pursuit became the source of their creativity. During this period, conditions permitted the blending of artistic absorption of alien nutrients thus creating a confluence of the trends from all directions into a Chinese style. At the same time, poetry, prose, music, dance and other fine arts also developed hand in hand and reached their peak in the history of art and literature of China.
The first half of the Tang Dynasty of Mogao art occupies the most prominent place in the 492 caves today not only because of their quantity but because of their high level of achievement. Its influence on the Ku shuitu la caves in Xinjiang is quite evident. The Tang Dynasty which was the period of unprecedented prosperity of Buddhism saw the spread of Chinese Buddhist art to various directions with its impact reaching Western Asia and India across the Congling range. In the east, it sailed across the sea to marry with Japanese Buddhist art. The contribution of the Dunhuang artists during this period is like immortal fire.
©1994 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi