History of Asian Art

Historically Asian art or Eastern art, has had an extensive range of influences from the various cultures and religions of Asia. Historical progressions of Asian art was typically coextensive to those in Western art, but in general occured a few centuries earlier on.

In particular, Chinese art, Indian art, Japanese art and Korean art, each had significant impact on Western art and vice versa. Here we take a closer look at the history of Asian art by country and by cultural and religious situations.

Buddhist ArtBuddhist art

Buddhist art originated from the Indian subcontinent. In the centuries after the life of the historical Gautama Buddha a new religion developed that eventually spread far beyond its homeland. Buddhism started in the 6th to 5th century B.C. before evolving through its interaction with other cultures. From this point on it progressed through the rest of Asia and some other parts the world. Buddhist art travelled with believers as the dharma spread and was adapted and evolved in each new host country.

So who is the Buddha? His name was Siddhartha, he was a prince who was to become the Buddha and was born into the royal family of Kapilavastu, a small kingdom in the Himalayan foothills. His was a divine conception and miraculous birth. At that time sages predicted that he would become a universal conqueror, either of the physical world or of people’s minds. It was the conquest of minds that came true.

As a young man he gave up the pleasures of the royal palace to seek the true purpose of life. Siddhartha first tried the path of severe asceticism - A  severe form self-discipline that avoids all forms of indulgence. But this was futile and he gave it up after six years. After all that he sat down beneath a bodhi tree and practised yogic meditation until he achieved enlightenment. From then on he was known as the Buddha or "Enlightened One" when translated.

He followed the 'Middle Path' - Rejecting both extravagance and frugality. Buddhism believes in a life based on good thoughts, good intentions and straight forward living. The ultimate aim is to achieve nirvana - A release from earthly existence. Nirvana lies in the distant future because Buddhism believes in a cycle of rebirth. People are born many times, each time with the opportunity to improve themselves further. And it is their own karma - All the good and bad deeds, that rules the circumstances of a future birth.

The Buddha spent most of his life preaching his faith and creating huge numbers of converts. When he died at the age of 80, his body was cremated, according to the customary faith in India. After his death the legacy continued and Buddhism spread throughout Asia and some other parts of the globe too.

Early Buddhist art

When the Buddha died, his remains were divided into several relic caskets known as stupas. The relic of Buddha and other holy figures were the first recognised examples of Buddhist art. The relics of the Buddha and other holy figures were the first recognised examples of Buddhist art. These sacred relics have three categories: Saririka - The physical relics of Buddha, Uddesika - The religious symbols and images of the Buddha and Paribhogika - The items used by the Buddha. The earliest recovered pieces of Buddhist art come from Hindu and East-Roman art discoveries with references to the Buddha's life. These are from the pre-iconic era of Buddhist art - From the 5th to the 1st century B.C. The Buddha was represented by aniconic symbols such as the Bodhi tree, an empty throne, the horse with no rider, the Wheel of Dharma and Buddha’s footprints.

During the 2nd and the 1st century B.C, sculptures became more definitive, depicting aspects from the Buddha’s life, but these were still symbolic rather than in his human form. Artists from India started using stone instead of brick, bamboo and wood. They built temples with stone gateways and railings to the stupas and covered them with sculptures that depicted the life of the Buddha, as well as his previous 550 lives. 

Iconic Phase - 1st Century A.D. to the Present

Humanlike representations of the Buddha begun to appear from the first century A.D. in northern India. In the second to first century A.D., sculptures became more explicit, revealing episodes of the Buddha's life and teachings. Mostly these were written tablets or friezes, usually for the decoration of stupas. There were two main areas from which Iconic Buddhist art spread; Gandhara (in modern day Pakistan) and Mathura (in Northern India). Both influenced one another and evolved forming a more cohesive style of the iconic Buddha.

Gandharan art had many similarities to the Greek art of that time due to the influence of the Greek empire. The shift in depicting the Buddha in a human form was due to Greek religious art being very much about iconic representation of their Gods. Traits such as drapery on both shoulders and wavy hair are specific to the Gandharan style making Gandhara Buddhas quite easily identifiable.

Mathuran art escaped Greek influence and instead honed a more traditional Indian style of anthropomorphic representation for the Buddha. The Mathuran Buddha usually has only one shoulder covered in a thin muslin but still uses symbolistic styles of Pre-Iconic Buddhist art. Wheels and lotus seats often feature on the hands of the Buddha or in his background.

The Gupta Period

Over the next few centuries Buddhist art continued to develop in India, burgeoning in the Gupta period, also known as the golden age. Nearly all of the works we see today are related religious sculptures, but the period also saw the birth of the Buddha figure and Jain Tirthankara figures.

This period is important due to its creation of the 'ideal image' of the Buddha, which was achieved through the influences from the region of Gandhara and the sensual form of Mathuran artists. These Gupta Buddhas became the model for later generations of artists and Buddhism and its art spread to Nepal, Thailand and Indonesia.

Buddhist art outside of India

As Buddhism spread to places outside of India, its aesthetics were mixed with other influences, resulting in different perspectives on the religion and art. There are two main routes of Buddhist art: the Northern route in Central Asia, Tibet, Bhutan, Korea, China  and Japan, where the Mahayana Buddhism was prominent. The Southern route went to Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, where Theravada Buddhism was dominant.

Northern Route

In Afghanistan, Buddhist art thrived until the invasion of Islam that came in the 7th century. The Islamic invaders were not tolerant towards Buddhism. In Islamic art, human figurative art is prohibited, which led to the destruction of Buddhist art by the Taliban regime.

In Central Asia, the expansion of the former Han caused the increased influence of the Hellenistic civilisations on Buddhist art. Expansion of Buddhism to the communities on the Silk Road came about, where some cities had numerous stupas and Buddhist temples. In the eastern part of Central Asia Serindian art was plentiful, being influenced by the Hellenistic and Indian sculptures, as well as by Gandharan style.

In China, Buddhism first arose in the 1st century A.D. and it brought the concept of statue to Chinese art. One of the earliest occurrences of Buddhist art in China is the sculpture created in the Han dynasty burial in the province of Sichuan, with a strong Gandharan influence. In the Tang dynasty, artists took influence from the Gupta period until the year 845, when emperor Wuzong prohibited most foreign religions, including Buddhism, in favour of the indigenous Daoism. All Buddhist artworks were seized and the religion went underground. But later under the Song dynasty Chan Buddhism (later on Zen Buddhism) flourished. China has a rich collection of Buddhist art, including the Mogao Caves, the Longmen Grottoes and the Dazu Rock Carvings - All of which are important Buddhist sculptural sites.

In Tibet, one of the most important creations was the mandala, a diagram of a 'divine temple' involving a square enclosed by a circle. The purpose of this was to help focus attention whilst meditating. The main influences here were Gupta and Hindu art.

In Japan, Buddhism was founded in the 6th century, and has accepted the religion since then. The government sponsored the creation of many sculptures and paintings. The Japanese style was inspired from the Chinese, Indian, Korean and Hellenistic styles. By the 12th century Japanese Zen art was at its peak, often characterised by paintings and poetry, as well as Ikebana art and the Chanouy tea ceremony.

Southern Route

In Myanmar, the main influences came from India. Beikhtano temple in central Myanmar was the earliest example of Buddhist art there and it dates back to the 1st and the 5th century. Influences of Gupta and post-Gupta periods can be observed, and after jeweled statues of the Buddha were created.

In Thailand, Buddhist art was influenced by India and Gupta traditions, along with Cambodian Khmer art. Tis art was founded on the Mahayana, with the creation of many Bodhisattvas. During the 13th century, when Theravada Buddhism was introduced, highly stylised images became prominent and during the Ayutthaya period, the Buddha was represented wearing lavish clothing and holding jewelled ornaments.

Cambodia witnessed the expansion of Buddhism with the Khmer Empire and over 900 temples were built across the country. Angkor has a Buddhist temple complex where a vast number of sculptures and other beautiful artworks are preserved.

Indonesia was greatly influenced by India too, accepting both Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. Many statues of Bodhisattvas can be found all over the region. But the richest remnants of Buddhist art can be seen in Java and Sumatra, an important one being the temple of Borobudur - The largest Buddhist building in the world. It features the concept of the universe, the Mandala, compring of 505 images of the Buddha and a bell-shaped stupa. The oldest Buddhist building in Indonesia is the Batu Jaya stupas from the 4th century A.D. In Sumatra, has the temples Muara Takus and Muaro Jambi, and a beautiful example of this type of art is the Prajnaparamita statue - The goddess of wisdom from Singhasari. The expansion of Islam in the 13th century ended Buddhism as the main religion.

Contemporary Buddhist Art

Buddhist art is not just the relic of the past. There are numerous prominent contemporary artists who create Buddhist art. It is not only confined to visual arts ast literature plays an important role too. Buddhist imagery penetrates into contemporary art in a number of different ways, from the use of Buddhist imagery to the mindset of the artist. During the twentieth century, Buddhism and Zen Buddhism had a important influence on a number of leading artists.

Taking it a step further Chogyum Trungpa Rinpoche said "In talking about Dharma Art here, we do not mean art, which necessarily depicts Buddhist symbols or ideas, but rather art which springs from a certain state of mind on the part of the artists. We can call this the meditative state: an attitude of directness and unselfconsciousness in one’s creative work"

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© This Article was written by Asia Dragon






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