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Circle of Wisdom: The Sixteen Luohan

Mar 27, 2007-May 26, 2007

Press Release | Works



ZONE: Chelsea is proud to present an extremely rare complete set of sixteen hanging scroll portraits of the Luohan, in nocturnal landscapes, dating as early as c. 900. 


The Sixteen Luohan (Sanskrit Arhat, meaning venerable or worthy) are legendary disciples of Buddha, similar to the Apostles of Christ.  They were originally four in number: Mahakasyapa, Pindola, Kundadhana and Rahula.  Along with Sakra and the four Devarajas, they were propagators of the Buddhist faith.  Although they were ascended beings, they remained on earth to protect the four corners of the world until the coming of the future Buddha.  In China, the Luohan became sixteen, with names and the places they rule.  The number sixteen can be traced back to at least the fifth century, when a list of sixteen names was recorded by the monk Xuanzang after he returned to China from a trip to India, bringing with him many original Buddhist scriptures.


The figures at ZONE closely follow the prototypes created by the Chinese poet-painter Guanxiu (832-912), who established their iconography and distinctive grotesque appearance.  While the originals are lost, we have both verbal and visual documentation for what they looked like.  The earliest description of Guanxiu뭩 Luohan comes from Yizhou Minghua Lu뭩 Biographies of the Painters of Yizhou (c. 1006):  밐is Sixteen Luohans had bushy eyebrows, large eyes, hanging cheeks and high noses.  They were seated in landscapes, leaning against pine trees and stones.  They looked and behaved like Hindus or Indians.  When someone asked where he had seen such men he answered: 멼n my dream.뮅


Although the artist of the Luohan at ZONE remains anonymous, it is plausible to date the scrolls close to the reign of the Tang emperor Zhaozon (reigned 880-904), when Guanxiu visited Sichuan province and was honored by the king of Shu as a Master.  Daoism and Buddhism were flourishing, along with many temple-building projects, and more than fifty painters were active in producing liturgical arts and figurative painting.  The grotesqueness of Guanxiu뭩 Luohans has a number of determinants: a reminder that external appearances can be delusive and that the soul must suffer to reach enlightenment, an acknowledgement of the ethnic diversity of China, and a reflection of upheaval in the ninth-century Buddhist church, including a period of persecution.  The Luohan at ZONE have similarly ferocious expressions and blue eyes, a conventional attribute for foreigners in Chinese art. Important replicas of Guanxiu뭩 work by the eighteenth-century artist Ding Guanpeng (now in the National Palace Museum, Taipei) resemble the ZONE set in gesture and setting.  The bodily and facial exaggeration of the eleventh Luohan, Rahula, seems less of a caricature.  This may be accounted for by the fact that this image appears to be a self-portrait by Guanxiu.  This is revealing and may suggest a close copy of the now lost set from the Shengyin Monastery.


The set at ZONE is unusual, not only for its historical rarity, but also for its painterly quality, the vigor of the artist뭩 brushwork and the intensity of the personalities he depicts. Guanxiu뭩 original title translates to 밚uohan meditating under the full moon, which aptly describes the ZONE set뭩 background darkness and doubling of moon and halo.  The isolation of the individual figures뾦n tight focus rather than expansive landscapes, against rock faces or twisting tree trunks뾢mphasizes the importance of solitude for spiritual regeneration.  The dark, ink-saturated silk conveys the nocturnal mystery of the interior life while providing a striking ground for accents of gold and red. A number of international comparisons could be suggested-- the Gothic paintings of Grnewald, the moonlit figures-in-a-landscape of Friedrich, the German Expressionists and some contemporary artists.  But these Luohan are, most of all, an eloquent expression of the struggle for wisdom.  The energy of these spiritual warriors is still palpable after 1,000 years.



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