A secret and a message
One of the best-kept secrets in world art history may well be Japanese sculpure dating from the 6th through the 13th centuries and, especially, that of the late 12th and early 13th centuries, called the Kamakura Period. To those already familiar with Japanese brush-painted scrolls and screens and woodblock prints, the beauty and power of these sculptured forms come as an exciting discovery.
The chronologic development of sculpture seems to follow a pattern, no matter in which culture or epoch it occurs. It moves from simply formed frontal figures exhibiting a gentle smile referred to as "archaic," to examples arrestingly more natural as well as more complex. This flowering is apt to be as brief as the cherry blossom, and is followed by an overconcern with realistic details which lessens the aesthetic impact. We can find this pattern in classic Greek, and in European Christian, religious sculpture, as well as that of Japanese Buddhism.
For example, the sculpture of Dontallo in the Italian Renaissance comes to mind as the peak of a synthesis of naturalness in movement, intense expressiveness, and vigorous execution. In this Japanese example, the sculptor, working in wood before Donatello was born, is unknown, but the same qualities of a master sculptor are evident. Indeed, one might well compare -- given the difference of size, material, and pose -- Donatello's Unbearded Prophet on the Campanile in Florence with this Japanese Buddhist priest.
This seated figure is about three-quarters life size, whereas the Donatello marble is larger than life and standing upright. The one is suited to a restricted indoor space, the other part of outdoor architecture. Both hold scrolls, and are so natural as to suggest a portrait. They fill their space with easy movement and vivid feeling; and even the sculptural technique of both is amazingly similar in its bold simplicity.
The Japanese piece exhibits none of the formal frontalization and symmetry of earlier or more iconographic depictions in Buddhist sculpture. The subject, completely absorbed in his reading, tilts his scroll to the light, holding it in beautifully and strongly modeled hands. The loose folds of the typical garment worn by a Buddhist priest flow gracefully over his limbs.
The heavy lips, nose, and wary eyes all suggest an individual likeness that is thought to be that of Taira Kiyomori. However, this would not be portraiture in our modern sense of having a sitter posing before the artist. Other statues of venerated priests and abbots indicate that such posthumous portraits were a part of Japanese sculptural tradition. Presumably in such cases the artist might work from written descriptions, extant sketches, and his own sense of conveying the elements of the subject's experience in order to communicate a spiritual and moral lesson.
The Taira clan gained military and political dominance over all Japan in the 12th century under the leadership of this Kiyomori. But the Taira were haughty, so much so that when the writers of No plays wanted to point out the bitter fruits of excessive pride, a member of the Taira was usually chosen as protagonist. Unfortunately, Kiyomori led his clan in this characteristic also. In his later years, his vigor diminished, and he was outgeneraled and defeated by a younger, equally ruthless member of the Minamoto, a rival clan. All that Kiyomori had held dear was destroyed and he retreated into the lay priesthood. (That is to say that, as in the monasteries of Europe, a lay person might share in the life of religious service without performing ordained duties.)
The tensions the artist has infused into the figure contribute to its dynamism and also make the attribution to the tragic Kiyomori very credible. We witness an almost yearning concentration on his sutram by this man whose lips are parted as if repeating some lines of comfort, his troubled eyes glancing upward. This intensity of emotion is played against the harmonious curves of the drapery , suggesting the Buddhist ideals of order and calm, the intended message perhaps being that whatever a man's worldly triumphs and woes, his best solace and recourse are in seeking after a more spiritual meaning of existence.
In technical terms, the statue was carved from one upright and one horizontal block of wood which were joined and hollowed out for lightness and better durability. It was finished with lacquer and polychrome (painting in natural tones and hues). The latter was also popular for wood sculpture in Donatello's milieu. To give added expressiveness and a brightness to the eyes, crystal set over white paper was employed. Despite the virtues this crystal might have in this particular instance, it also signaled an increased interest in realistic detail which would soon overwhelm the exquisite balance of movement, intensity, and design which this piece shares with Donatello's Campanile prophets and other great works of sculptural art.