REVIEW: The Art of Buddhism: an Introduction to its History and Meaning


The Art of Buddhism: an Introduction to its History and Meaning
Denise Patry Leidy
Shambhala, 2008

Only three volumes exist in print in English which cover Buddhist art as a whole, both historically and iconographically. I presume that this scarcity is due to the breadth of the subject, to the still shifting opinions on broad trends, and to the inclusion of Buddhist art within wider surveys on Asian art. Until recently, the UK press Thames & Hudson’s Buddhist Art (by Robert E. Fisher) was the sole volume to which individuals could turn. In 2009, River Books released Buddhist Art by Giles Beguin. One year prior to this appeared The Art of Buddhism: an Introduction to its History and Meaning, by Denise Patry Leidy, which is specifically for “general readers and undergraduate students” (p. 5).

Shambhala is the most prominent American press dedicated to Eastern spirituality. For many readers unfamiliar with Buddhism, it is a primary or initial source of information on Buddhism. While many of its releases are popular in nature, a significant portion of their output comes in the form of translations and scholarly works.

The author is a curator in the Department of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York).

Befitting a general introduction to the subject, the author’s approach is not to delve too deeply into any particular aspect of Buddhist art, providing instead an overview of its history, from earliest beginnings in India to its dissemination and growth in South, Central, and East Asia through the Nineteenth century.

For example, rather than wading into the once-contentious question of the origin of the Buddha image, she describes a general appearance of anthropomorphism across a wide area, and leaves it at that.

Two particular themes run throughout the volume: 1) the connection between art and Buddhist practice, and 2) the geographical movement of artistic styles and techniques. Most of the examples are presented in terms of one or both of these ideas.

The author touches on these two themes steadfastly; instances are found on nearly each of the volumes 342 pages. This approach makes for a clear and focussed (if sometimes misleading) introduction to the subject.

After introductory examinations of early forms (“Pillars and Stupas,” “The Buddha Image”), chapters are regionally themed; for example, three cover Korea and Japan for three historical periods. Chapters begin with a brief presentation of regional history, and examples of works of art follow, referring to the general historical theme presented and to the overarching consideration for the relationship between art and practice. This simple approach will be appreciated by educators eager for an easy foothold on the history of Buddhist art. Further, those interested in the traditions in Buddhist art in particular regions may easily read through appropriate chapters.

An additional chapter on the spread of Buddhist art to the West would have rounded out the volume. The absence of such consideration in the history of Buddhist art is, however, common.

The examples presented are largely from history’s most well-known, again appropriate to the general approach of the volume. Figures are identified by captions, with location and era, as well as an additional sentence underscoring some key aspect of the work. These sentences — sometimes facile (on Alchi: “Some of these buildings are filled with magnificent paintings and sculptures” (p. 155)) — either highlight some theme from the immediate text, again giving the introductory reader a means to engage the works based upon style or practice. Information on the size and museum holding of the pieces are given in at the end of the book.

The author chooses not explore in any depth pre-Buddhist iconography and styles, e.g., the roots of mandala paintings (India), portraiture and narrative scenes (Persia), etc. Leidy states that the book “focusses on the dialogues between cultures that underlie the dissemination of Buddhism” (p. 5). This focus is steady through the volume, with numerous instances in each chapter of particular styles and trends transmitted from place to place., e.g.,

“The small flame rising from ushnisha is […] a regional characteristic” (p. 140).

“The painting’s dense, scrolling background and the precise depiction of of details, such as the jewels decorating the throne and the patterns of the robes, reflect the long-standing importance of Nepalese aesthetics…” (p. 250)

“The posture and proportions in a bronze image of Shakymuni from Pagan illustrates [sic] the continuing importance of Indian traditions in neighboring Myanmar” (p. 166).

The latter quotation points out a flaw in the text: it is filled with minor errors, most of them typographical (misplaced hypens, likely to the text re-flow during layout).

Despite the emphasis on local and regional styles, there are very few descriptions of influences from outside of Buddhism, either chronologically and geographically.

The work contains occasional examples of architecture, but always in support of general artistic points, e.g., to show “the sharing of religious traditions” between China and Tibet and “the diverse Buddhist traditions that coexisted in China during the Qing dynasty” (p. 287).

In addition to the role of cultural trade in disseminating Buddhist art, the other thesis that the author pursues through the length of the book is the relationship between Buddhist practice and Buddhist art:

“… portraits of monks played an important role in Buddhist practice as early as the Tang dynasty.” (p. 118)

“The acceptance that such terrifying figures embody a great spiritual understanding is part of the shift in perceptions that leads to a deeper awakening.” . (p. 176-7)

“The ox […] and herdsman as a metaphor for practice…” (p. 195)

While the earliest purposes for Buddhist art are unclear, it is well-established that mandalas, e.g., were designed as visual tools for practitioners. Many scholars also agree that representations of the Buddha and other figures in meditation were designed to help the non-literate. These two instances are given by Leidy with respect to specific works of art, and clear links between art and practice are consistently and intelligently presented throughout.

Other, less religiously-oriented motivations for the creation of Buddhist art receive less exploration: donations by the wealthy, materiality, and technical skill as awe-inspiration to the lower classes or as other means of political empowerment, etc. While the author acknowledges the presence of these in the creation of art, the main line of influence on production and visual styles she cites is: as means to Buddhist practice. While it is true that, from the religious point of view, this is the purpose of Buddhist art, failing to recognize other purposes is overly idealistic.

Buddhists of certain schools would of course agree with this description of the making of art. Buddhist art is not an art of worship, but one of practice. Nevertheless, an art history which places religious motives as the main ones in complex technical productions, ones which occur only within an advanced material culture, is something of a simplification. Students of history would benefit from a more thoroughly reasoned (and realistic, in the worldly sense) appraisal of the reasons that a religion directed at self-improvement, doing it oneself, and non-materiality has generated so many ornate and costly artifacts, personal objects of devotion, and monumental sculptures. Again, the author likely wishes to limit the scope of the book, leaving to others these critical approaches.

The author does not pursue disputations, instead stating a single opinion on sometimes open questions. While streamlined, this approach also has the effect of appearing categorical to the reader new to the field. Although few of the author’s positions are especially controversial, it is also the case that the reason for this non-controversy is at times due to the force of tradition rather than established certainty. Enterprising students might investigate the literature and uncover open questions, but little assistance is given the students by the book’s notes and bibliography. Understandably intended for general audiences, perhaps I am willing to give undergraduates more credit for intellectual curiosity, and a desire to see varied scholarly lines of argument.

One map is included, covering the entire Asian region, with a single icon representing sites (e.g., Nalanda and Ajanta) and cities (ancient and modern). Nearly all items listed in the bibliography are post-1980, while most of the (few) quotations from primary sources are from early 20th century translations.

The graphic design of Buddhist Art is also non-controversial: clean and efficient. I appreciate the simple use of typography and color. The many images are given good space and a nice attention is paid to page layout. The paper does not allow pencil mark erasures — erasing on one page leads to rubbing off of an image on the reverse side.

This survey fills a noted gap, and as an introductory survey for students (high school or undergraduate) is appreciated. By avoiding what are deemed secondary concerns, the author has produced a stream-lined, readable volume, however at the cost of discarding many avenues of inquiry.

– Jonathan Ciliberto, October 2010


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