BOOK REVIEW: Portraits of Chōgen, by John M. Rosenfield

Reviewed by Jonathan Ciliberto for Buddhist Art News

Portraits of Chōgen
The Transformation of Buddhist Art in Early Medieval Japan
John M. Rosenfield

ISSN: 2210-2868
ISBN13: 9789004168640
296 pp.; incl. 197 illustrations, mostly in color

Created around 1206, the wooden statue of Chōgen on this book’s cover arrests the viewer with its realism. The rough remains of color enhance the character of agedness portrayed in the old monk, face deeply-lined and body thinned by years. Standing out from typically idealized portraits of religious figures, the image reaches out to the modern viewer.

The titular portraits considered by the author are several: actual portraits of Chōgen, the re-vitalized realistic style of portraiture that developed in Japan from the 12th century, as well as sculptures of deities and the buildings to house them.  This survey of images describes in depth Chōgen and the world in which he operated: a tumultuous era  of war, famine, and natural disaster in Japanese history.

Some books cause the reader to linger over them, putting off for as long as possible their completion. Most often this desire to stretch out a book is due to a strong narrative: an unfolding of events and growth of characters which the reader wishes, like a holiday, not to end. Portraits of Chōgen, although containing historical and biographical threads, is not treasured for its narrative, but rather for its effortless depth of detail into a long past time and place.

The first volume in Brill’s “Japanese Visual Culture” series, the books is profusely illustrated and well-designed. Rosenberg is a distinguished scholar, and this volume is less about a strong argument, and more a detailed analysis of texts which describes the culture in which religious art was made. Chōgen (1121-1206), a monk, was asked to head up a massive restoration project: to rebuild and recreate the many temples and artworks destroyed in warfare in Nara, Japan in the late 12th century. Todaiji, the vast temple complex and the center of Japanese Buddhism “was largely reduced to ashes.” The main object of worship, the gigantic bronze Daibutsu lost its head and arms. Records show that over the following 25 years Chōgen worked to create more than 100 statues and 100 buildings. The repair of the Daibutsu, judged impossible by craftsmen initially, was the great achievement of this project.

Chōgen’s recruitment is, according the author, “ironic” (34), since it pulled a monk into some deep secular waters. Chōgen was responsible for large building projects, fund-raising, and had regular dealings with government officials. On the other hand, through his life Chōgen was “inclined to the active, physical forms of devotion” (30). At the time, sects within and without Buddhism were not widely separated, and individuals could pick and choose freely. Chōgen took a particular interest in the native Shugendō, a syncretic religion/discipline in which practitioners often performed arduous mountain hikes as a means of cultivating spiritual growth. So, despite being a monk, Chōgen was not one to flee the physical world.

The author admits that re-creating Chōgen for modern Western readers is difficult. In addition to the many radical differences between his world and ours, the absence of the most significant content for ready consideration, namely, the constant presence in Chōgen’s life of a religious world and system of meaning, creates a large gap. In a sense, this absence follows from Buddhism, which aims to leave no remains, to eradicate all karmic aspects. So, while marvelous buildings and artwork lingers from Chōgen’s days, it is up to the reader to duplicate the internal state that monks strove to cultivate.

A chapter on “East Asian Portraiture” surveys the history of individual, rather than divine, portrait-making, finding origin points in Japanese portraits of nobility, Chinese sages, and of the Indian secular Buddhist figure Vimalakīrti. A detailed consideration of portraiture in Japanese Buddhist art rounds out the chapter.

The creation of Buddhist sculptures, in wood and bronze, required a high level of technical expertise. Chōgen’s employed the leading image-makers of Kyoto and Nara. Many of the seminal works by the great artists and workshops of the day came to be as a result of his commissions.

Rosenberg offers only a passing nod to the criticisms of some modern scholars, which “might dismiss Chōgen cognitive universe as idolatry and mumbo-jumbo” (13). For, this was a universe never doubted by its inhabitants, and thus the images created by them, if considered in the culture of creation, depend upon this world for meaning. That they are beautiful objects in an an aesthetic sense is secondary, and does take that position in Portraits of Chōgen.

Apart from scattered editorial misses (“texts were poured over”, 41), the book is a perfect example of the scholarship of close history. Included is a full translation of Chōgen’s biography, as well as myriad references to the main sources of contemporary writers. The book’s photography and other graphic materials are clear, helpful, and well-chosen. Finally, the overall design is simple, elegant, and balanced.


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