Book Review: Kamakura: Realism and Spirituality in the Sculpture of Japan

Review by Jon Ciliberto
Kamakura Realism and Spirituality in the Sculpture of Japan
Ive Covaci (Editor)
Asia Society/Yale U Pr, Feb 9 2016, HC, 192 pp, 65 color illus, 8.75 x 11.75 in

General awareness of the ceremonies and rituals that attend the creation of Buddhist art has grown in recent years. This attention to more purely religious (rather than aesthetic or material) aspects of Buddhist art gives laypersons and those who have approached such works from the Western “fine art” perspective intimate and meaningful detail of how the scared infuses the material in Buddhist art. The Asia Society’s current exhibition through May 8, Kamakura: Realism and Spirituality in the Sculpture of Japan, focuses both on ritual acts connected with image creation, and the intense realism of Kamakura art – the latter also a method of enhancing the practitioner’s spiritual interaction with images.




This realism is in somewhat contrast to art of immediately preceding periods in Japan. Ive Covaci, the editor of the fine and approachable catalogue accompanying the exhibition, directly links this realism to the “living” aspects of Buddhist art, thus connecting realism with the practices that brought such objects to life. Buddhist art was considered alive, both in terms of the ability of such objects to interact with living beings, but also in that Buddhist art embodies actual, currently living (or, present) Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other entities.

Buddhist art, particularly images of the Buddha, encounters a paradox. As examined in detail in Robert DeCaroli’s Image Problems (2015), since the Buddha upon enlightenment was wholly absent from this world, images of the Buddha are a seeming contradiction of that absence. Given this obstacle, the idea of “living” images of the Buddha is doubly confusing. More generally, since Buddhist philosophy questions the nature of what is real, what does it mean for an image to be ‘realistic’?

Living images of bodhisattvas don’t raise these questions, since a bodhisattva’s nature is to be active and engaged in the world, working for the salvation of all sentient beings.

More broadly, of course, all Buddhist art is designed to urge all who encounter it to pursue the dharma. It might be argued that more realistic imagery will more strikingly achieve that aim. The “naturalistic proportions and […] sense of movement, life-like facial expressions with eyes of inlaid crystal that reflect light, and realistic drapery” all confront the viewer, enhancing the effect of facing a living being. The catalogue notes in many places that inlaid crystal eyes and forms that are naturalistic and sculpted so as to appear mid-motion would strike views as alive when seen in dim temple interiors, lit by flickering candlelight

An introductory chapter by the volume’s editor, Ive Covaci, places the era in historical context. It has frequently been noted that the explosive growth of image-making and technique during the Kamakura period (1185-1333) was due to opportunity. “During the wars and disturbances attending the Minamoto rise to power, many magnificent temples and other structures were burned to the ground. Restoring these buildings not only stimulated a renaissance in architecture and sculpture, but also provided an excellent opportunity for artists to pioneer styles that reflected the sensibilities of the new age.” A Pictorial Encyclopedia of Oriental Arts (Japan, Vol 2), 29. Covaci points out that the realism of the Kamakura looks back to the realism of the Nara period (710-794) because the craftsmen enlisted to recreate destroyed images were based in Nara and worked to remake images from that era. More speculatively, Covaci claims that the preference for the realistic style reflected the “more approachable, humanlike forms” sought by the religious life of the Kamakura.

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Technical innovations, too, allowed artists to make more realistic images, most notably the use of multiple blocks of wood to create a single sculpture. The making of  inset-crystal eyes are also a technique developed during the Kamakura period.

Of course, the realism of the images is at times undercut by the fact that the beings represented are “superhuman.” So, while even esoteric beings with multiple sets of arms appear immediate and approachable, certain conventions of Buddhist-image making remain: somewhat unnaturally round and smooth faces, sharply-etched eyebrows, snail-curls, urnas, and prominent ushnishas, and so forth. Realism, then, is more effectively conveyed by the sense of stopped-motion many of the statues convey.

Except for statues of monks, the realism is the realism not of human figures but of cosmic ones. What is made real by these highly “life-like” images is the reality of such beings, present in the world of the viewer. Thus there is a double-double-take: the viewer is arrested by the lifelike presence of an inanimate object, and then again by the realization that cosmic beings exist in the present reality.

Less philosophically, the realism of such images works in concert with ritual. During the Kamakura period, the highly syncretic Buddhism that flourished in Japan included many esoteric schools whose practice utilized images and objects to bring the practitioner into the intimate presence of Buddhas and other cosmic beings. Images of great realism served better to create this immediacy.




The catalogue also brings forward the fact that individual artist began including their own names on their works — typically painted inside the hollow statue. Whether this is due to pride or, more likely, to the continuation of a much older practice of those commissioning artwork seeking to receive merit by virtue of image creation is unknown.

In addition to Covaci’s introduction, the catalogue includes three short essays by Samuel Morse (“A Short History of the Kei School”), Hank Glassman (on Japanese Gods in Buddhist Art) and Nedachi Kensuke (on replicas of miraculous Buddhist statues). Each is intended to provide the general reader insight into aspects that run through the works in the catalogue. Morse describes the influence of a school of artisans founded by Kokei (active 1152-1196), which includes Kaikei, Koshun, and Unkei. While great artists, it is undeniable that they impact on Japanese art was due in large part to the political events of their times: the turnover of power, to the Minamoto clan in 1185, benefited the Kokei school, since the latter was specially favored by the Minamoto. This interplay, between the material/political (e.g., technical innovations in image-making, war’s destruction of images leading to their recreation, the support of a new ruling class) and the artistic is an undercurrent in the catalogue, although never confronted directly.

Glassman’s poetic article on the eclecticism of Kamakura religious life effectively conveys the manner in which indigenous Shinto deities were incorporated into the Buddhist pantheon. The doctrine of honji suijaku “held that buddhas and bodhisattvas manifested as Japanese gods to facilitate connection.” This extremely important concept in the Buddhification of Japan is only briefly noted in this essay, as is the presence of relics as enlivening agents in Buddhist art.

Nedachi Kensuke’s essay provides an important conceptual consideration of “living images” by describing the creation of replicas of a certain class of image: those believed to have the ability to perform miracles. This fascinating essay explores new terrain and encourages further reading.

The bulk of the catalogue is, of course, the 42 entries. Image text is provided by Covaci and D. Max Moerman. (The latter’s stand out as particularly refined, intelligent, and insightful.) Perhaps in keeping with the original setting for many of the images, the photographs are dark, but certainly not to a disadvantage. Additional views (including internal views of statues) are provided in some cases.

The objects are compelling and readers will find absorption into their beauty and spiritual qualities immediately. The majority of statues are made \of wood, also enhancing their approachability. While many were gilded or lightly painted, largely such additions are now absent or much-dulled.




The catalogue’s back material consists of: a map of Japan during the Kamakura; a timeline that correlates art history with other events during the period; a very helpful glossary (with characters); a selected bibliography; and an index.

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