March was the month for Asian-art aficionados in New York. Two exquisite exhibitions have been on view at local galleries, "Tang Ceramic Sculpture" from Eskenazi Unlimited at Pace Wildenstein, and "The Jina Collection" at Frederick Schultz Ancient Art. Philadelphia got into the act as well, as the Philadelphia Museum of Art heralded its impressive new acquisition, the collection of Indian miniatures of Alvin O. Bellak.
Tang earthenware at Eskenazi
How long do you think a dealer should prepare to spend exactly 12 days in another country? Well, for his recent visit to New York for Asia Week, Giuseppe Eskenazi took 14 years.
Eskenazi brought extra-superb examples of his Tang dynasty collection to New York, assembled and researched over a 14-year period. The sculptures were ensconced at Pace Wildenstein in midtown Manhattan, Mar. 19-31, 2001. The works are of top museum quality, and in fact a number of U.S. museums have already spoken for them.
The 14 pieces are long out of China. They include camels, elephants, horses and their grooms, which gave the installation something of a circus-like atmosphere. The most impressive sculpture is a mother and child atop a camel. The Tang empire was a cosmopolitan one, with extensive trading links along the Silk Route through Afghanistan and a mix of imported workers and lower court officials from Mongolia and elsewhere.
Women, too, became more influential at court and in public life in general, learning to play music and even polo. Tang earthenwares display an incredible workmanship, and even though unglazed, are especially colorful -- a quality that was particularly notable in the examples from Eskenazi.
Jain sculpture at Frederick Schultz
The first New York exhibition devoted exclusively to Jain sculpture is currently on view at Frederick Schultz Ancient Art in the Fuller Building, Mar. 20-Apr. 28, mounted in conjunction with the Peter Marks Gallery in New York. A single anonymous collector, working since 1981, amassed this treasure of 24 Jain sculptures. The cream of the collection has been shown at the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C., for the past ten years.
The works are all exemplary of the Jain religion, which has been practiced in Western India since 1000 B.C. Jainism celebrates freedom from the birth and death cycle (Nirvana) and has some six million adherents in India, making it number three among the subcontinent's religions.
Right faith, right conduct and right knowledge are the three tenets of the religion. Its adherents practice nonviolence and strict vegetarianism. The word "Jain" derives from the Sanskrit and means "conqueror" -- in the Jainist case, "conqueror of the passions."
The statues, 20 in bronze and four in sandstone, are mainly representations of "Jina," the male embodiment of perfection. These examples are both nude and clothed, either standing or seated in the lotus position, and range in date from the 6th to 12th centuries A.D.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond has already purchased one of the sandstone sculptures.
"Intimate Worlds" in Philadelphia
Almost overnight, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has become the proud possessor of the fourth largest collection of Indian minatures in the west. The 90 paintings and drawings, on view in a show called "Intimate Worlds," come from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection.
Since he began collecting in the 1970s, Dr. Bellak has acquired prime examples of all the Indian schools, from Mughal paintings of the early 1500s to the works originating with the British Raj of the 19th century.
The Indian miniature is still within the price range of even a modest collector. Mature, important examples can be obtained for under $10,000.
"Intimate Worlds" presents the never-never world of the Maharajahs of northern India. We see them in their palaces, or astride their beautifully caparisoned horses, hunting wild animals.
Among the most striking examples of "miniature" art are the rapturous love scenes between Krishna and Radha from a dispersed series of the Gita Govinda, the Song of the Dark Lord (a sort of Song of Songs). Other striking examples are from the Ramayana Book of Kings and the Bhagavata Purana, which recounts the deeds of Krishna.
In terms of color and elegance of execution, these miniatures rival even the illustrated manuscripts of the Morgan Library. The show is scheduled to close Apr. 29, 2001.
FRED STERN writes on Asian art for Artnet Magazine.