Even before John D. Rockefeller 3rd (1906–1978) established Asia Society in 1956, he was deeply involved with the arts and culture of Asia. He firmly believed that art was an indispensable tool for understanding societies, and thus made culture central to the new multidisciplinary organization that would encompass all aspects and all parts of East, South, and Southeast Asia and the Himalayas. From 1963 to 1978, he and his wife, Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller (1909–1992), worked with art historian Sherman E. Lee (1918–2008) as an advisor to build the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, which was later bequeathed to Asia Society. The group of spectacular historical objects they assembled—including sculpture, painting, and decorative arts—became the core of the Asia Society Museum Collection and is now world renowned. The Collection is distinguished by the high proportion of acclaimed masterpieces, representing the artistic pinnacles of the cultures that produced them, to which additional high-quality gifts and acquisitions have been added since the original bequest to Asia Society.
The selections in the exhibition showcase the breadth and depth of creative expression across Asia created by artists and artisans with extraordinary skill. To this day the objects remain an important means for sharing the talent, imagination, and deep history of the peoples of Asia with audiences all over the world. Masterpieces from the Asia Society Museum Collection explores the specialized artistry of Asian ceramics, metalwork, and stone carving, and the development of Hinduism and Buddhism in Asia through some of the most refined and accomplished examples of the region’s great artistic traditions.
For Sustenance in This World and the Next
Among the most extraordinary historical examples of Asian craftsmanship are vessels created for holding food and drink. The appreciation of wines, teas, and cuisine have long traditions in China, Korea, and Japan, and craftsmen developed a myriad of vessel forms and decorative patterns to enhance the visual appeal of food and drink in domestic, imperial, and ritual settings. The unique forms—from elaborate bronze Chinese vessels to simple ceramics for the Japanese tea ceremony—and the materials they are made from often offer clues to their functions.
Dishes, bowls, platters, cups, jars, and bottles comprise some of the most common objects for daily use in East Asia. Many of these wares have survived—and maintain much of their original beauty—even after hundreds of years in large part due to the development of strong, high-fired wares with equally tough glazes. In addition to domestic objects, the masterpieces in this section include pieces created for royals and elites and for export. Most of the vessels originally came from larger sets made for drinking tea or wine, for tea ceremonies, and for imperial feasts and banquets.
Nonomura Ninsei (Japanese, active ca. 1646–77). Tea Leaf Jar. Edo period (1615–1868), 1670s. Japan, Kyoto Prefecture. Stoneware painted with overglaze enamels and silver (Kyoto ware). Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.251
This jar, though more decorative than functional, is based on the form of vessel used for storing tea leaves. One of only a handful of seventeenth-century potters whose name is recognized today, Nonomura Ninsei operated an extremely successful kiln in Kyoto called Omuro that catered primarily to important patrons in Edo (present-day Tokyo). His seal is imprinted on the unglazed base of this important jar decorated with mynah birds. It was designated an Important Cultural Property by the Japanese government and Mr. Rockefeller had to obtain special permission to purchase it.
Flask. Ming period (1368–1644), early 15th century (probably Yongle era, 1403–1424). China, Jiangxi Province. Porcelain painted with underglaze cobalt blue (Jingdezhen ware). Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.160
This large, impressive flask is decorated with a three-clawed dragon, a symbol of imperial power, among lotuses and tendrils. It was possibly used at the Ming court in the early fifteenth century as a gift from the emperor to his attendants or to foreign rulers and dignitaries. Though the form of the flask has been traditionally used for holding liquids, the scale of this one indicates its function was probably decorative rather than functional.
Square Serving Dish. Momoyama period (1568–1615), late 16th century. Japan, Gifu Prefecture. Stoneware painted with underglaze iron-brown (Mino ware, Shino type). Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.225
The Japanese ritual art of preparing and drinking tea (chanoyu) served as inspiration for the creation of special ceramics. This dish is an esteemed ceramic created for use in chanoyu and as part of a formal meal (kaiseki) that was sometimes served during the ritual. On this dish, the iron pigment of the design appears light blue-gray under the thick, milky feldspar glaze—one of the distinguishing characteristics of Shino-type ceramics.
Wine Vessel: You. Western Zhou period, ca. late 11th century BCE. North China. Copper alloy. Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.100a,b
A you is generally a container with a lid and handle. This you’s tall shape and the band of circles enclosing the main register derive from art of the earlier Shang period. A three-character inscription is cast into the vessel’s cover, two of which are inside a symbol known as a yaxing. Traditional mask-like taotie motifs, set against a background of thunder-clouds, decorate the cover and two registers on the body of this vessel, which was used for storing or serving wine. It remains unclear whether taotie designs have an iconographic or symbolic function or if they simply evolved from bronze-making techniques.
Regarding Gods & Kings
Hinduism and Buddhism both originated in India and spread through the sacred languages of Sanskrit and Pali. Traders, missionaries, and scholars from India and Sri Lanka introduced these belief systems and their imagery to kingdoms of Southeast Asia, creating ties that began as early as the first century CE. These include the countries that we know today as Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), and Cambodia.
Blended with indigenous beliefs, aspects of Indian Hinduism and Buddhism were incorporated in the art and architecture of Southeast Asia. Even in kingdoms where one of these belief systems came to dominate, deities from the other religion also found an important place. Often the same artist made sculptures for both religions. Geographic and political ties among Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms led to further cultural and artistic exchange, the effects of which can be seen on some of the masterpieces in this section.
Rulers and wealthy patrons supported the production of impressive icons from expensive and highly refined materials and the creation of Hindu and Buddhist temples to house them. Moreover, the Hindu and Buddhist rulers of Southeast Asia frequently asserted their power by constructing a capital city with a temple at the center, providing a state setting for the representation of deities. These acts were demonstrations of their power in this life, but just as important—and perhaps more so—patrons carried them out with the expectation that they would be rewarded in the afterlife.
Ganesha. Chola period, 11th century. India, Tamil Nadu. Copper alloy. Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.26
Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of the Hindu god Shiva and his consort Parvati, holds a mace and lasso that symbolize respectively his position as a god of war and his ability to advantageously ensnare a devotee. He also holds his own tusk, which broke off in a battle with a demon, according to one legend. Today, a portable bronze image of a standing Ganesha, like this one, typically commences festival processions, prior to the appearance of the main deity, Shiva, and the rest of his entourage. In this capacity Ganesha serves as the deity of auspicious beginnings. Ganesha is also worshipped as the god of luck and remover of obstacles.
Shiva as Nataraja (Lord of the Dance). Chola period, 12th century. India, Tamil Nadu. Copper alloy. Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.29
During the Chola period Shiva Nataraja may have served as an emblem for kingly aspirations since his dancing posture evokes the successful warrior, a role that was one of the highest ideals of the kings of this period. Surrounded by a fiery aureole and wrapped in serpents, Shiva performs the dance of bliss with an energy that forces his matted locks outward. Entangled in his locks is the river goddess Ganga (Ganges). In his upper hands Shiva holds a drum, which symbolizes the rhythm of creation, and fire, the destructive force of the universe. His open right palm signifies protection and his left hand points to his raised foot, signifying refuge and deliverance. Mushalagan, the dwarf demon of ignorance and illusion, lies prostrate below. Chola-period craftsmen are considered outstanding in the history of the world. The three-dimensional animation and plasticity of the sculpture attests to this well-deserved rank.
Female Figure. Angkor period (802–1431), early 11th century. Cambodia. Sandstone (Baphuon style). Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.65
This figure of a woman wears a long skirt, known as a sarong, which has been wrapped around her waist and tied at the front. Additional folds of cloth fall in the center of the skirt in a stylized pattern that is often called a fish-tail motif. The lines incised under her breasts were considered a sign of beauty.
Palanquin Fittings. Angkor period, 12th century. Cambodia. Copper alloy. Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.70.1-3
These three bronze fittings—most likely used to embellish a wooden palanquin for the court or aristocracy—are each made of a shell-like section topped with a stylized flower, probably a lotus. Two of the fittings have hooks that resemble the stalks and leaves of the lotus. Comparison with other objects of this type suggests that these hooks may once have held rings. The lack of volume in the floral decoration found on these fittings parallels the linearity found on twelfth-century sculptures; these pieces follow the style of decoration displayed on the famous Cambodian temple mountain of Angkor Wat.
Transmission of Buddhism
By the seventh century, Buddhism was a major religious force across South, East, and Southeast Asia, after it spread dramatically following the death of its founder, Shakyamuni (“Sage of the Shakyas”) or the historical Buddha, who is traditionally believed to have been born in 563 BCE. The form of Buddhism known as Theravada, which emphasizes a monastic path to enlightenment, was adopted in Sri Lanka and subsequently became the predominant form of Buddhism in Southeast Asia. Mahayana Buddhist doctrine, which argues that a wider group of followers—including members of the laity—can become enlightened, spread to East Asia and also had some presence in both South and Southeast Asia. Another movement was Vajrayana (Esoteric) Buddhism, which stresses attaining union with cosmic aspects of Buddhahood through ritual and meditation.
The pantheon of deities described in the religious texts and images associated with each of the three major strains of Buddhism show some distinctions. For example, Theravada Buddhist painting and sculpture are dominated by images that relate to the life and past lives of Shakyamuni. This subject matter also can be found in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, but works associated with these branches frequently feature other fabulous beings like bodhisattvas, intermediaries who are able to escape the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara), but choose to remain active in the world to help others along the path to enlightenment. Images of bodhisattvas most often show these beings sumptuously adorned. They wear crowns or other headdresses, armbands, and necklaces and often feature the tall, matted coiffure of an ascetic. The Vajrayana Buddhist pantheon is the most diverse of all and includes, for example, depictions of a range of wrathful deities that play protective roles and help steer practitioners on the path to enlightenment.
This section contains fantastic beings from all three forms of Buddhism, exemplifying the complexity of representation of Buddhist deities among these three Buddhist traditions across Asia.
Crowned Buddha Shakyamuni. Pala period (circa 8th–12th century), 11th century. India, Bihar. Schist. Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.36
Buddha images created in the service of Vajrayana or Esoteric Buddhism, such as this piece, are sometimes shown crowned and jeweled. It is one of four spectacular carved Pala-period sculptures in the Asia Society Museum Collection. Among other things, these adornments emphasize the Buddha’s role as a universal sovereign. In this depiction, an ornamented Buddha is surrounded by four smaller images of himself, each of which represents an important scene from his life. The inscription, translated by Dr. B.N. Mukerjee, reads: “The dharma which is produced by the cause and the reason of all the causes and their cessation are said by Tathagata [the Buddha], the great śramana [monk].”
Crowned Buddha Shakyamuni. Dated by inscription 714. Kashmir or northern Pakistan. Brass with inlays of copper, silver, and zinc. Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.44
In this elaborate sculpture, the Buddha, his hands in the gesture of teaching, is seated on a lotus that rises from water inhabited by serpent deities (nagas). The Buddha’s distinctive costume suggests that the sculpture depicts the consecration of Shakyamuni as king of the Tushita Pure Land, the abode of all buddhas before their final rebirth on earth. The Sanskrit inscription on the base of this important piece lists the donors as Sankarasena, a government official, and Princess Devshira.
Goddess. Late 11th–early 12th century. Tibet. Pyrophyllite with gilding and blue pigment. Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.38
This goddess, depicted making the gesture of teaching, may be a representation of one of the two most important goddesses in Buddhism: Tara and Prajnaparamita. These goddesses can often be distinguished by the different lotuses they hold, but since only fragments of the lotuses remain on this sculpture, the figure’s identity remains uncertain. One potential clue that supports identification of this goddess as Tara is the lotus bud held in her left hand. It is likely that the entire image was once painted. The use of blue pigment in her hair is commonly seen on images that have been worshipped by Tibetan Buddhists.
Buddha. Late 6th century. India, probably Bihar. Copper alloy. Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.8
In this rare and important bronze from eastern India, the Buddha raises his right hand in the gesture of reassurance (abhaya mudra) and holds a piece of cloth in his left hand. The style of this Buddha’s nearly transparent robe follows conventions established in Sarnath (east-central India) in the last quarter of the fifth century. The Buddha’s webbed fingers, snail shell–shaped curls, and the bump on top of his head are among the thirty-two auspicious marks (lakshanas) described in Buddhist literature that signify the Buddha’s advanced spiritual enlightenment.
Bodhisattva Maitreya. 8th century. Thailand, Buriram Province, Prasat Hin Khao Plai Bat II. Copper alloy with inlays of silver and black stone. Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.63
This large, cast image of the Bodhisattva Maitreya (the Buddha of the Future, destined to become the next mortal buddha after Shakyamuni) is one of the finest eighth-century Southeast Asian bronze sculptures in the world. The scanty clothing, long matted hair, and lack of jewelry indicate that this image represents Maitreya as an ascetic bodhisattva, a type found throughout Southeast Asia from the seventh through ninth century. Bodhisattvas appealed to and were worshipped along with the Buddha all over South and Southeast Asia.
Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. Early Malla period (1200–1382), late 13th–early 14th century. Nepal. Gilt copper alloy. Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.51
This sculpture depicts a form of Avalokiteshvara that was extremely popular in Nepal. The bodhisattva can be identified by the lotus he holds in his left hand and by the small seated image of the Buddha Amitabha, his spiritual progenitor, in his crown. A large circular loop coming out of the back of the sculpture indicates that this figure was once surrounded by a mandorla (body halo).