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Lot 24: Important Pair of Life-Size Wood Niō Temple Figures, Muromachi
November 22, 2013
Berlin, GermanyLive Auction
Japan, late Muromachi Period (1336-1573)
Rare, museum quality pair of life-size Niō guardian figures
Virtuoso carving, partially in open-work
Incredibly dynamic energy
Modelled after the 8.5 m high guardian statues at Tōdai-ji Temple in Nara
Height: approx. 180 cm
Provenance: Lovness Estate, Stillwater, Minnesota - see pictures of the Niō sculptures among the Frank Lloyd Wright interior at the photo section
Most figures of a similar age are found in temples, very few are held in public or private collection. A radiocarbon (C-14) test by Radiocarbon Laboratory of the University of Arizona, Tucson dates the sculptures to in between 1467 and 1652
These life-size Niō statues are designed after the famous pair found at Tōdai-ji Temple in Nara, in the South of Japan. The latter were carved in the early 13th Century under the direction of Unkei and Kaikei, two of Japan's most lauded sculptors of the medieval period. In the same manner these figures exhibit a new sense of dynamism and realism. The heroic and powerful Buddhist statuary made during these periods better suited the feudal tastes of the military class, which had seized political power from the emperor and imperial court and thereafter ruled the nation for seven centuries.
The two Niō figures were carved in the late Muromachi Period (1336-1573) with outstanding sculptural virtuosity. They are presented, in the conventional manner, with a grim face and a vigorous half naked, upper body. They stand on a simple wooden base in a dynamic contrapposto pose. The powerful body, as if it were in motion, radiates an impressive strength. This energy is created by flowing lines, powerful contours and strong three-dimensional forms. The tense muscles are exaggerated, the pulsing veins are visible all over the body - a potent contrast to the delicately carved finger and toe nails. With deeply carved folds the skirts draped around the waist swirl violently around the muscular legs, decorative ribbons flutter in the wind. Jewellery carved in relief adorns the chests, arms and ankles.
The individual, expressive facial expressions, with bulging eyes, furrowed brows and flaring nostrils, bear witness to a masterful carving as it is rarely found. The closed-mouth figure is called Ungyo, who whispers 'un' or 'om', a sound meaning death. It is also called Naraen Kongo and is said to be a form of the Indian God Vishnu. Ungyo, his lips tightly pressed together, represents latent power. His open-mouthed partner is called Misshaku Kongo or Agyo. He utters the sound 'ah' meaning birth and is equated with the deity Vajrapani. In his right hand he holds a so-called vajra, a symbol of his power as the protector of Buddhism. Teeth baring Agyo represents overt power.
The figures are constructed in the traditional manner from multiple blocks of wood. This technique made it possible to build large-scale statues and endow the body with the desired dynamism. Moreover the individual pieces could be repaired and replaced, like the pieces of a jigsaw. This particular pair was originally lacquered, traces are still visible today.
The two statues are in good condition according to their age. Traces of the original colour are still partially visible in places such as the hair. There is evidence of ago fun layer on the surface. The wooden bodies show cracks in places, some have been repaired. Some breakages were glued here and there, there are minimal traces of glue. The ribbon above the head of the Agyo figure is broken in two places, somewhat warped and repaired. Both figures measure approximately 180 cm in height.