November to December 2002 Editorial

I START this Editorial for our Singapore Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) issue with documentary illustrations from my visit to Singapore in June 2001; though I can say our first Singapore issue dates back to July-August 1971 (and we have regularly had Singapore issues and museum coverage since then). The main article thirty-one years ago was titled “Singapore’s Museums-An Imperial Legacy” and was written by Ilsa Sharp. It is to Singapore’s credit from a heritage point of view that in establishing the ACM it was decided to restore and update the Empress Place Building and its gardens, on the elbow of the Singapore River (1) overlooking the Boat Quay (2).

The site is of undoubted historical importance as it marks Sir Stamford Raffles’ landing site, where you can now pick up river boat rides and taxi boats. The Empress Place Building needed considerable sensitive adaptation and extension for its museum gallery purposes. In the process the best features of the classical neo-Renaissance 19th century building were carefully retained and also followed.

In the third photograph (3) I am posed in front of the first Asian Civilisations Museum building on Armenian Street, once a school, with museum staff who I sincerely thank for their contributions without which this issue would not have been possible. In the group photograph, adjoining me is Kenson Kwok, the museum’s director, who I am sure will not mind my mentioning has a doctorate in architecture and planning from London University. He worked for the Housing and Development Board, Singapore from 1984 until joining the National Museum as senior curator in 1992. For the history of the museum’s establishment, the restoration and extension of the Empress Place Building, arrangement of the galleries and displays, you cannot do better than turn to Dr Kenson Kwok’s “Introduction” which starts on page 44.

Amongst the museum group, standing behind me are Ms Heidi Tan and Mr Tan Boon Hui (who writes about the Edmond Chin Collection). Edmond Chin himself is standing on the far left of the picture, slightly apart from the others. On the right side of the picture are, Ms Chung May Khuen (the taller of the ladies) and Ms Tan Huism, while standing behind them is Mr Danny Tan.

We very much enjoyed being shown the landmarks around the site by our friend Kenson. We are seen together at the museum’s entrance end of the Cavenagh Bridge close to the bridge’s twin-turreted arch (4).

At the other end of the bridge can be seen The Fullerton Singapore, the hotel across the river on the left. The second landmark is the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall with its clock tower (5). This can also be seen in our final picture of the museum and its terrace and garden from the river. It rises above the Cavenagh Bridge turret on the right-hand side of the picture (6).

While still on Singapore I would like to draw attention to our specially commissioned article for this number from the regional writer Mr Fong Peng Khuan. On our behalf he visited Singapore to personally interview Nancy Gan at her charming house and garden. He traces Nancy’s career, first as a fashion designer, then music student and London-trained music teacher. Finally he records her chosen passion as an artist and skilful porcelain painter, and the materials she uses.

Nancy is seen in this most recent photograph as the centre of attraction of a group of American and international teachers at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, where she was attending the International Porcelain Arts Teacher Convention in 2002 (7).

As the publisher of this art magazine since its foundation in 1970 I was delighted to be able to meet once again Ulrich von Schroeder when he called at my office (8) on August 6th, 2002 on his way to Beijing for a conference. This gave me the opportunity to conduct an interview but before recounting this some background is appropriate.

Ulrich von Schroeder who was born in 1943 in Zurich, is a Swiss citizen. He is married, his wife Heidi is also interested in Buddhism (9), and their son Aaron Alexander was born in 1978. In his personal data, from which I have drawn this information, he gives his hobby as Buddhism and his occupation as historian of Buddhist art and culture, but in truth, both categories have been his life work starting in 1965 to 1975 when he had his first contacts with Asian cultures and especially Buddhism during numerous travels to South and Southeast Asia.

During 1976 to 1981 he was involved as co-author and consultant with his wife Heidi with three public exhibitions on various aspects of Buddhist arts of India, Himalayas and Tibet, requiring extensive field research. The results were to be seen in his first major work, Indo-Tibetan Bronzes (1981), which established the style of Buddhist Sculptures of Sri Lanka (1990), and Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet (2001) that followed at approximately ten-year intervals. Indo-Tibetan Bronzes, which was the result of his sixteen years of studying Buddhist art, has been my own primary source as a minor student and collector in this same field. How can I forget when he first came to our offices in 1981 and sold me his Indo-Tibetan Bronzes book!

It may be said each of von Schroeder’s major works takes close to ten years of travel and field research and study to prepare and produce. His Buddhist Sculptures of Sri Lanka, with the collaboration of the Archaeological Department of Sri Lanka, was again published in Hong Kong, in 1990. The latest work, the result of no less than fourteen trips to the sites, is Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet, published in 2001 in two volumes: Volume One-India & Nepal, Volume Two-Tibet & China. The first volume is 655 pages with 766 illustrations; the second volume is 675 pages with 987 illustrations.

I have a tremendous respect and admiration for von Schroeder’s endurance, tenacity and perseverance during his last ten years of research and writing for his most recent two volumes. To me his Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet is his finest achievement so far. According to the author, his books and further information are available from Visual Dharma Publications Ltd, c/o Zurcher Freilager AG, Freilagerstrasse 47, P.O. Box, CH 8043 Zurich, Switzerland,, Tuyet Nguyet: For ten years you devoted your time on such a tough book project, Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet. Did you ever despair?

Ulrich von Schroeder: No, I never despaired, because I had earlier successfully completed other big book projects. For me such a project is not work but rather a form of meditation. It is my passion. Friends were amazed with my energy level. In the end either you are finished or the book is finished. Obviously I finished the book. It did not finish me. The obstacles did not defeat me. When I worked on this project I knew that unless my health failed I would finish the book.

However, if I had known that it would require fourteen trips to Tibet to obtain sufficient documentation I might not have started the project. Travelling in Tibet is very complicated and expensive. It is difficult to get the necessary permits. When you get ill in Tibet you have to leave the next day. I took all the photographs myself, which was a very difficult task. That is why it took fourteen trips. Some other Western scholars were wondering how I managed to get access. I am persistent. They also recognised through my earlier two large books that this kind of work is my way of life.

In the beginning I started my research with the smaller monasteries and found the valuable pieces had all disappeared. The day arrived when I realised that unless I got access to the collections of the Potala in Lhasa there would have been no book. Otherwise my work over the previous three years would have been useless.
It was a time-consuming process to get the trust of the Tibetans in charge of the Potala Palace. In return for the permissions to take photographs I provided them with books and cameras in addition to the documentation of all statues photographed. I also made them aware of the importance of protecting their collections.

It is sad that anyone who wants to study Tibetan art these days has to depend on exhibition catalogues and sales catalogues illustrating objects all dislocated from their original settings. Mine is the first and only major publication documenting Buddhist sculptures which are still in Tibet. It is also very likely that the pieces will remain in the Potala for centuries to come. That means future generations of scholars can refer to the same pieces at the Potala.

In the beginning I complained that I did not have enough photographs of a sufficient number of sculptures to make a book. But once I got access to the Potala I realised all the information would not fit in one volume. My wife and friends encouraged me to add a second volume. Personally I was a little concerned that the market would not be able to absorb it. I have done this work as a private individual without any official permission or grant.

On May 17th, 2002, the Swiss Ambassador to China invited numerous Chinese officials and scholars of Tibetan culture to the inauguration of my book. Everyone seemed to be delighted. On that occasion I gave away ten free copies to local institutions and libraries. In June 2002 I visited together with my wife and son the monasteries in Tibet where I had taken photographs and presented copies of my book. The reaction of the Chinese and Tibetan scholars has been very positive. I have since been invited to give lectures at various institutions.

TN: What is your most vivid memory in Tibet? UvS: The cold gilding to the Jobo Rinpoche together with my wife and son last June. This image is the most sacred and famous of all Buddha images in Tibet and traditionally believed to have been donated in the 7th century by the Chinese Princess Wencheng. Most people are only allowed to gild the face with gold powder. However for me they held a major ceremony with monks chanting while the whole statue was cold gilded and the eyes painted (10). It should be mentioned that the books are dedicated to the Jobo image.

TN: Of all the beautiful arts you have seen which would you treasure most? UvS: There is not just one particular image. Each time I would point out another sculpture. But it would always be one of the early statues of the Yarlung dynasty dating from the 7th/8th century. In all previous books on Tibetan art published sculptures date at the earliest from the 11th century. My discoveries have expanded the Tibetan history of art by almost four hundred years! One of the oldest Tibetan statues I know is in my collection and had earlier been published three times as Nepalese (11). So far there have been no objections to my attribution of similar statues of the Yarlung dynasty. Among them is the composite image with aspects of Agni, Yama, Kubera and Hayagriva in the Jokhang temple in Lhasa. My conclusions are based on thirty-seven years of research modified by collaboration with other scholars. If ten years ago I thought I already knew everything then I would not have produced another two volumes. Still, everyday I learn something.

TN: What criteria can you use to assert whether something is Nepalese or made in Tibet? UvS: For me history of art is the history of style. At present there is an academic dispute whether a thangka was painted by a Tibetan or an Indian. However this debate neglects references to the style, which according to my personal opinion in this case is purely Indian. The same applies to sculptures. Works cast by Nepalese artists within their own culture differ in style from those cast by Nepalese for Tibetan patrons and those cast by Tibetans themselves.
Himalayan and Tibetan art is the most complicated in terms of style for the whole Southeast Asian region. That is why it takes a very long time to build up the aptitude and experience. That is why there are only few new books written in this field. It is also important to handle personally the objects and not to work only with pictures.

TN: You have mentioned in your writing that during the second propagation of Buddhism in the 11th century no Tibetan artists would have been able to cast refined statues?

UvS: In my opinion it takes several generations to become master craftsmen. It is also something that has to be inborn. If it had been easy to master these crafts, then would the Tibetans have invited Nepalese and Indian craftsmen to come to Tibet?

TN: How do you explain the numerous Chinese metal statues of the Yongle (1403-1424) and Xuande (1426-1435) periods in Tibet?

UvS: These statues were gifts by the Chinese emperors of the Ming dynasty to particular Tibetan teachers and monasteries. That may be an explanation why the Yongle inscriptions sometimes read left to right as the Tibetans do in their own language. There exist Chinese records which list the number of statues given as gifts during the Yongle and Xuande periods. There are hundreds of Yongle statues in the collections of the Potala Palace. But the repetitions of certain iconographies limited the number of statues to be illustrated in my publication. Chinese Buddhist statues were mostly made in China’s Beijing Imperial workshops. In general they were made with the help of reusable wax matrices. This is why the styles are so consistent. If the workshops in China were not so controlled and “centralised” then you might have a greater number of styles as in Tibet. Some of the Yongle period statues in the Palace Museum in Beijing were received as a gift from a Dalai Lama.

TN: How do you distinguish metal statues of the Yongle and Xuande periods?

UvS: If an early Ming Buddhist statue has anarrow pedestal it is more likely to be Yongle. If the pedestal is broader then it is more likely to be Xuande. I go into this in the last chapter of my book.

TN: Do you feel the Xuande images are as beautiful as the Yongle pieces?

UvS: In general the finishing touches of the Xuande statues are less refined than of those cast during the Yongle period. The quality of some of the Yongle statues is unsurpassed in Ming China. The Xuande statues are however more rare. In my book I regret there are only three Xuande examples.

TN: You distinguish in your book between brass and gilt statues. Which ones are superior?

UvS: “Real” connoisseurs go for non-gilt pieces. However, the quality of craftsmanship has nothing to do with whether it is gilded or not.

TN: Besides Tibet where in the world should we go to see high-quality Tibetan art?

UvS: Actually Tibet is not the place where you want to go to see Tibetan art. The larger sculptures are all dressed up and the smaller pieces are kept behind glass. I would advise your readers to go to the following museums: the Ashmolean Musuem in Oxford, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Brooklyn Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum, Musée Guimet in Paris, Museum der Kulturen in Basel, Newark Museum, Norton Simon Foundation in Pasadena, or the Berti Aschmann Foundation at the Rietberg Museum in Zurich.

TN: Finally what is your next project?

UvS: I am on my way to Beijing to attend an international conference on Tibetan archaeology and art. It has to do with new discoveries. At the inauguration of my new book in Beijing earlier this year I met a number of Chinese and Tibetan scholars for the first time. I want to further the relationship.

Coming to visit me on August 20th, was Italian Oriental art specialist, traveller and author Renzo Freschi. A fluent writer, he first contributed to Arts of Asia in 1987 on “Mukhalinga-The Countenance of the Hero God” (January-February 1987) and “Indian Horses and Horsemen” (July-August 1987). Renzo’s gallery is in Milan and from October 15th to November 30th will hold an exhibition and sale of more than fifty stone sculptures from the 2nd-11th century, coming from Central and North India. Amongst these, a considerable succession of female figures and Hindu gods’ steles includes a sandstone Nagaraja, Rajasthan, 10th century, height 87 cm (12).

A forty-four page accompanying catalogue with three essays on “Sculpture, Aesthetics and Mythology” of India, has been written by two Italian scholars, and presents thirty particular works with specific texts.

The first forty to fifty pages or so of each issue of Arts of Asia that follow my Editorial are amongst the most carefully scrutinised by our worldwide readers. These pages are the presentations of foremost international art dealers and auction houses, and show what will be offered in their galleries and salerooms, and at notable coming events. For instance, noticeable in this edition are the desirable pieces which will be offered by London’s major Asian art dealers and auction houses during the fifth “Asian Art in London”, from November 7th-15th, 2002. I list for the record the names of those participating companies which appear in our pages: A&J Speelman, Alexander Götz, Anthony Carter, Eskenazi Ltd, John Eskenazi, Priestley & Ferraro, Oriental Arts (UK) Ltd, Roger Keverne Ltd, S. Marchant & Son, Sotheby’s, and Theresa McCullough Ltd.

The following illustrations come from five of these companies holding special exhibitions in their galleries to coincide with the London occasion. Seen first is a Chinese gilt bronze figure of a seated louhan (disciple of Buddha), Liao dynasty, height 24.2 cm (13). According to A&J Speelman it will be seen at their 129 Mount Street gallery together with over fifty Chinese sculptures and works of art covering the last two thousand years. No other gilt bronze louhan from this period appears to have been published.

Eskenazi Ltd is showing two rare Chinese porcelain fish jars of the 14th and 16th centuries at 10 Clifford Street, as the centerpiece of their autumn exhibition. Seen here is the earlier of the two-a porcelain guan (jar) painted in underglaze blue with four fish swimming amongst aquatic plants, Yuan dynasty, height 28.5 cm (14). Accompanying these two exceptional jars will be an excellent range of other Chinese works of art such as bronzes, early ceramics, sculpture and other pieces of fine porcelain for which this London company is noted.

James Hennessy of Oriental Arts (UK) Ltd at 1 Princess Place, Duke Street, told me he, Richard Littleton and Geoffrey Chapman are delighted to be partaking in this year’s Asian Art in London and look forward to seeing all their friends during this exciting time. His chosen image is of a meiping (vase) with plum blossom decoration, Jizhou ware of the Southern Song dynasty, height 22.2 cm (15). Also of special interest is their Zhengde mark and period monochrome yellow glaze dish and a Qianlong mark and period carved cinnabar lacquer dragon box and cover.

Roger Keverne of 16 Clifford Street is a well-known expert on jade. He first wrote for us in our July-August 1975 issue on “Jade: A Review of the Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum”. Of particular note in his coming exhibition is a rhyton cup formerly in the collections of J. P. Morgan and the American Museum of Natural History, New York. There is a similar example in the Forbidden City, Beijing. A fine and unusual small jade boulder with figures in relief, 18th century, height 9.5 cm will also be seen (16). Other offerings include 18th century Chinese examples of cloisonné, lacquer, glass and scholars’ desk items, and Chinese bronzes of the Warring States, Western Han and later periods.

Theresa McCullough is a London-based dealer specialising in Indian and Southeast Asian works of art, predominantly sculpture as well as Southeast Asian gold jewellery and textiles. Also a former specialist at Spink and Son Ltd, where she developed her expertise for an international market, she opened her own gallery in June 2000. She will be showing at 35 Dover Street a collection of stone, bronze and terracotta sculpture from India and Southeast Asia. Her pink sandstone Sarasvati (goddess of wisdom, music and speech) (17), Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan, India, 11th century, height 56 cm is one of the most popular and easily recognised of the Indian goddesses. For Hindus she is the consort of Brahma, though as here is most often depicted separately. She is also revered by Buddhists and Jains.

I had the pleasure of attending the opening party and exhibition of fine early Chinese furniture on September 6th marking the 20th anniversary of Altfield Gallery in Hong Kong. The neat six-page invitation-brochure explained there were two distinct groups of furniture displayed. “Firstly an important group of ‘Early Traditional’ style pieces, many of them lacquered” and a second group which “falls into the ‘Traditional Classical’ style which are more restrained, and simple, and often found in the later hardwood furniture of the Ming and Qing.”

The joint owners of the company-David Halperin, a notable American lawyer, and his radiant associate Amanda Lack (Mrs Stephen Clark)-are seen welcoming guests (18). I wish the Altfield group continuing and still wider success, not only in Hong Kong but also at their expanding premises in England and Thailand.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art from October 1st, 2002 to January 5th, 2003 will be showing an exhibition of Ordos artefacts, mainly a Eugene V. Thaw gift with selections from other private collections and the Metropolitan’s holdings. “The more than two hundred works in bronze, gold and silver include horse harness and chariot fittings, belt ornaments, garment plaques, weapons and vessels that are characterised by bold designs and skilled craftsmanship.” In recognition of the gift and exhibition, J.J. Lally & Co. will be showing in their gallery in New York in October and November a fine group of Ordos bronzes, including a bronze openwork plaque with two ibex, northern China, Xiongnu, circa 2nd century BC, length 14 cm (19).

On December 4th, 2002, Sotheby’s Amsterdam will auction a collection of some thirty Chinese paintings including four by Qi Baishi, the former property of a late Austrian owner who lived in China in the 1930s and 1940s. Drs Feng-Chun Ma, Director of the Amsterdam auction house, has sent me a most interesting photograph showing the artist Qi Baishi at the age of ninety-seven at the entrance to his residence in Beijing (20). Her own father, Mr Ma Wen-Shan, was a friend of Qi Baishi and is seen on the artist’s left holding his hand. On the right of Qi Baishi are two of his sons and a friend. The Chinese text in simplified characters on the top of the photograph identifies the date as April 25th, 1957, the year that Qi Baishi died.

Mr Ma Wen-Shan was one of the earliest dealers in Chinese antiques in the Netherlands. He was born in Shandong province and came to the Netherlands in the 1930s with his wife (Feng-Chun’s mother) who was also from Shandong. Feng-Chun’s father “was well-known for the love for his homeland China and promoted friendly relationships between China and the Netherlands. He contributed to the construction of bridges and the building of schools in his native province Shandong. Until his death in 1979 he had been Chairman of the Society of Overseas Chinese in the Netherlands. In this function he was received during one of his frequent visits to China by Chairman Deng Xiaoping for a banquet in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. He passed on his passion for China and its art and culture to his children who were all born in the Netherlands.”
Before returning to Singapore and closing my Editorial I would like to mention the unusual exhibition that will be held by the new National Museum of Australia in collaboration with the Guangzhou Museum of Art in Guangzhou (Canton) City, Guangdong province, China where it will take place. Titled “Past & Present-Stories from Australia by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Communities”, it will focus on their rich cultures. It opens on December 6th, 2002 to mark the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and Australia. For more information I suggest readers contact Martin Portus, Director of Public Affairs, National Museum of Australia, GPO Box 1901, Canberra Act 2601, Tel: +61(0)2-6208-5351, Fax: +61(0)2-6208-5398, E-mail:
Finally, from the very latest information received from Singapore, the opening date of the Singapore Asian Civilisations Museum is likely to be the end of February 2003. It is forecast to be a notable occasion and this November-December 2002 issue of Arts of Asia will have its place as an important and topical part. The museum has pre-ordered a substantial number of copies for their supporters and distinguished guests who have been invited to the opening. One thousand guests are expected to attend including the Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, Senior Minister Lee Kwan Yew and other representatives of their countries and museums.

Subscribe to Arts of Asia

For Connoisseurs and Collectors of Asian Art