1st – 3rd Century Gandharan Buddha Head

Unknown artist, 1st – 3rd Century Gandharan Buddha Head, 3-1/2″,
stucco mounted on wood.

A contemplative Gandharan Buddha head mounted on wood by none other than actor, art collector Vincent Price in the 1950’s. This example shows the Buddhavista in frontal pose with lips and area under his cap still showing signs of red pigment. Small area of loss to the left side of the face, otherwise quite nice. This ancient relic was purchased by a Colorado ancient arts gallery in August 2003 directly from Price’s daughter, Victoria, and then by myself in October of the same year.

I should say this is my favorite Vincent Price art that I’ve acquired without purposely collecting Vincent Price art! For about five years, in Southern California, most of the art that I’d come across in galleries and antique stores that gave me notice were oldies from the original Vincent Price Fine Art Collection at Sears in the 1960’s. I don’t know why but they just seemed to jump out when walking by begging me for a closer look. I had always wanted to add some real antiquity to my collection and this old Buddhavista grabbed my attention. It came at a very fair auction price with the additional perk of a documented Provenance, which is rarer still. All of this adds up to a growing appreciation for the personal side of a public figure (Price) I never knew existed (mainly because of my youth).

Traditional stucco consists of lime, sand and water, and has been used as an art medium for millennia. Portland cement was added in the late 19th century (modern stucco) to improve strength. It was used in the art of belcomposto, a Baroque concept integrating the classic arts, architecture, sculpture and painting. Islamic art used stucco as a decorative element in mosques and palaces.

So, what makes this antiquity so special, and where in time and space does it come from?

Since it’s estimated to come from the 1st through 3rd century, it’s possible it was around when Christ walked the earth. That’s incredible, and to personally own something that goes so far back in time is simply awesome. Also during the 1st century Alexandria was the focal point of Greek culture on the Mediterranean. And, in 14 AD, Augustus died leaving his stepson, Tiberius, to rule the Roman empire. It was during his rule that the principle of dynastic succession in the empire was introduced.

Other notable history includes the Han Dynasty, which, in 25 AD, established China’s lasting model of imperialism and imposed a new national consciousness that survives today. In 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted and destroyed Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae (Pliny the Elder, the author of Natural History, died in the disaster.) And in 80 AD, the Roman emperor Titus dedicated the Flavian Amphitheatre, otherwise known as the Colosseum.

Perhaps more important is where this artifact originates. When Alexander the Great was conquering all of the western and near-eastern world, his soldiers ventured into areas of Pakistan and India. In addition to leaving their progeny, they also left their influence on art and culture. Even 300 years after the Greeks were defeated their artistic influence is still evident in the Gandharan art from this region.

The Kingdom of Gandhara lasted from the 6th century BC to the 11th century AD. It attained its height from the 1st century to the 5th century under the Buddhist Kushan Kings. After it was conquered by Mahmud of Ghazni in AD 1021, the name Gandhara disappeared. Gandhara was located in what is now northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. Its main cities were Purushapura (modern Peshawar), literally meaning City of Man and Takshashila (modern Taxila). A comprehensive article on the history of ancient Gandhara can be found here.

Unfortunately, this part of the world has suffered many violent civil wars in recent times which has taken its toll on its people, and their country’s treasured antiquities.

Here’s an excerpt from Archaeology: Museum Under Siege, by Nancy Hatch Dupree:
When Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988, all but the capital of Kabul had fallen to the resistance, known as the mujahideen. When Kabul itself was taken in April 1992, ending the 14-year rule of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA), mujahideen factions began warring among themselves for control of the city. Attacks were often launched from the south, and the National Museum in Darulaman, six miles south of Kabul, was often on the front line. Each time a new faction triumphed, it would loot the ruins. On May 12, 1993, a rocket slammed into the roof of the museum, destroying a fourth- to fifth-century A.D. wall painting from Delbarjin-tepe, site of an ancient Kushan city in northern Afghanistan, and burying much of the museum’s ancient pottery and bronzes under tons of debris. Last November 16 another rocket hit the northwest wing of the museum, exposing storerooms to winter rain and snow and further depredations of the combatants. Despite efforts to mediate factional rivalries, the fighting and looting continues.
About 70 percent of the museum’s collections are now missing. Most of its vast gold and silver coin collection, which spanned the nation’s history from the Achaemenids in the sixth century B.C. through the Islamic period, has been looted. Also gone is a Greco-Bactrian hoard of more than 600 coins from Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan, dating to the third and second centuries B.C., including the largest Greek coins ever discovered. Pieces of Buddhist stucco sculptures and schist reliefs dating between the first and third centuries A.D. and Hindu marble statuary from the seventh and ninth centuries have been taken, as have carved ivories in classic Indian styles from Begram, site of the summer capital of the Kushan Empire in the early centuries A.D. Also missing are many of the museum’s prized examples of the renowned metalwork of the Ghaznavids, whose sumptuous capital flourished 90 miles southwest of Kabul during the tenth and eleventh centuries. Many of these pieces are destined for sale in Islamabad, London, New York, and Tokyo.
In early March, 2001, the Taliban decided to destroy all pre-Islamic statues and objects in Afghanistan after an edict was announced by their leader Mullah Omar in late February. The Taliban destroyed numerous statues in the Kabul Museum which survived the previous looting and destruction as a result of war. The Taliban also destroyed two giant Buddhas from the 5th century in Bamiyan and other ancient historical statues in Ghazni. One of the Buddhas in Bamiyan was the world’s tallest standing Buddha. Apparently, Peshawar, Pakistan has been the clearing house for international art trafficking selling off the museum’s most precious assets to the highest bidder. In Berenice Geoffroy-Schneiter’s book, Gandhara: The Memory of Afghanistan, you’ll find a photograph of an incredible collection of decapitated Buddhas’ heads individually wrapped in newspaper stolen from the Kabul Museum that turned-up in Peshawar. Among other things, that started me thinking about the hopelessness the victims must have felt from the loss of a cultural identity.

I mentioned in my review of a 17th century Salvator Rosa etching how awestruck I was when holding and viewing the 350 year old piece, and this relic is no exception. But, how this delicate little fragment of near-eastern history has survived such a turbulent past is almost beyond comprehension. Price became interested in antiquities in the late 1940’s, and along with friends and gallery owners, embarked on the gathering of ancient artifacts including pre-Columbian, near-eastern and African art. This is the time frame where I believe this piece falls. Earl Stendahl and Ralph Altman were very influential in the Southern California primitive art scene back then and I’m sure they both were a guiding force to Price. Although I can’t say with surety how this piece came into the country so many years ago, I am confident it was not obtained by forceful means. I know from his writings, museum donations and TV appearances that Price cherished his art, and according to his daughter this little reminder from a long lost empire was an important part of his collection. It is truly a joy to behold and a pleasure to own.

Mike-

2 comments:

  1. What can I say about it? I am totally startled with this piece of art. I too belive in Buddhism and its principles. The expression portrayed are very real.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This art make us feel that we are really seeing Lord Buddha. Especially the expression of the lips is marvelous. Truly an awesome piece of art.

    ReplyDelete