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by David Weldon
text and photos © asianart.com and the author except as where otherwise noted
October 21, 2010
Click here for a rejoinder to this article written by Michael Henss, "Thirteenth or Eighteenth Century?"
Please click here for a forum on this subject where you can post your views and impressions
on the subject of Aniko attributions.
(click on small images for large images with captions)
The most famous work attributed to Aniko is the wonderful painting of Tara in the Cleveland Museum of Art (fig. 1). The painting is generally agreed to be Tibetan but with strong Nepalese characteristics. Steven Kossak argues his case for Aniko as the creator on three main grounds: the exquisite quality of the painting; the fact that we are told that Aniko could work in any artistic style; and that stylistic elements in the Tara presage the Shalu murals painted in 1306 by artists from the Yuan court.  Ironically John Huntington and Dina Bangdel refute Kossak’s attribution in a catalogue entry for a silver statue in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (fig. 10) that they attribute to Aniko citing a sculptural style based on Chinese, Nepalese and Indian elements.  They also attribute a gold on black painting in The Art Institute of Chicago (fig. 7) to Aniko or his atelier using the same stylistic argument, and relating the painting to earlier Chinese black and gold sutra illustrations.  And Michael Henss has attributed a group of statues in various collections (figs. 13, 16, 17) to Aniko based on stylistic similarities with the Cleveland Tara and a kesi thanka of Tara (fig. 15) in the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, both of which he believes to be associated with the master.  In 1994 Anning Jing proposed an Aniko attribution for painted portraits of Khubilai Khan and his consort Chabi in the National Palace Museum, Taipei. 
In arguing his case for his attribution of the Cleveland Tara to Aniko, Kossak cites, amongst other things, the evident Nepalese stylistic traditions in the painting. Most agree with this aspect and that it was painted during the period that Aniko was active in Nepal, Tibet or China. And it is undoubtedly a masterpiece worthy of the name. But as well as the Nepalese style that clearly relates it to the traditions with which Aniko would have been most familiar, there are Indian elements in the painting that are less easily explained. Kossak cites Aniko’s biography that reports that he was proficient in both Indian and Nepalese painting traditions.  But there seems to be more to the Indian content that can be simply attributed to Aniko’s stylistic dexterity. The painting is unusual in that it does not portray complex iconographic themes like the vast majority of Tibetan paintings. It is simply a shrine. Dr. Pal has suggested that it portrays a famous Indian sanctuary of Tara.  The architecture of the shrine would suggest a site in eastern India, probably dating to the late Pala dynasty (ca. 750-1200). To enhance the verisimilitude the artist has included informed reference to common twelfth century eastern Indian motifs, as seen in period sculpture and manuscript illuminations for instance. The vine motif on the shrine’s plinth that depicts animals within scrollwork is a uniquely Indian device, as seen in the halo on a twelfth century Pala manuscript illumination and the pedestal of an eleventh or twelfth century Pala bronze (figs. 2 & 3). The shrine’s superstructure is painted predominately brown, with yellow used to define shape and detail, as in Indian painting (fig. 4). The trees and shrubs are Indian as described by Susan and John Huntington, and seen extensively in Pala manuscripts (fig. 4).  The forward facing animals within the plinth are in Indian style. There seems to be no doubt of the intent to portray an Indian place of worship. And then there is the Tibetan pilgrim visiting the shrine, seen close to Tara’s right hand.  Here the narrative is not easily explained by the Aniko attribution, or not in the way it has been presented anyway. It has been argued that Aniko painted the Tara at Sakya monastery in the early 1260s when Phags-pa was his patron. Donors or patrons are often depicted in the paintings they commission, according to Nepalese and Tibetan custom. But the colour and plain cut of the monk’s yellow robe do not immediately bring the grand Sakya tradition to mind. Phags-pa was a member of the powerful Khon clan who are normally depicted wearing sumptuous laymen’s robes and not the garb of pious monks. There are innumerable stories of pilgrimage by Tibetans to Nepal and India, and perhaps that is what is referred to in the depiction of this as yet unidentified monk worshipping at the Indian shrine of Tara.
Kossak further suggests that the style of the Tara presages the 1306 Shalu murals (fig. 5) that were painted by artists from the Yuan court, noting that the style shows a new artistic synthesis that reflects Aniko’s influence.  But couldn’t the style of the murals equally be compared with the renowned series of three thirteenth century Sakya Tathagata paintings (fig. 6)?  In both the mural and the thankas the attendant bodhisattvas are portrayed frontally as well as in profile, and are supported by large lotus petal seats. The dais is of much the same construction with animals within the tiers, and is similarly draped with a patterned throne cloth. The scroll design on the cushion behind the Tathagata is similar. The jewellery is similar, as is the broad physique of the Tathagatas. It would seem that the style of the Shalu murals could be an evolution of the established Sakya tradition as seen in these earlier Tathagata paintings, rather than necessarily being innovation by Aniko’s artists based on the style of the Cleveland Tara.
The Tara is unquestionably the finest known Himalayan painting of the thirteenth century. Nothing really comes close to its breathtaking quality, sensitivity and quite extraordinarily elaborate and beautifully painted detail. And Aniko is perceived as the greatest artist of his generation with accolades from none less than the Mongol emperor, but with no painting or sculpture so far that bears his mark. It is certainly tempting to put these two together, as Kossak says in qualifying his attribution. But for the time being more research is needed. We owe it to the traditionally unheralded Himalayan artists, one of whom may have been brilliant enough to paint the Tara but never got to be famous in the court of Khubilai Khan.
John Huntington and Dina Bangdel attribute a painting of Maitreya in The Art Institute of Chicago (fig. 7) to the master or his workshop. Stylistically, however, it is closely comparable to seventeenth and eighteenth century sculpture and painting made in China and Mongolia. The jewels of the necklaces are placed in petal settings, as they are in circa 1700 Inner Mongolian statues.  Quite different to the Yuan style of a gilt bronze Guanyin in the British Museum, for instance, where the jewels are placed in simple unembellished round, square or drop settings: the same style that continued into the Yongle and Xuande periods.  The petal style of jewellery setting is also seen on a seventeenth or eighteenth century painting of Manjushri in the Berti Aschmann Collection (fig. 8), where the crown type is also virtually identical to the Chicago Maitreya; as is the undulating waistline of the lower garment, the bracelets, armbands and foot ornaments.  Maitreya’s lower lip is pinched with almost squared sides and with a pronounced bow to the upper lip, identical to the Aschmann thanka and to innumerable Tibeto-Chinese bronzes of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. And like the Aschmann painting the Maitreya has the sun and moon in the top left and right; these symbols appear only on relatively late Himalayan, Mongolian and Tibeto-Chinese paintings, from about the seventeenth century onwards. Indeed a seventeenth century Tibeto-Chinese painting of Avalokiteshvara in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (fig. 9) has this and many other features found on both the Aschmann and the Chicago painting, and highlights a trend in this period for works that depict a single deity in a simple landscape with no accompanying figures.  Thus, the Chicago Maitreya is a Tibeto-Chinese or Mongolian work dating from the seventeenth or eighteenth century and cannot be attributed in any way to the hand or style of Aniko.
Huntington and Bangdel further argue a case for Aniko as the creator of a fine parcel-gilt silver statue of Shadakshari in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (fig. 10). They find Song/Yuan influence in the diminutive Buddha in the hair, the flow of the robes over the legs and the sash at the waist: and Nepalese features in the face, hands, feet and upper torso. No Chinese or Nepalese examples are given as reference. Perhaps the most telling comparison to this statue is an Avalokiteshvara from the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection at the Asia Society (fig. 11) which is conceived in precisely the same manner, with identical jewellery, archaistic single leaf crown, loosely knotted waist-band, hand gestures, separately cast lotus seat and so on.  The tall lotus stem supporting the seat of the Rockefeller bronze is an interpretation of a classic Indian sculptural tradition where the deity rests on an elevated platform, either alone or as part of a triad, as seen for instance in a Pala Avalokiteshvara in the Jokhang (fig. 12).  Other stylistic features adopted from foreign styles include the loosely knotted sash at the waist, common in Kashmir and early Kashmir inspired Tibetan works, and also a Pala device used in images of ascetic manifestations.  And the minimal crown set back from the forehead that is both a Pala Indian and an early Nepalese tradition.  Apart from the use of silver that denotes Shadakshari’s white iconographic colour every stylistic feature and detail on the Virginia Shadakshari is identical to the Rockefeller Avalokiteshvara, except the tall lotus stem pedestal. However, a gilded tang with a delicate lotus petal capital protrudes from the underside of Shadakshari’s lotus seat (the underside of the seat is also gilded and thus meant to be seen), and although it is now cut just below a rivet hole the purpose of the tang was to facilitate a joint to just such a pedestal as the Rockefeller Avalokiteshvara.  With its original pedestal the silver Shadakshari would have been almost identical in height to the Rockefeller Avalokiteshvara. The style choices in these two Tibetan bronzes are made as homage to earlier foreign sculpture, rather than being the product of assimilated artistic traditions from nearer the time of original contact. This is evident in the post-early Ming style of engraved textile design on the robes of each statue, for instance, and the elongated tendrils of the tall lotus stem on the Rockefeller bronze, a far cry from the actual style of a Pala original. The majority of Tibetan works that borrow elements from Pala Indian and early Nepalese styles tend to date from around the middle of the sixteenth century and continue through to the nineteenth century. In fact Susan and John Huntington date the Rockefeller bronze to the sixteenth or seventeenth century.  And this is indeed the most likely date for the two statues, both quite probably made by Nepalese artists but not by Aniko.
Michael Henss’s contribution consists of a group of statues that also draw on earlier stylistic tradition but are more literal in their archaism. Henss proposes that a Green Tara bronze in the Potala (fig. 13) is comparable to the Cleveland Tara, and by association is the work of Aniko. However, an eastern Indian Pala period Tara, also in the Potala Collection (fig. 14) is a closer reference for Henss’s Tara, so close that it could even have been the model.  Stylistic elements copied from its twelfth century Pala original include the low crown set back from the forehead and strung with beads and jewels; the tress of hair gathered in a prominent bun at the right shoulder; the patterned sash covering the left shoulder and left breast and then crossing the waist; the textile design of the cloth covering the legs; the cloth spread in undulating folds between her left leg and her pendant right leg; and the typically Pala style lower arm bands. All copied religiously from a Pala original. None of the stylistic elements described here appear on a kesi textile that Henss invites us to view as a close comparison (fig. 15).  The bright turquoise inlay of the copy, in contrast to the subtly coloured gems used in the Pala period, reveals the prevailing, somewhat garish, taste in late Tibetan work. Henss’s other attributions to his ‘Aniko group’ (figs. 16 & 17) are of the same genre and are copies of works of Pala ascetic iconography such as the Fatehpur Maitreya (figs. 18 & 19). The overt use of gold inlay in these statues mimics the Indian style but does not capture the subtlety of precious metal inlay in Pala originals. The bronzes are made in a revivalist style for Tibetan patrons, and their mannered sculptural form and detailing suggest a date of eighteenth century at the earliest, eliminating them as candidates for an Aniko style.
Furthermore Henss argues a case for the Asian Art Museum Green Tara kesi thanka (fig. 15) to be the work of Aniko’s atelier, based primarily on similarities with the Cleveland Tara. Thus the kesi Tara should date from the second half of the thirteenth century, or the very first years of the fourteenth. But stylistically it is more likely to be well into the fourteenth century at the earliest. The Vajrabhairava kesi mandala in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (fig. 20), dateable by means of the named donors to 1330-32, has a virtually identical green on black scrollwork background, the precursor of the classic Ming period scrolling vine and flower motif. The crown type of the Asian Art Museum’s Tara is already tending towards the standard five leaf diadem that goes into the Yongle/Xuande, in contrast to the style of the Cleveland Tara where the crown is set back from the forehead in the early Nepalese style: and in marked contrast to the majestic Newar crown style as seen in thirteenth century Tibetan works (fig. 6). A solid fourteenth century date for the kesi Tara seems more likely. 
If there is to be speculation on the identity of Aniko’s work then at least the date of the sculpture or painting should correspond with the period he lived, as Kossak’s attribution does. On this basis alone, apart from the Cleveland Tara, none of the works discussed above can qualify.
The aesthetic of Aniko’s style has in fact never been established. What is clear from the Chinese annals is that Aniko immersed himself in Chinese culture. He cast statues of Confucius and complicated astronomical instruments. He collected early Chinese paintings. He was a titled landlord and a doyen of the Chinese society that he served. Maybe this tells us more about where his fabled talent might have been directed, certainly as time passed during his forty odd years at court. Maybe he knew and was influenced by artists like Qian Xuan (ca. 1235-after 1300) who, among others, revived the Tang period (618-907) blue-green landscape style seen on Buddhist works in the Yuan.  Maybe he followed his adopted country’s sculptural traditions and used the uniquely Chinese medium of dry lacquer, as alluded to by Heather Stoddard?  But at this stage there is insufficient information, whether technical or art historical, to make any foolproof attribution. Far more research is needed. The opinions voiced in most of the recent attributions merely confuse the picture.
Please click here for a forum on this subject where you can post your views and impressions on the subject of Aniko attributions.
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