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10. A Tribute to the Lesser-Knowns

by David Bilbrey

As one who has worked with a mallet and chisel, the subject of any artwork’s attribution has always been fascinating to me. Is the true creator of a statue the one who did the dirty work, or the one who dictated how the dirty work is performed? Clearly, there are different stages in the production of sculpture, and the responsibilities for executing these stages are directed by the master-in-charge, who is usually the head of a sculpting guild. For the yogesi-zukuri (joined woodblock) process, the early tasks include lumber selection, rough assemblage and volume removal, using saws and other tools which accelerate the subtraction process. The image’s shape, proportions and composition are then determined by means of hammer and chisel, which is generally regarded as the most complex step of the creation process. Final surface details are then discovered and drawn forth, before ornaments, dedicatory objects and polychroming are inserted or applied. All of this work is directed by the school’s head sculptor, as apprentices are either assigned to carry out the less-difficult tasks or ordered to step back while the master makes the defining decisions. With so many hands involved, though, how should the creation process be remembered? Unfortunately, historical attribution may not always reflect an accurate account of sculptor(s) involvement, as credit may be steered to cater to the best interests of value, ownership and general attraction.

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Seated Dainichi Nyorai by Unkei (Enjoji, Nara)

For instance, permit me to use two “verified” works of Unkei as examples of how attribution can sometimes favor the more prominent names in the business. Between 1175-1176, a statue of Dainichi Nyorai was created for the Enjō-ji by the means of a rare and very difficult dry-lacquer finishing technique on top of a wooden core. An inscription inside the pedestal states that the sculpture was made by “Unkei, true apprentice of great busshi Kōkei”. Historians are eager to exclusively attribute this masterpiece to Unkei, and cite it as his earliest extant work. However, as the inscription states, Unkei worked under the direct supervision of his father Kōkei, who was by no means an unknown or inexperienced sculptor. Due to the complexity of the process, it is easy to imagine Master Kōkei often guiding Unkei’s hand, as proportions were taught and layers of lacquer were applied to the sculpted wooden core & polished to mirror perfection before being gilded and decorated. Why should Kōkei, the leader of the Kei school and Unkei’s master, be excluded from receiving at least partial attribution?

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Kofuku-ji Hokuen-do National Treasure 国宝興福寺北円 February 11 2014, Author Photo by Nekosuki

Fast-forwarding a few years, between 1208 to 1212, Unkei and his apprentices produced a ten-figure sculpture group for the Kōfuku-ji’s Hokuendo (North Octagonal Hall) in Nara. This group is famous for multiple reasons, not the least of which is the central figure of Miroku Nyorai (which further evolves the wayo style by drifting a bit from Jōchō’s canon of proportions). Two of these figures, the imaginary standing portraits of the Hosso sect’s Indian founders named Muchaku and Seshin, are included in this group. An inscription inside the base of the central Miroku statue documents the names of the apprentices “in charge” of each of the respective ten figures. Unkei is clearly assigned to the central Miroku figure, but other names are connected to each of the surrounding sculptures.

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Hosso Patriarchs of Hokuendo (Seshin) at Kofukuji Monastery

The inscription unquestionably assigns Unkei’s “fifth son,” a sculptor named Unga, as being “in charge” of the Seshin statue (the name of the sculptor assigned to Muchaku is unfortunately damaged and illegible). Yet, historians exclusively credit Unkei as the creator of these masterpieces, which are amongst the most famous statues in Japanese history. From an image-maker’s point of view, I originally had a difficult time understanding what was happening here. If Unga was “in charge” of Seshin, why is Unkei exclusively credited as the statue’s sole sculptor? Even under the tightest micromanaging by Unkei, should historians be so quick to bypass Unga’s involvement which was so clearly documented at the time of completion? Conversely, why is the young apprentice Unkei credited as the sole creator of the Dainichi Nyorai, although he was working directly under his father, Master Kōkei? To understand this, it was necessary for me to revisit the relationship between the master & apprentice, the work involved in a studio and a general attitude surrounding historical art.

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Hosso Patriarchs of Hokuendo (Seshin) at Kofukuji Monastery

Throughout history, famous and influential artists have surrounded themselves with apprentices. Although Michelangelo’s contemporary biographer states that Michelangelo himself insisted that he sculpted alone, we know from records and testimonials that he had apprentices throughout his life and career. After a certain level of ranking and/or celebrity has been reached, any level of involvement tends to isolate and favor a master in terms of attribution. This could be why Kōkei was largely overlooked in regards to attributing the Dainichi Nyorai. The “rock star” status that Unkei ultimately attained commanded a larger draw for temple patrons and individuals who partake in art pilgrimages. It is almost certain that the Enjō-ji would receive fewer visitors if its central image was merely attributed to Kōkei, so the temple and art historians may be biased in favor of connecting the work to Unkei. As well, we may entertain the notion that Master Kōkei was a generous teacher, taking pride in the talents and drive that was displayed at such an early age, and did not mind that his brilliant son and apprentice be given due credit in regards to how much time Unkei invested for such a difficult creation process.

Of course, in regards to fame, the other side of the token rings true for the Seshin statue. If, as the inscription states, the sculpture was attributed to a clearly talented but relatively unestablished Unga, it would be unimaginable for art historians to concede that Japan’s most well-known portrait masterworks were not carved by Unkei, its most famous sculptor, as his career reached full maturity. Considering we have only one or two other works which may be Unga’s, which are of a vastly different style than the portrait sculptures, we are unable to compare these statues in order to determine whose hand was ultimately responsible for the incredible realism on display in the Kōfuku-ji’s famous octagonal hall.

Regardless, the bottom line is that although it may literally be more accurate to kindly attribute works of art to a full studio in lieu of a lone individual, a master is largely regarded as the one who dictates style and output, despite the individual talents and flavors of his or her apprentices. In other words, works from studios are often historically credited to the sculptor-in-charge. Sometimes, though, as illustrated above, a master (or future famous master) at any level of involvement appears to have the upper hand in terms of historical attribution. Keeping this line of thinking respectfully in mind, I personally tend to support that Kōkei, as the master of the Kei school, should be given at least partial attribution for the Enjō-ji’s Dainichi Nyorai. By contrast, I should like Unga to be favorably remembered in regard to his contributions to the production of the Kōfuku-ji’s Seshin statue.

David Bilbrey

Sculptor and Art History hound David Bilbrey lives in Southern California with his wife and two kids

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