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4. Woodcarving Techniques for Scale

By David Bilbrey

Although a common medium since Japan’s earliest days of Buddhism, it was around the mid-Heian period (10th century) when wood became the most dominant material used for sculpting Butsuzō (some believe that Buddhism’s widespread absorption of the native Shinto was due in part to the indigenous religion’s worship of trees). Worldwide, however, the majority of old wooden art suffered from the same challenges, which limited many compositions to be as slender and upright as their tree trunk sources. In some cultures, separately sculpted arms or other protrusions were attached to the main body, but for centuries (if not several millennia) the majority of woodcarvers around the globe were held back by these limitations.

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Kannon(Avalokitesvara) or Guze Kannonn, wood plated with gold, crown: bronze openwork gilt.

Much of the earliest extant wooden Butsuzō from the Asuka period (7th century) shared these frustrations. The Horyuji’s Guze Kannon and Shitenno group, for example (which were either imported or artistically influenced from Korea), were sculpted from single beams of lumber, with arms held close to the sides, save for affixed hands or other small attachments. Many other sculptures were also mainly carved from large and heavy blocks of wood. Over the years, however, Japan aggressively worked to break free of wood’s spacial restrictions, while also distancing itself artistically from Korean and Chinese influence. This ultimately resulted in an exclusively Japanese aesthetic, called the Wayo style. Let’s examine the evolution of Japan’s woodcarving approaches.

The early “single block” technique for producing statuary is called ichiboku zukuri. Generally speaking, this is when the head and torso are carved from the same piece of solid wood. This approach proved to be cumbersome in regards to weight, uneven drying and the aforementioned compositional limitations, but solutions soon emerged. In the 9th century, sculptors more frequently hollowed out the thickest parts of a solid Butsuzō, in an attempt to lighten the weight and also allow for the wood to dry more evenly. This rough hollowing process is called uchiguri.

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Although a good theoretical idea, the difficulty of performing uniform uchiguri on a solid wood sculpture proved to be difficult because “hollowing” was usually attempted from the bottom or backside of a statue. But it didn’t take long for artisans to discover that splitting the head/torso core in half along the grain allowed for removing much more of the wood’s inner mass. The halves were then glued or stapled back together at the parting line. This split-and-hollow technique became known as warihagi, and its use also permitted the creation of larger statues because of how it addressed the weight issue.

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Warihagi quickly evolved into a revolutionary method which freed the artist to create the most magnificent Butsuzō of ancient times. The busshi Jōchō is generally credited by historians as the first champion of joining multiple blocks of wood together to build large-scale compositions. This method of sculpting is called yosegi zukuri. The blocks were cut down to their approximate respective sizes in order to more quickly remove unwanted material, which greatly accelerated the sculpting process. This radical approach to woodcarving held many advantages over the ichiboku zukuri and warihagi methods, allowing for statuary that could be worked on by several sculptors at once. Yosegi zukuri resulted in aggressive Butsuzō production on an unprecedented scale in terms of speed, quantity and size, despite the virtual deforestation of Japan’s enormous ancient trees.

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When executed by a skilled busshi, all of the techniques listed above will result in a successfully carved statue. But as you can see, the yosegi zukuri approach is capable of producing a finished piece on a grand scale, multiple times larger than a statue carved from a solid block. Due the these milestone revelations in woodcarving, it is inarguable that Japan’s production of Butsuzō singlehandedly led the world in terms of advanced and innovative solutions to producing statuary with one of the earth’s most precious resources. With proper care and safe handling, priceless works of ancient art carved from trees will last for centuries on end!

David Bilbrey

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

© Carving the Divine 2018