Asian Art - Sale Record
November 29, 2014 6:13 PM   Subscribe

A large, Yongle-Ming period Buddhist embroidery sold at auction this week for $45 million - the highest price ever paid for a piece of Asian art. The 11ft x 7ft (335cm x 213cm) silk & gold thread thangka from the early 15th century depicts "Raktayamari, a meditational deity in Mahayana Buddhism, in an embrace with his consort, Vajravetali." ~~~ Full screen hi-res zoom frame /// Short overview video /// NYTimes /// Note the 'Lot Notes' and 'Features' tabs in the main Christie's link (where there are overview/context essays too).
posted by peacay (21 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Guaranteed to Thai any room together
posted by hal9k at 6:33 PM on November 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

Googly eyes - an important part of human history since forever.
posted by angerbot at 6:34 PM on November 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

The thing I find interesting about that piece is how culturally bound artistic preferences can be. I can look at that tapestry and see how beautifully crafted it is and how much thought and effort it must have taken to compose and execute it, but I can't really admire it the way I might admire a piece of art from an artistic tradition with which I'm more familiar. I don't have the right frame of reference to see it as a beautiful object without first seeing how different it is from what I expect to see in a beautiful object.

It is very odd to see something that intellectually I know is rare and worthy of admiration but for which I can't emotionally feel an aesthetic appreciation. That makes me think that my expectation of an emotional aesthetic connection is culturally bound itself. Perhaps one is not supposed to feel that sense of linkage to this artwork, although I would find that curious as well since it's a piece of religious art.
posted by winna at 6:49 PM on November 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm glad that non-western art collectors are able to maintain their cultural dimensionality at the high echelons of wealth. Makes me feel like the world won't flatten completely with globalization if that makes any sense.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:57 PM on November 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

For some background, representations like this, of sexual union between a male and female diety, are called "yab-yum", which is supposed to represent duality. It literally translates as "father-mother".

Probably a little too juvenile a thought, but it's always reminded me of Anne Sexton's "The Papa and Mama Dance".
posted by wormwood23 at 7:17 PM on November 29, 2014

Hmm. At what moment do we recognize China as a capitalist client state of the USA? I'm thinking when Nixon arrived. Tiananmen Square being no different from any other authoritarian quashing of dissent to American Business, and indeed... after Tiananmen? Where is most of everything manufactured? The Party was rewarded. Communism is now the slave of the Capitalist State. Only states that have strong democratic roots will resist, which is why ultra-right parties in Europe have the money to suddenly matter in national elections, perhaps? I dunno.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:21 PM on November 29, 2014

The Christie's link has a picture that can be zoomed to an impressively high magnification, with some amusing little ghosts where images were stitched together. Anyway, since I do embroidery I enjoyed looking at the stitches and admiring the skill of the artisans, and at the same time wondering why some aspects seemed kind of crude. Like the shading of the deity figures - they look almost polka dotted. Maybe the dyes have faded unevenly? Even so, it looks like a range of only 2 to 4 different shades were used in most areas apart from the deities, which seems kind of skimpy for an imperial-quality work. Was that just the style?

One little detail I'd like to point out, which illustrates the skill of the embroiderers: the flames in the background are outlined in gold thread, which gives a hard bright line. To make the tips of the flames look more flickery and ephemeral, they made feathery silk stitches over the gold. Impressive little detail!
posted by Quietgal at 7:25 PM on November 29, 2014 [11 favorites]

I wouldn't have thought that two folks doing it while balancing on a flaming cow would be so powerful erotic, but, well - I'll be in my bunk.
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 9:24 PM on November 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Christies is handling some amazing collections of Asian Art lately, like this auction of Samurai arms and armor. That is probably a FPP in and of itself. A few highlights: Edo era matchlock gun, Muromachi era armor and of course rare katana.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:49 PM on November 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

gorgeous but wtf
posted by Corduroy at 10:16 PM on November 29, 2014

Hmm. At what moment do we recognize China as a capitalist client state of the USA?

When we completely over estimate the U.S. and underestimate China.
posted by vorpal bunny at 10:17 PM on November 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

Quietgal, interesting thoughts. Way down in small text in the first link is this passage, I wonder if you might gain insight there and tell us all please! You clearly know what you're talking about!

The majority of the Qing thangka are set against a blue background and of an overall light and elegant palette, with regular long and short stitch being the predominant type of stitch employed, and the grounds often fully embroidered. In contrast, the present thangka abounds with colours, where more than fourteen colours have been used in the depiction of the loblanket alone, which is embroidered with lotuses in red, yellow, blue, green, pink and gold against a brilliant ground of red, with each petal gradually transitioning from dark to light in three shades of the same base colour, and supported on scrolls in pale green, all within borders of couched gold-wrapped thread (fig.8). Furthermore, the lotus base is constructed from four petals in colours of red, green, blue and gold in high saturation, where each petal is rendered in four shades of the same colour (fig.9), achieving a subtle and natural transition that demonstrates the wide spectrum of dye colours available during the early Ming period as a result of the sophisticated level of dyeing technology at that time.
posted by lazaruslong at 10:22 PM on November 29, 2014

Cash cow.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 12:00 AM on November 30, 2014

Wow! The zoom is absolutely fantastic; it's wonderful to see so much detail in this incredible work. Who is the blue guy they are standing on? (Raktayamari's right foot is on his head)
posted by taz at 12:54 AM on November 30, 2014

Yep, the chicken cup guy. It bothers me that a cultural and historical monument like this can even pass into private hands, never mind this guy's.
posted by 1adam12 at 3:13 AM on November 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

My sister in law is a trained thangka sewer. (Brother in law paints them.)

I'm totally getting her to whip a few up now for my great great great grand kiddies.
posted by taff at 3:24 AM on November 30, 2014

When I visited this page in Firefox, the title in the url bar was:

posted by zippy at 10:34 AM on November 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Some folks have too much money.
posted by kinnakeet at 12:57 PM on November 30, 2014

Who is the blue guy they are standing on?
The locked couple is trampling on the blue corpse of Yama, the Lord of death.

I wonder who was Sir Tashi Namgyal's old English friend?
posted by unliteral at 6:28 PM on November 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks, lazaruslong *blush*. I read the fine print you suggested and, while I can't comment on art history or iconography, I saw a little discussion of the stitch used to fill in the figures, called long and short stitch. In the examples on the Pinterest link, the stitches flow with the outline of the figure and give smooth and naturalistic shading (this is "irregular long and short stitch"). In contrast, on the thangka the rows of stitches march uniformly across the figure. The last analysis, from the Palace Museum in Beijing, says "A number of distinctive embroidery techniques have been used in accomplishing this masterpiece, one of the most prominent being the use of regular long and short stitches [to] represent the human body and large solid areas of colours, creating an overall visual effect marked by horizontal striations ... This type of stitch is rarely used in embroidery to represent the human body" To my eye, these striations look clunky in contrast to the graceful shading of irregular long and short stitch.

The analysis also says "Another distinctive feature of this thangka is the representation of muscles and highlights in concentric ovals rendered in gradual shades of the same color" which looked a bit comical to me, like polka dots. The author says it's not known exactly where this embroidery was done but there are a few others like it, so these techniques were probably the "house style".

I'm not sure I buy the argument that a limited range of shades was due to the dyeing technology of the time - I think once you have a good dye, you can dilute it in whatever increments you want to produce gradations of color. And these dyes were amazingly good, to retain such vibrant colors after 500 years! Again, I think it was more likely the "house style" to use limited shades - the stiff rows of stitches wouldn't produce subtle color blends anyway.

It was really neat to look at close-ups of various areas and recognize many of the techniques that are still used today in Japanese embroidery, which is what I'm familiar with. (Long story, but traditional Japanese silk and gold embroidery is now taught outside Japan in an effort to keep it alive - as a profession it may die out, but as a hobby it can survive.) Some things don't change much in 500 years, it seems.
posted by Quietgal at 7:32 PM on November 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

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