When I lived in Turin way back when, the best museum in town was the Museo Egizio which has an amazing collection of mummies that I don’t think my brother has ever gotten over. For the first time since 1966, I went back this summer — and, at least for me, the mummies have competition: a little funerary statue made in 8th-century China.
A lot of other Tang period figures are dynamic — dancers flicking ribbons, grooms flexing muscles, camels that look like they’re about to do that rocking motion they do in order to raise themselves from sit to stand. But this guy is not only twisting his torso and glaring down at who knows what, he is finely made and quite beautiful. And this is not something you can say about a lot of Tang figures depicting foreigners. Often their features are a tad grotesque or buffoonish.
Add to this the fact that nobody really knows for sure just who or what this figure is supposed to be, and you’ve got yourself a pretty irresistible piece. One I certainly could not resist and was lucky enough to get to write about in the Wall Street Journal. First time I’ve written a ‘masterpiece essay,‘ and I hope not the last. When you review a show, there is so much going on — the layout, the concept, the works themselves — that you get to devote at most a few lines to its most spectacular pieces. So what a treat to investigate a single piece and realize first-hand how much of art history is detective work.