A hibitsu or “secret Buddha” is a temple statue, not necessarily of the Buddha, that is shown rarely or not at all. Cultures around the globe have religious art intended to be displayed on special occasions. Japan takes this universal idea to chronological extremes. Some hibitsu are shown only every 7 years, or 33 years, 0r 60 years. In a few cases they have been made with the intention of never being displayed at all. LACMA’s new Fudo Myoo: The Indomitable Foe of Evil (about 1125), a gift of Irene Christopher, Scott M. Delman, and the 2012 Collectors Committee may be one of these rarely-seen objects.
It’s the latest coup of curator Robert T. Singer, who’s been equally adept at locating little-known works, navigating Japan’s complex export rules, and convincing wealthy Angelenos to put up funds. Fudo Myoo is a Buddhist guardian that loosely derives from the fierce Shiva of the Hindu pantheon. The LACMA carving is 39 inches high, the size of the Fudo Myoo at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts or a seated version in San Francisco, though considerably smaller than a life-size standing figure at the Metropolitan Museum. All four sculptures are 12th century. The two East Coast versions are of joined woodblock construction and have been repaired over the years. The LACMA figure is carved from a single block of Zelkova wood, otherwise used for fine furniture. According to Singer, the continuity of the wood grain demonstrates that fragile details like the hair braid and fingers are original. The state of preservation argues that the carving was long protected from the elements and perhaps even the light of day.
The most famous hibitsu has an American connection, too. It’s the 7th-century Yumedono Kannon (or Guze Kannon) in the Horyu-ji temple, about 30 miles south of Kyoto. A gilded, just-over-life-size figure, it was wrapped in 1/3 of a mile of white silk and never shown to anybody, not even the priests. In 1884 the Japanese government permitted flamboyant 31-year-old American Japanophile Ernest Fenollosa (left) and 22-year-old Japanese scholar Okakura Tensin to unwrap it.
Does the “unwrapping” business sound like a mummy movie? Well yes… there was a curse involved. Some predicted that bad fortune would befall the unwrappers. Inside of all that silk, Fenollosa and Okakura found the greatest and best-preserved monumental sculpture from 7th-century Japan (detail at right). Fenollosa’s comment was, “Korean of course.”
Probably not. Contemporary opinion supposes it to record the features of Prince Shotoku in the style of sculptor Tori Busshi, both Japanese c. 600. In a balance between tradition and access, the Yumedono Kannon is now shown at its temple, briefly, twice a year.
The find made Fenollosa and Okakura’s names as surely as King Tut did Howard Carter’s. Each was later curator of Japanese art at Boston MFA. Fenollosa had a lucrative sideline on the lecture circuit, taking advantage of a rich baritone speaking voice and an encyclopedic grasp of art, literature, and history. It was Okakura who secured Boston’s Fudo Myoo; he was also an advisor to Isabella Stewart Gardner and author of The Book of Tea. Both men did much to advance American appreciation of Japanese art and culture.
In September 1885 Fenellosa renewed his contract with Boston MFA. The next month his wife Lizzie filed for divorce, and Ernest took that as an opening to marry his 30-year-old curatorial assistant.
Naturally the scandal made him unemployable in Boston. The museum backed out of the contract. Fenollosa and trophy wife did what cursed Bostonians have always had to do. They moved to New York.