They are unique and captivating. They are also, surprisingly, controversial proving that debate over female beauty, particularly as it relates to weight, is anything but a modern issue. The series of earthernware female figures are part of an exhibition of Tang Dynasty treasures excavated near” Xi’an, China, dating back more than 1000 years. Although particularly notable for their extravagant, sometimes multiple, chignons, it’s their apparent “plumpness” (the official description) that has been the cause of comment.
“There have been two specious claims about the female image in the Tang dynasty: that women tended to expose their cleavage and that society considered plumpness as the main form of beauty,” says the official brochure to the exhibition currently on display in Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales, continuing. “… both are subjective misconceptions that result from the legend that Emperor Xuanzong favoured the voluminous concubine Yang Guifei.”
It later goes on to point out that in Tang-era poetry “it is very common to read words such as ‘small waist’ and ‘slim’ in the description. Yes, historical accuracy is critical. But, looking at this collection of female figures, the observer cannot help but be struck by two inescapable facts: they are definitely not skinny and they are utterly, awesomely, beautiful by any standard.
Tang, Treasures from the Silk Road capital, is currently on at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, in Sydney, until July 9 and includes almost two hundred statues, gold, silver and glass objects, It also features an installation that allows you to “explore” that Cave of the Thousand Buddhas, an ancient Buddhist grotto within the UNESCO World Heritage site which is no longer accessible to visitors.