Once at Mia: Buddha arrives—a face of “benign contemplation”

It was early November in 1936 when Elizabeth Carney, the young woman on the right, gave a lecture at Mia on the Spanish Civil War. She was a student at the Minneapolis School of Art, then housed on the museum campus—she’s talking to the wife of the school director. She had been studying in Spain that summer on a scholarship when war broke out.

Neither woman is paying the sculpture behind them any mind. The enormous head of Buddha had recently arrived at the museum and was only the second work of early Chinese sculpture added to the collection—the other being the museum’s beloved standing Kuan-Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion, which came in 1918. A gift from Mrs. John Washburn, the head of Buddha would not be officially accessioned until the following year and it wasn’t until 1938 that enough research was done on it to publish a lengthy announcement. “The expression, portrayed with a suavity that heralds the flowering of T’sang art, is one of benign contemplation,” the museum said. The sculpture came to Minneapolis from a European collection, it noted, the crown of an enormous figure that likely once stood in a cave, part of a temple carved into the rock.

“To some visitors this sculpture, because of its passivity, may seem of little interest,” the museum offered. “To many others, however, it is an object of great beauty. To them its dignity, aloofness, and quiet strength speak inwardly and symbolize the timeless greatness of Chinese art.”

Elizabeth Carney, meanwhile, exhibited lithographs in 1939 at the Minnesota State Fair and the Art Institute of Chicago, and again at the state fair in 1940, winning prizes both times. She married a commercial-photography instructor at the art school, becoming Betty Carney Pope, and in 1941 was sponsored by a New Deal fine-arts program to create a mural that still covers a wall of the post office in Chisholm: “Discovery of Ore.”