The 'Gods of Angkor' show of Hindu and Buddhist statuary and ritual objects is of great cultural importance.
Unknown Ganesha, 13th century Cambodian. (The J. Paul Getty Trust)
By Suzanne Muchnic, Special to the Los Angeles Times
February 20, 2011
In numerical terms, "Gods of Angkor: Bronzes from the National Museum of Cambodia" — opening Feb. 22 at the J. Paul Getty Museum — is a small exhibition. It consists of a mere 26 sculptural objects, about 4 inches to 40 inches tall, displayed in a single gallery.
But the cultural significance of the show is beyond measure. The selection of Hindu and Buddhist statuary and ritual objects includes some of the finest examples of historical Cambodian bronze work at the nation's primary art museum in Phnom Penh.
Elegantly refined and intricately detailed, the sculptures include a 10th-century likeness of Maitreya, a Buddha-to-be with eight arms, a lustrous patina and eyes of silver foil and black stone. A triad of figures made in the late 12th or early 13th century features a Buddha seated on a serpent coiled into a chair, with human embodiments of compassion and wisdom at his sides.
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The animal kingdom also has a strong presence. A statue of Ganesha depicts the elephant-headed son of the Hindu god Shiva decked out in elaborately ornamented attire but posed in a meditative state with his arms raised. A sleek sculpture of Shiva's bull, Nandin, portrays the beast at rest, legs folded alongside his powerful body.
"The sensuousness and beauty of this material, the great range of color and texture, was really a surprise to me," says Louise Allison Cort, a ceramics specialist at the Arthur M. Sackler and Freer Galleries in Washington, D.C., who has done extensive research in Cambodia. She co-organized the Sackler's inaugural version of the show with Paul Jett, the galleries' head of conservation. The Los Angeles presentation, pared from 36 to 26 objects, was coordinated by Getty curator Jeffrey Weaver, in collaboration with the museum's former director, Michael Brand.
"I think the high point is the 10th, 11th and 12th century pieces," Cort says. "There is such a wonderful sense of skin and bones and muscle represented, a kind of warmth in the material that I had never felt before I started working with these bronzes."
Meant to be viewed in the round, the sculptures are often as intriguing from the back as in the front. As Weaver points out, a garment wrapped around the hips of a late 11th century or early 12th century statue of Vishnu, the Hindu god of stability, is tied in the rear in a fashionable butterfly shape.
The museum that is home to the artworks is a miracle of perseverance and regeneration. Designed as a central repository for the storage, protection and display of Cambodia's artistic heritage, it opened under French patronage in 1920. The Cambodian government took charge of the museum in 1966. A few years later, when civil war broke out, the Phnom Penh institution also became a refuge for treasures from the provinces. Then came the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror, in 1975. The once-proud National Museum of Cambodia was abandoned and its staff dismissed.
It could have been worse. As danger approached, the collection was packed into underground storage and the building shut tight with its doors sandbagged. Against all odds, most of the artworks survived intact and the museum reopened a few months after the liberation of Phnom Penh in 1979. But reassembling and conserving the artworks was a daunting challenge. The building needed help too. Among other problems, a colony of bats that had settled into the roof had to be removed to protect the art, staff and visitors from falling guano.
But a new day has long since dawned at the museum — a picturesque architectural hybrid with traditional Khmer elements applied to a French colonial structure. Examples of the 17,600-piece collection of archeological and ethnographic objects are displayed in galleries surrounding a central courtyard.
"We are planning a celebration of the museum's 100th birthday," says its director, Oun Phalline, during a recent visit to the Getty. A 32-year veteran of the Cambodian museum, she began her career there as a guide and moved into the top position last year. She now presides over an institution with a staff that has grown from 20 to 120 — a cultural jewel of Southeast Asia that attracts 90,000 visitors a year.
Cambodia's major tourist center is Siem Reap, a town about 200 miles north of Phnom Penh, which serves as a base for visiting Angkor Wat and many other ancient temples and archeological sites. But thousands of tourists also seek out the museum. "After people see the temples, they want to see the art," Phalline says.
The two-venue American exhibition is the result of a collaboration that began in 2003 with a request for the Smithsonian Institution, which governs the Sackler and Freer Galleries, to help conserve bronze works at the Cambodian museum. The Getty Foundation joined the effort in 2005, providing funds to study the 8,000-piece holding of bronzes, treat the objects at greatest risk and develop a long-term conservation plan, including a training program for Cambodian conservators. With additional aid from organizations around the world, the museum in Phnom Penh now has conservation facilities for stone, metal and ceramics.
Most of the objects surveyed by the Getty-sponsored study have been in the collection for decades, accompanied by precise documentation. A sculpture of a crowned Buddha in the current exhibition was excavated in 1931 on the grounds of Angkor Wat. A kneeling female figure thought to have held a mirror on her head was found in 1921 near a Buddhist temple in the ancient city of Angkor Thom.
But one of the first projects in the new metal conservation lab focused on an astonishing discovery made in 2006. As Cort tells the story, a woman who lives in a village northeast of Phnom Penh was digging a hole in her yard to plant a tree when she unearthed seven little bronze figures made in the 7th century. She notified authorities and her improbable find joined the collection of the National Museum.
"All the pieces are related to Buddhist tradition," Cort says, "but they represent different styles and probably different sources. Two are in a style associated with the capital city in Cambodia in the 7th century. Three others are more closely related to an area in adjacent Thailand. The last two are Chinese. They raise all kinds of questions about how the Chinese pieces got into Cambodia, the grouping of different styles of Buddhist deities, who owned these pieces and why they were there. The exhibition was already underway when they were found, but they became one of its focal points."
In another case, a mystery was solved by in-house detective work.
"The museum staff is in the throes of constructing an electronic database and photographing everything, so they have been going through the collection in great detail," Cort says. "A statue of the crowned Buddha, which had been broken into multiple pieces and repaired, at some point lost both its hands. In the course of reorganizing the museum, the statue ended up in one place and the hands someplace else. A young researcher who was carefully studying everything in storage noticed the hands and made the connection. Just in time for the exhibition, the conservation staff put the hands back on the figure. We now know the gesture the Buddha is making and the meaning of it: Do not fear."