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Sculpture of Angkor & Ancient Cambodia
2008-08-28

 Sculpture of Angkor & Ancient Cambodia

Ancient Sculpture, Angkor, Cambodia, 1968Introduction
The civilization of the ancient Khmer in Cambodia is renowned for its extraordinary art and architecture of the sixth to the sixteenth centuries. Initially a collection of small kingdoms or city-states, Khmer society was increasingly consolidated over the course of the sixth century, when the earliest surviving works of sculpture were created. In the ninth century, Angkor emerged in the north as the capital of the unified kingdom of all "Kambuja," which gradually expanded into an empire encompassing much of present-day Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. The three chief periods of Khmer civilization are defined in relation to this capital: pre-Angkor (before the 9th century), Angkor (9th-15th century), and post-Angkor (after the Thai invasion in 1431). The Khmer abandoned Angkor to the Thai in the fifteenth century and moved their capital south, near Phnom Penh, where they nonetheless preserved their cultural heritage.

The Khmer empire created one of the world's most glorious traditions of sculpture and architecture. The hundreds of Hindu and Buddhist temples that were constructed at Angkor and throughout Cambodia reflect the strong influence of the culture and religions of India. In sculpture, Khmer artists demonstrated their technical mastery of stone carving and bronze casting, creating profoundly spiritual images of Hindu and Buddhist divinities. Most of the works of sculpture in this exhibition were made for temples and range from monumental cult statues to small offerings in bronze and narrative reliefs depicting scenes from Indian epics.

Cambodia's artistic legacy has been largely inaccessible to the West owing to decades of political turbulence and isolation. This exhibition, made possible by recent peace accords, brings together one hundred masterpieces from the world's two greatest collections of Khmer sculpture: the National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, and the Musée national des Arts asiatiques-Guimet, Paris, with a few additional loans from other museums. It is the first exhibition in the United States to reveal the richness of Cambodian sculpture during the great millennium of Khmer culture.

Pre-Angkor Sculpture
Most early Khmer sculpture was created to be placed in or around temples. The Hindu and Buddhist sculpture here reflects the coexistence of the two religions in Cambodia. Buddhism was founded in the sixth century b.c. by the Indian prince Siddhartha of the Gautama clan, who renounced the material world in his search for a means to free human beings from Hinduism's endless cycle of reincarnation. Through study, asceticism, and meditation, he attained the blissful state of enlightenment and became known as the Buddha (enlightened one). The religion reached Cambodia early in the first millennium, and by the sixth century, sculptors were creating images of the Buddha as well as Bodhisattva, beings who had achieved enlightenment but refrained from entering nirvana in order to help others reach that blessed state. Although Buddhism was widespread, Hinduism was the religion espoused by most Khmer rulers until the late twelfth century.

The earliest works in this room, such as the stone images of Buddha, reflect the continued influence of Indian art in their soft modeling of the body and slightly hip-swayed posture. Later in the seventh century, a more distinctly Khmer style asserted itself, characterized by a more frontal, symmetrical stance, as in the Harihara; a gently smiling expression, as in the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara; and, possibly, a tendency toward portraiture, as in the adjacent Devi, Consort of Shiva, whose features are so particularized that she may portray an actual queen in the guise of a goddess.

The Beginning of the Angkor Period
In 802, a ceremony took place at Mount Kulen, to the north of the future site of Angkor, proclaiming Jayavarman II (r. 790-after 830?) the unifier and sole sovereign of Cambodia. The statue of Vishnu found on this mountain reflects the increasingly stylized drapery and more imposing demeanor of figural sculpture in this period. While Jayavarman II is the founder of the Angkor monarchy, it was under one of his successors, Indravarman I (r. 877-886), that the great religious monuments typical of the centralized Angkor state began to appear.

Indravarman established his capital at Hariharalaya, sixteen miles south of what would become Angkor. He ordered the construction of many temples there, including the Bakong, the first of the monumental temple-mountains. These towering, stepped pyramids symbolized Mount Meru, the home of the gods and the center of the universe. Indravarman also had an enormous reservoir built (nearly 4.5 by 1.5 miles), which fed temple moats and provided water for agriculture during the dry season. The sculpture of the period - such as Shiva and Vishnu - is massive, formal, and imperious, reflecting the grandeur of the architecture. The rigid posture of the statuary contrasts with the rhythmic, luxuriant foliage and animated figures carved on contemporary architectural lintels.

Indravarman's son, Yasovarman I (r. 889-early 10th century), moved the capital and built the first city at Angkor toward the end of the ninth century. Like his father, he ordered the construction of a vast reservoir (5 by 1.5 miles) and a pyramidal temple-mountain (the Bakheng, with 5 terraces and 109 sanctuary towers). The statue of a female divinity from Bakheng typifies the austere, remote quality of the sculpture of the time.

Bronze Casting in Cambodia NYC - Metropolitan Museum of Art - Deified King
Craftsmen in Southeast Asia had mastered the art of bronze casting by the early centuries a.d., when ritual objects such as urns and bells were fashioned from a copper-tin alloy. In Cambodia the fine craftsmanship of the earliest surviving bronze figures, from the seventh and eighth centuries, indicates long-standing knowledge of lost-wax casting. The techniques practiced by Khmer sculptors are unknown, but the process generally involves making a model out of clay or plaster and encasing it in a fireproof mold, with a layer of wax between the mold and the model. When baked, the wax runs out and molten bronze is poured into the space left by the melted wax.

The Vishnu reclining in cosmic sleep was cast in sections that were then fitted together. Decorative elements, such as the armband, helped mask the joins. The small, rectilinear patches on, for example, the figure's forehead, chest, and upper arm indicate that casting on this monumental scale posed problems for the sculptor. The missing insets for the mustache, eyes, and eyebrows were probably made of precious metals such as gold or silver. Holes in the head indicate that the god once wore a detachable diadem.

Sculpture in the Age of Suryavarman II
The cult of Vishnu was particularly important in the reign of Suryavarman II (r. 1113-at least 1145), who chose the god as his patron deity. The two standing images of Vishnu are rendered in the remote, hieratic style typical of the period. The Vishnuite monument was brought to France in 1873 by Louis Delaporte, whose rendering of Angkor Wat appears in the photomural. The monument is carved with 1,020 miniature images of Vishnu, expressing his omnipresence. On the pediments at top are images of Vishnu with eight arms, with four arms, reclining on a dragon-serpent, and standing on his winged mount, the mythological Garuda.

Much of the Buddhist sculpture of the twelfth century is lavishly adorned with crowns and jewelry, reflecting the later Khmer conception of the Buddha as king, in contrast to the simplicity espoused by the Buddha himself. The most important cult statues in Buddhist temples of the twelfth century depict the Buddha seated on the coiled body of the naga (multiheaded serpent). According to legend, the historical Buddha was meditating under a tree when a torrential thunderstorm broke. Mucilinda, the naga king of the nearby lake, emerged from the tree roots and spread his cobralike hood over the Buddha to protect him. The image conveys the power of spiritual energy to pacify a dangerous creature and to transform evil into goodness.

Jayavarman VII and the Art of the Bayon
Under the last great sovereign of Angkor, Jayavarman VII (r. 1181-1218?), the territory and influence of the Khmer empire reached its zenith. In 1177, Champa (a kingdom in central Vietnam) had invaded Angkor and occupied the capital. Jayavarman drove the Chams from Cambodia in 1181, ascended the throne, conquered Champa, and extracted tribute from much of Thailand and Laos. He rebuilt the capital, creating the royal city of Angkor Thom. A devout Buddhist, he proclaimed Buddhism the state religion and ordered the construction of more temples than any of his predecessors, including the monastic complexes of Preah Khan and Ta Prohm. The state temple of the Bayon, his grandest creation, was built at the very heart of Angkor Thom and has given its name to the artistic style of the age.

Sculpture in the Bayon style is marked by intense spirituality. The serene, contemplative expressions of the figures reflect the humility and compassion associated with Buddhism, and perhaps even with Jayavarman VII himself. His concern for his people led to the construction of 102 hospitals, pilgrims' rest houses, bridges, and other public works. Sculpture of the time also became more individualized, as in the two heads thought to be portraits of Jayavarman VII and the possible portrait of his deceased wife, Queen Jayarajadevi in the guise of the Buddhist deity Tara. 

The Post-Angkor Period
A series of raids by forces from the Thai kingdom culminated in the capture of Angkor in 1431. The center of the Khmer kingdom moved south to the region of present-day Phnom Penh, which has remained the capital, with a brief exception in the sixteenth century when King Ang Chan I (r. 1516-1566) returned to Angkor. With limited resources, Khmer kings built no more of the monumental stone temples that expressed the might of their predecessors. Increasingly, wood became the material used for both art and architecture. Probably under Thai influence, the Khmer embraced the simplicity of Theravada Buddhism, which emphasized spiritual humility over metaphysical speculation. The simple dignity of this sect is expressed in the calm grace of the wooden sculpture of a worshiper, which was found in one of the galleries of Angkor Wat.

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