APRIL 10, 2014
When the Metropolitan Museum of Art gives its all to an exhibition in terms of space, money and scholarship, and the art involved is as rich as a massed chorale and as haunting as a single-voice chant, no institution on earth can produce more impressive results. Such is the case with “Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th Century,” which opens on Monday.
It’s a show about faith, or faiths, that may initially need to be taken on faith by Met visitors for whom religious art from Southeast Asia is an unknown quantity. So let me offer a few belief-building facts: Most of its 160 sculptures, monumental and minute, are national treasures in an unprecedented transmigration from Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. Myanmar, formerly Burma, whose antiquities have never traveled, signed a first-ever international loan agreement for the occasion and sent a king’s ransom in material.
For a slideshow of exhibit items, follow the link at the end of the article.
The show has a personal dimension, too. To organize it, John Guy, the Met’s curator of South and Southeast Asian art, cashed in institutional chips accumulated over a career of 30 years. Certain cultural coups are finessed by political big-footing. This one is the product of subtle, patient, prolonged diplomacy, years of networking, visiting, information sharing, tea taking, making requests, extending reassurances. In a fundamental way, it’s an exhibition built on trust, which brings us again back to faith.
There’s also the money factor. Projects like this, which entail the shipping of big and preposterously fragile things, costs a mint. For that reason alone, the chance of anything like a reprise within a generation is pretty much nil, which is one reason local art historians are likely to flock to the Met. And they understand, better than anyone, how rare these early Southeast Asian objects are, how few have survived, and how large a percentage of those survivors are visiting New York.
Finally, there’s beauty, the first and sustaining persuader, everywhere here, in choirs of Buddhas with self-possessed smiles and hands like flowers, in Hindu gods with stern adult faces and the lithe, barely dressed bodies of teenagers at a beach. How these images from different religions related to one another, and how they emerged from once powerful urban centers in Southeast Asia that had names now hardly known, makes for a complicated tale. This, in turn, makes for a complicated exhibition, though, if you let beauty carry you, it will not be a daunting one.
It starts in India in the sixth century A.D., where Buddhist and Hindu art was in full bloom and ready for export. Monks and Brahman holy men, hungry for new converts and turf, headed south and east from the subcontinent on merchant ships carrying religious objects with them. Most of these items were probably made of light wood and are long gone. A few more durable things, like the six-inch-high sandstone Buddha in the show’s first gallery, endured. Mostr likely carved in northern India, it ended up in what we now call Thailand.
There, it would have been greeted by local nature deities: earth gods built like sumo wrestlers, avid-eyed nymphs and crocodilian water spirits. We meet a clutch of these zestful beings in the show’s second gallery, and never really leave them behind. As if practicing the pacifism it preached, Buddhism absorbed them into its visual fabric as supporting players — it did the same in India — while asserting its own traditions in art and architecture, which became, along with Sanskrit a cultural binder throughout Southeast Asia.
We see this assertion in action in a large third gallery: in a stone relief from Myanmar depicting a Buddhist burial mound or stupa of a South Indian type; in terra-cotta tableau of alarmed-looking yogis that channels the situation-comedy humor of Indian Gupta dynasty realism; and three suavely poised free-standing Buddhas, subcontinental in inspiration, but all from seventh-century Cambodia.
Visible just beyond them, in one of the show’s many breathtaking vistas, are four large seated Buddhas — from Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam — installed back to back on a stepped platform. Together, they demonstrate the inventive uses Southeast Asian artists made of Indian sources. Three of the sculptures are from the sixth century; all four show the Buddha in meditation. But no two are alike.
Their distinctiveness may have been situational, the result of different hands working in different places under different influences.
But might it not also have been calculated and encouraged? Such images, after all, emerged from, and no doubt advertised, potentially rivalrous urban cultures, the lost kingdoms of the exhibition title, the profiles of which can now be surmised primarily through their religious art.
Buddhism itself was feeling competitive heat from Hinduism. The Buddha began life as a prince and chose to end it as a monk. But the great Hindu gods, Vishnu and Shiva, undertook no such permanent reversal of status. They maintained a lordly identity that made them natural models for ambitious earthly counterparts. What ruler would not want to resemble the marvelous South Vietnamese Vishnu — buff, impeccably dressed, four arms strong, posture perfect — who stands enshrined on an elevated plinth in a gallery devoted to this god?
Yet nothing is simple. Deities have maverick sides, shifting moods, even changing shapes. Placed directly behind the regal, ramrod Vishnu is a life-size Cambodian image of one of his avatars, the adolescent roustabout Krishna, smiling with satisfaction as he lifts a mountain, now missing, like a set of weights, on high. Across the room, in another sculpture, Vishnu has a horse’s head. And in the gallery beyond, the god Shiva, Vishnu’s peer and challenger, assumes the even more extreme form of the linga, a phallic or mountain-shaped shaft that is at once abstract and absolutely concrete: Where the linga is, Shiva is, radiating energy.
Still, it’s the human figure, or some version of it, that many visitors to the show will most immediately respond to. And, plush and pliant, it is the primary component of early Southeast Asian religious art. It is intimately detailed in two seventh-century Cambodian sculptures of the great goddess Devi, or Uma, Shiva’s consort, which Mr. Guy has placed a few feet apart, face to face. One, from the Musée Guimet in Paris, is svelte with a fine-boned face and wide-open feline eyes; the other, from the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, is stockier, older, inward looking. Either, or both, may be portraits of historical Khmer queens.
It is Buddhism, though, that seems most consistently committed to depicting, in an idealized way, life as we actually experience it. A life-size terra-cotta head of the Buddha from ninth-century Thailand is one of the glories of sculptural naturalism, on a par with sculptures by Bernini and Ife artists of Nigeria in the same medium. The slender, curled fingers of three cast-metal Thai bodhisattvas seem to have a magnetic life of their own; it’s as if these spiritual warriors were, in unison, displaying fresh manicures, or practicing “fawn lep” hand moves.
I can’t think of any sculpture anywhere in the Met closer to whatever perfection might be than the larger-than-life dream boat figure of the Buddhist savior-god of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara found, perfectly preserved, in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, though a cast-metal Malaysian version of the same deity comes close. Considered by scholars to be one of the most important images of its kind from early Southeast Asia, this ends the show with a fitting distillation of old and new, earthly and sublime. The sculpture’s connection to Indian sources is clear, as is its departure from them. The basic figure is ordinary, unheroic, untranscendent, but its eight arms, rising and waving like water plants, make it omnipotent and fantastic.
When you walk through the exhibition a second time, as you could find yourself doing, you might want to pay closer attention to dates and place names in the exhibition labels, all part of Mr. Guy’s long-term recovery, elaborated in an extraordinary catalog, of a fertile, complex stretch of history that now exists largely in the art seen here.
Or you may want to zero in on close-up details: sandstone surfaces so softened by time they look water washed; metal so thin it tears like worn fabric; terra-cotta so red that it seems to send off heat; bodies with lines so graceful you can sense the music they’re moving to. Whatever you look at, look hard. You’re not likely to get this chance, on this scale, again.