“A monumental [exhibit] in about every sense of the word.”

April 15, 2014

Krishna Govardhana, from seventh-century southern Cambodia National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia” is a monumental show in about every sense of the word. At least one third of its 150-plus works are large sculptures and reliefs. Almost 100 pieces traveled from institutions across Southeast Asia. And the show’s very concept reflects new findings and directions in scholarship. The result is a show with as much to attract specialists—from inscriptions on first-time loans from Myanmar or the earliest-known statue of Vishnu from southern Cambodia—as there is to delight art lovers generally.

The works range from a toothy, monstrous figure looking down from a lintel (mid-seventh-century central Cambodia) to a majestic bodhisattva made slightly later in southern Vietnam. And nothing beats the beauty and animation of an early seventh-century life-size statue from southern Cambodia depicting the Hindu god Krishna looking most pleased with himself as, the story goes, he holds a mountain up and out of reach of a rival god’s wrath. Nearby, a Vishnu from central Thailand (late sixth to seventh century) offers a serious, warriorlike counterpoint. Broad-shouldered and muscular, he appears as strong and dependable as the rock from which he is hewn.

Lost Kingdoms:  Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture Of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th Century
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Through July 27

Less dramatic, though equally arresting, a relief that once sealed the relic chamber of a sixth-century stupa in Sri Ksetra (central Myanmar) depicts the shrine as it appeared in its heyday, capped by a five-tiered umbrella with flowing banners. Time has added its hand to that of the carver, and the image today seems to be sinking back into stone, its haunting dissolution embodying the impermanence contemplated by the five meditating Buddhas at its base. On a smaller scale, a ninth-century terra-cotta head of a Buddha from central Thailand slows your heartbeat with its beauty. The eyes are shut, but a subtle tension in the face speaks of an awake yet oh-so-quiet mind.

All but a handful of the works come from an area that encompasses present-day Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. They were made mostly between the fifth and eighth centuries, a time when Southeast Asia was home to a conglomerate of political entities nestled between the political, economic and cultural powerhouses of India and China. The artistry displayed in the show’s fifth- and sixth-century works speaks to a prior mastery of art production. Yet, the introductory wall text points out, early Western cartographers dismissed the region as “beyond India, before China.” And art historians, too, long viewed Southeast Asia in this period as little more than an extension of India, with artists imitating rather than innovating.

Attitudes have changed in recent decades. Thanks to new findings and scholarship, art historians are discovering in Southeast Asian art the same richness and diversity that biologists find in areas that lie between well-defined ecosystems. We have glimpsed this phenomenon in past shows that have, say, highlighted an early kingdom in Thailand or given an overview of art from Vietnam. But it emerges more explicitly in “Lost Kingdoms,” which looks at the region as a whole and focuses exclusively on a formative period in its history. It begins with some of the earliest known major works from Southeast Asia and ends as the region integrates more fully into a pan-Asian Buddhist culture.

Curator John Guy introduces the story with a 3-foot tall, light-colored sandstone Buddha carved about 475 in Sarnath, northern India. It has a gentle, idealized face and a slender body under a robe so clinging it almost disappears. Though this carving never left home, a nearly identical 61/2-inch relief displayed nearby was found in southern Thailand—a reminder that Buddhist monks, like Hindu Brahmin priests, roamed the area. Nor were they alone. An eighth-century sketch etched into a brick caricatures a large-nosed, bearded man identifiable as a trader from Central or Western Asia. The brick was found at the site of an ancient commercial hub in central Thailand.

With travelers came beliefs, sacred texts, artifacts and knowledge reflecting the latest Indian styles. To highlight how artists selectively and creatively responded to these influences, most of the works are grouped by subject matter rather than place of origin. Some stories, for example, never or rarely appeared in Indian artworks, yet became popular motifs in Southeast Asia. One such tale is that of Hindu holy men listening as the Buddha, in his first sermon, upends their beliefs. In a terra-cotta relief that once surrounded Sri Ksetra’s sixth-century stupa, a bearded man wearing an animal pelt and prayer beads runs a hand through his hair and looks aghast while his companion tilts his head in a sign of acquiescence.

Other differences crop up in familiar icons. Four Buddha statues displayed as though belonging to a single shrine share the same cross-legged pose, right leg atop left. Their robes uniformly cling like that of the Sarnath Buddha. And they all gaze down with a slight smile. But they are hardly clones. The artist who made the Buddha from southern Cambodia in the second half of the sixth century, for example, adopted a robust body type that was favored two to three centuries earlier in India. He also looked to texts that describe how meditators need to inhale deep into their bellies. By contrast, the artist responsible for the eighth- or ninth-century statue from southern Vietnam carved a belly so soft it pools around the figure’s waistband.

More subtly, in a seventh-century Buddha from the Dvaravati kingdom in Thailand, the artist tweaked the clinging Sarnath robe to reflect what monks in his area wore. And he imbued the Indian-style face with more tension and directness—he flexed the eyebrows sharply and, among other things, changed the set of the mouth. As the catalog points out, an artist in eastern Cambodia from roughly the same time used similar techniques in his statue of a female Hindu goddess, which is so distinctive it probably portrayed a ruling queen.

On loan from the Musée Guimet in Paris, this goddess is temporarily reunited here with a companion work that resides at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. They now stand in conversation not just with each other but with works from around Southeast Asia. While there is still much to be learned about early Southeast Asian artists and the cultures they helped form, their conversation is a momentous first step. One can only hope more will follow.

Ms. Lawrence writes about Asian and Islamic art for the Journal.



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