An exotic new exhibition of cultural treasures from the faraway land of Cambodia is being presented at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center. Opening February 22 and on exhibit through August 14, 2011, Gods of Angkor: Bronzes from the National Museum of Cambodia is the first international exhibition to focus specifically on the skills and magnificent achievements of Khmer bronze casters. The Cambodian mastery of this challenging medium will be highlighted in this focused exhibition.Â Additionally, two lectures will be staged to complement this exhibition.
Report by Pauline Adamek
Cambodia is renowned for the extraordinary art produced during the Angkor period of the Khmer empire, between the ninth and the fifteenth centuries, when sculptors mastered the art of bronze casting and created profound images of Hindu and Buddhist divinities. A focused exhibition of loans from the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, Gods of Angkor includes some of the finest Cambodian bronzes in existence as well as a small group of bronzes from the pre-Angkor period and some recently excavated works. It also celebrates the establishment of a bronze conservation studio at the National Museum of Cambodia and that institution”™s role in conserving Cambodia’s cultural heritage.
Bronze (samrit in Khmer) is of enduring significance in Cambodian culture. A noble material, it is indicative of prosperity and success, in addition to being a hallmark of Cambodian artistic achievement. A mixture of metals consisting primarily of copper and tin, bronze was used to give form to the religious deities worshiped in Angkor and throughout the Khmer Empire.
The ancient capital of the Khmer people at Angkor, located in northwest Cambodia, once formed the heart of a large sphere of influence that extended over much of mainland Southeast Asia. Culled entirely from the collection of the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, Gods of Angkor features 26 magnificent sculptures and ritual objects. It includes bronzes created during the Angkor period (9th-15th centuries), as well as a small group of works from the pre-Angkor period and some recently excavated works. Among the Angkorian pieces are some of the finest and most beautiful Cambodian bronzes in existence.
“We are delighted to give visitors to the Museum this rare opportunity to see these exquisite Khmer bronzes on the West Coast, particularly given the local presence of the largest Cambodian community in the United States,” explains David Bomford, acting director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “We are deeply grateful to our colleagues at the National Museum of Cambodia for lending us so many important pieces for this exhibition.”
Some highlights of the exhibition include:
Angkor period, late 11th-first half of 12th century
The god Vishnu has numerous aspects, each of which has a different name. Vishnu is associated with the god’s regency over the directions of space, symbolized by the attributes borne by the four arms. Narayana refers to the god as the cause of the evolution of matter and sound, as represented by the magical syllable o on the headdress. The garment, which gathers into a butterfly-like shape at the back, likely reflected the palace fashion of the day.
Angkor period, 12th century
This figure was excavated in nine pieces on the grounds of the temple of Angkor Wat in 1931. Once joined, the two hands subsequently became separated from the body again; only recently were they located and reattached by staff at the National Museum’s Metal Conservation Laboratory. The restoration revealed the figure’s distinctive pose, with both hands gesturing the expression for “fear not.” The standing, crowned Buddha in bronze was a common icon in the western territory of the expanded Khmer empire (present-day central Thailand).
Naga-protected Buddha with Avalokiteshvara and Prajnaparamita
Angkor period, late 12th-early 13th century
This triad-the cosmic Buddha protected by the serpent (Naga) and flanked by the bodhisattvas of compassion (Avalokiteshvara) and wisdom (Prajnaparamita)-was the chief icon worshiped by King Jayavarman VII. The king’s appearance is known from temple reliefs and portrait sculptures, and his features are reflected in these figures of the Buddha and the Avalokiteshvara.
Shiva’s bull, Nandin
Angkor period, 12th-13th century
This figure of Nandin, the bull that serves as the mount or vehicle of the god Shiva, was recovered west of Angkor Wat. At temples dedicated to Shiva, large-scale icons of Nandin were installed for worship in an anteroom or freestanding pavilion facing the central sanctuary housing Shiva’s image.
Angkor period, 13th century
A son of Shiva, Ganesha has an elephant head on the body of a boy. In India, he is the lord of Shiva’s troops and the lord of beginnings. Here Ganesha’s yogic posture of meditation and the esoteric gestures of his hands suggest that he was intended to be worshiped in a religious environment with strong Tantric leanings. Secret Buddhist and Hindu rituals passed on from master to pupil, Tantric doctrines were significant in Angkor and throughout Asia at the time this figure was made.
Gods of Angkor: Bronzes from the National Museum of Cambodia is organized by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, in collaboration with theÂ J. Paul Getty Museum and the National Museum of Cambodia. The Getty’s presentation is curated by Jeffrey Weaver, associate curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts, the J. Paul Getty Museum, in collaboration with Michael Brand, former director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. The Sackler’s presentation is co-curated by Louise Allison Cort, curator of Ceramics, and Paul Jett, head of the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research. A larger version of the exhibition is currently on view at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. through January 23, 2011, and will then travel to the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center, where it will be on view from February 22-August 14, 2011. The exhibition is accompanied by a 160-page illustrated exhibition catalog, which includes essays by four senior scholars illuminating the significance and development of bronze sculpture and ritual objects in the Khmer world.
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