“Lost Kingdoms” at the Met
Those with even a casual interest in Asian art in general or Hindu and Buddhist statuary specifically (and even those more generally interested in how cultures are transmitted) owe it to yourselves to visit the spectacular exhibit entitled “Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th Century” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. The show examines how the religious art of India (and therefore the religions themselves) spread to the little and isolated kingdoms of Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar in the middle of the first Century. It is the kind of art exhibition that few places can do as well as the Met. The displays fill ten black rooms with soft lighting from the high ceilings that highlights the three-dimensional works from multiple angles, allowing each work to stand out in a room filled with striking forms. The walls are mounted with two-dimensional reliefs or statues requiring additional support. The works themselves come from around the world, the most important from the countries of origin themselves, many of which have never left those countries before. The pieces are arranged in thematic, approximately chronological, groups. The show begins in earnest with the endemic nature gods of the Southeast Asian kingdom, which Hinduism incorporated as part of the cultural invasion. Evidently, like Roman Catholicism (only more successful), Hinduism readily incorporated local folk beliefs into its rituals and mythology which, together with the Vedic mysteries available only to the local elite, made for ready acceptance by both the general population, and more importantly (at least for the commissioning of art works), the local powers.
Hindu missionaries, and later Buddhist ones, travelled with Indian merchants, who explored the secluded regions of Southeast Asia in search of the societies whom they saw as the Land of Gold (Suvarṇabhūmi in the Buddhist Jataka tales). The peoples they encountered are now obscure, many known only by their name or a few inscriptions (under the influence of the Indians) or records of the Chinese (also motivated by trade). Coincidentally, at about the same time the Roman Church was making inroads into the Germanic tribes that had swallowed up the empire, and they also were doing so by incorporating folk rituals and beliefs. The Indic art in this group mainly depicts yakshas and yakṣī, nature spirits recognized in Hindu and Buddhist (as well as Jainist) texts. Much like Western fairies, these nature gods suffered demotion with the advent of the imported religion (Christianity in Europe and Hinduism in Southeast Asia). The relief showing a Yaksha from Central Vietnam (above right) illustrates the fairy-like qualities of these divinities. The effect is achieved by having a fully molded head with broad features seemingly separate from the patterned hair atop a softly stylized body in the common cross-legged sitting position (a position that would become associated with meditation with the coming of Buddhist art).
While generally regarded as harmless, if eccentric, they occasionally had more sinister aspects such as the dragon shown among foliage in the Met’s own lintel from 7th century Cambodia. The picture above does not do justice to the Indic artists who rendered the relief. The foliage perfectly camouflages the beast and makes up part of his anatomy. The piece shows both the imagination and technical competence of early Indian artists in Southeast Asia.
A stele in the middle of the group from Central Myanmar of the 4th Century (called a “throne stele” after the more familiar steles dedicated to royal authority from Ancient Egypt) demonstrates an early acceptance of Indian religion and cultural influence. The front of the stele has something like a royal stool flanked by two female attendants. Although crudely rendered it is reminiscent of later large Buddhist steles attesting to royal power. The reverse side of the stele, however, reveals how the Indic religions (particularly Hinduism) appealed to local elites. It shows three local elites, the central figure carrying a club with the two attendants bearing standards (dhuaja). All three have elaborate turbans and wear short waist cloths with crossing straps across the chest. All three have large earrings on their elongated ears. This display is known from early Hindu literature as the method that Kings were paraded flanked by royal standard-bearers. This low relief carving lacks the sophistication and technical perfection of later Indian-trained workshops, but it illustrates how early Indian cultural dominance had penetrated Southeast Asia.
The second group in the exhibition shows the advent of Buddhism. Indian Buddhist iconography consists of a relatively few number of poses by the Buddha. Yet this limitation did not inhibit individual expressions of the spiritual journey of the Buddha, not only by representation of his factual features and expressions, but also his poses and even how his diaphanous robe drapes his body. The figure to the left is one of four life-size seated Buddhas, either meditating or offering protection, arranged by the Met around a central supporting cross mount. The figures are early monumental Buddhist art from the eastern part of the region (Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand) and each show distinct local artistic characteristics. The Cambodian form shows a serene meditating head atop a slightly rounded body, without the details that draw the viewer’s eyes to the face. The Thailand figure has a much more muscular body with more detail and the head supports the characteristic spiral hair patterns of Thai renderings of the Buddha. (See the Head of Buddha at the top of this post for another example.)
Many renderings of the Buddha were carried by monk-missionaries. Some were mass produced molded clay tablets found throughout Southeast Asia. This votive items were produced by hand from a metal or fired-clay stamp. Some of these tablets bear the purchaser’s name on the back and must have been purchased as a means of obtaining merit. In the exhibit two such tablets show the crucial moment in the Buddha’s quest, the seated Buddha Calling the Earth to Witness. (This was the moment that the Buddha banished the torturing doubt that he would never achieve enlightenment by grounding himself literally by touching the earth with his right hand.) Although the renderings are crude they must have had significant spiritual value to the devotees since they are found in large numbers in ancient stupa mounds were they were evidently offered as a method of homage.
It was not just inexpensive icons for the masses that Indian Buddhist artists sent to Southeast Asia; some of the most innovative sculpture from the best studios in Northern India found their way to the region. A striking example is the standing Buddha from the Met’s own collection. (Because the piece is missing its arms one cannot tell if this is the Buddha Granting Boon or the Buddha Preaching pose.) This three and a quarter foot piece, according to the exhibition’s commentary, reveals a new approach to portraying the Buddha, appearing for the first time in Southeast Asia in the 7th century. The style was invented by the monastic school of Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh. “The sculpture workshops there were heir to one of the oldest continuous traditions of image making in northern India, at Mathua.” The piece is highly stylized, the geometric modeling of the body, framed by a near rectangular robe beneath a serene face, all gently rounded, gives an unmistakable sense of tranquility and the “centeredness” of the teaching. It is an artistic world that would not be seen attempted in the West for a long time (if ever), where first the crucifixion and then the Madonna and child would hold sway for many centuries (leaving out any guide to earthly existence).
Despite the teaching of denial and withdrawal, Buddhism was sponsored by the wealthy and powerful, who appropriated the image to celebrate themselves. (This, of course, is in the nature of all intersections of metaphysics and worldly power. It is why those who seek to radically change worldly power tend to reject the worldly orthodoxies of the powers that be, whether it is Lutheranism in 16th century Germany or Jacobinism in 18th century France or any number of other examples (such as the trial of Socrates). Conversely, we see the reactionaries of our own time support the farcical pieties of Hobby Lobby.) We sometimes miss that point when we contemplate world-historical art. Or even when we navigate the construction of the David H. Koch Plaza in front of the Metropolitan Museum. (What better way to celebrate one’s membership in the world-historical plutocracy than to affix one’s name in front of a collection of a collection of plutocracies sponsored objects?) It’s easier to see this concluson when viewing a gilded Buddha, such as the 8th century Buddha Calling Earth to Witness from central Myanmar. This figure, we are told, because of the layered rather than crossed legs, comes from the artistic tradition of Southern India. The Pyu culture of Myanmar early showed a dedication to Buddhism and supported large monastic communities (saṅgha), which created a demand for such images. Gilded figures are not as valuable as those created from sheet gold (usually by royal commission), but the latter are also more subject to looting, so that the relative number that remain are not an indication of the extent of patronage then. Yet it is clear, even with “only” gilding, the Pyu was a culture, the economics of which, was structured to support Buddhism. Later, Thai gold figures of the Buddha, by contrast, stressed more the wealth of the patron than the devotion of the supplicant.
With the next group, the World of the Brahmin, is perhaps the most imaginative and artistically diverse set of the exhibition. Of course the ministry of the Brahmin is the ritualistic world expressly dedicated to the elite powers. And so it is not surprising that the very best artists were commissioned for the most diverse set of images. The display is too extensive for a detailed analysis here. Needless to say the three major gods of the Hindu pantheon are amply displayed in all their avatars or associated symbols. From the undeniably primal phallic association of the linga of Shiva in early art to the sophisticated renderings of the Gaṇeśa, as elephant, the world of the Brahmin is multifaceted and urbane as well as mythic. As you would expect of a cult that ministered to the elite, the images created for the Brahmins were both highly imaginative, sensual and of the highest technical competence. The stuff of belief became the raw material for aesthetics. Things that one time had visceral meaning have been translated into a pattern that embodies cultural thought. We can no more understand the significance of Skanda, the god of war, sitting on a peacock than a first century Hindu could understand a painting of Narcissus staring into a lake. But there is no denying that the best art offers a form of insight that is not possible from mere retelling. Perhaps this is why so many Buddhas lost their heads: High art can depict the sublime in ways that mere ideologues find disturbing. Hence the Taliban’s actions at Bamiyan or the 16th century Beeldenstorm.
On the more mundane level of stylistic comparisons the story of Lord Krishna’s miracle at Mount Govardhana is shown in two separate sculptures, both from pre-Angkor Cambodia. The first one photographed here is one that has the characteristics of Archaic Greek sculpture: a stocky body in a muscular pose. The story is that Lord Krishna defeated the rage of Indra by lifting the mountain. Implicit in the story is the instruction that we all have our places. Krishna learned that the peasants made offerings to the demigod of rain and thunder, Indra. Krishna came to believe that the dharma of the peasants was to tend to farming and not concern themselves with propitiating the god that most benefited them. When the sacrifices were withheld Indra sent a flood to the village. But Krishna protected the village from the torrential rain by lifting Mount Govardhana to act as a shield. The depiction of Krishna as a youthful protector, joyous in his task, is common to both. The comments to the exhibition say that the Cleveland Museum figure is “perhaps the greatest pre-Angkorian figure outside of Cambodia.” And it is hard to argue with that assessment. Like the Archaic Greek figures, this Krishna is joyous in his physicality and effortless in the miracle. It makes the viewer want to believe the story, no matter how implausible it is. It is difficult, however, to think that this version is not more “primitive” than the second one, although as far as we know, the second one was contemporary with or even a predecessor of what I call the first.
The “second” one is much more “realistic” in the sense that it more resembles my own view of what an athlete looks like. The proportions of the body suggest a sprightliness and the facial expression show his delight in saving the peasants (a sort of noblesse oblige, I suppose, from the elites’ point of view). The show’s commentary says that the myth explains Krishna’s elevation from a pastoral deity to a major avatar of Vishnu. This depiction of this specific myth, however, is rare in India and therefore must reflect a local school of sculptors in Cambodia which had surpassed the Indian artists is this particular type of artistic accomplishment. The figure has less “solidity” but more apparent motion than the “first” figure. It is the motion that gives it the dramatic appeal.
The variety of representations of this group is so wide that it is impossible to do justice to the collection in a post that would be read. In many ways, the exhibition is beyond a single review because it deserves analysis not only as a show of religious art or the art of a region, but also as a major reference work for historical understanding. I will, however, include one more image, solely because it appeals to me, both as an example of the style and imagination of the region’s artists and as a work that speaks to the modern mind. The work depicts the final avatar of Vishnu.
Kalkin represents the future form of Vishnu, which is as a white horse. As befits a messianic figure, this Kalkin is imposing at four and a half feet tall. The body is both powerful and idealized. Though it has no human neck, the head appears naturally on the form. It is striking how much care was devoted to the eyes, nostril and nipples, and possibly the ears, although they are broken off. The robe that covers the figure’s thigh’s is especially prominent, both as a structural support (the central strap) and as a humanizing feature (the gathered pleats to the left).
There are several other noteworthy monumental sculptures in this section of the exhibition. I particularly liked the lintel depicting Vioshnu Anantashayin and the Birth of Brahma (from mid-7th Century Cambodia), both for its intricate patterning and graceful figures. For comparison a tympanum is also shown with the same scene (from mid-7th century Central Vietnam) although “cleaner” (with no patterning) and with a more naturalistic view of the supernatural. (Vishnu, for example, has only two arms.) Both show Vishnu asleep on the cosmic ocean, the Cambodian form highly idealized, the Vietnamese relief showing the waves as individual sea serpents.
The show concludes with a vast room of “state art” from Thailand, where, evidently, a larger kingdom was able to develop an identifiable national style for monumental work. A work not to be missed is a terra-cotta head of Buddha which, although only six inches high, is so evocative of contemplation that you feel a deep connection with the subject.
Another room shows various “savior” cults including an appealing life-sized guardian lion. The final room is one showing the new internationalism at the end of the period.
It is impossible to convey the extensive scope of an exhibit that presents about 170 individual masterpieces from 29 collections representing the art of a three century period over an extensive land mass. The force of the show would be like seeing 170 new masterpieces of the European Renaissance. It is not something that can be digested in one short viewing, so be prepared to spend significant time there. (This recommendation is probably daunting to my fellow seniors when they discover that there is but one bench in the entire gallery. Be forewarned, come rested and with comfortable shoes.) For those unable to make this show, there is an especially scholarly catalogue edited by curator John Gay and illustrated by the warm photographs of Thierry Ollivier (on location in Southeast Asia) and the museum’s in-house photographer Oi-Cheong Lee, which convey some of the sense of respectful adoration by which the installation presents the pieces. This massive book (336 pages) contains not simply a description of the pieces but also penetrating essays on the current understanding of the “lost” kingdoms based on inscriptions, records of Chinese bureaucrats and archaeological finds.