Friday, June 08, 2007

Gods on display

The following article appeared in the print edition of The Economist yesterday.

Gods on display
An exciting exhibition in Berlin awakes a plea for the return of stolen treasures

For many, the word Angkor evokes a single temple packed with tourists eager to see what's left of a corner of Asia's ancient past. “Angkor: Sacred Heritage of Cambodia”, an exhibition in Berlin, corrects this impression. Spanning more than 1,000 years of Hindu- and Buddhist-inspired art—stone sculptures, a handful of stunning bronzes and a coda of wooden statues—the show makes clear that Angkor was a sophisticated complex led by a succession of kings who held sway over the Khmer people and hundreds of square miles of land studded with beautiful art created for the glory of the gods.
There are two stories that unfold in the cool lofty rooms of Berlin's 19th-century Martin-Gropius-Bau museum—a far cry from the sweaty heat of the National Museum of Phnom Penh, which has lent many of the exhibits. First, are the splendid sculptures dominated by a procession of the Hindu deities, Vishnu and Shiva, plus Harihara, who represents a mixture of both. One of the most striking is the serene face and upper body of Vishnu in a sleeping pose, an 11th-century fragment of what is believed to have been the largest bronze statue ever cast in Cambodia.
The second story is less obvious and probably unintended by the show's organisers. It is to do with the wholesale looting of the temples that began when the French swept into Angkor 150 years ago. In the style of European colonisers of the period, acquisitive French explorers strapped prize statues onto the backs of locals for the trip out of the jungle, then loaded them onto rafts for the journey down the Mekong river for dispatch to Paris. Many ended up as the core of the collection of Asian art at Paris's Musée Guimet.
More shocking has been the rape of Khmer art since Cambodia's independence. Little free-standing statuary is left at the temples. Cambodian and Thai soldiers, acting for well-organised rings, have hacked at much of it leaving pedestals empty, walls with holes and, in some cases, headless and armless torsos. Unfortunately, as a star statue in Berlin shows, possessions of the National Museum in Phnom Penh were not always safe, either. A well-girthed Shiva, clasping a lotus in one outstretched hand, and his diminutive wife, Uma, in the other is placed prominently in one of the Berlin rooms. But Uma's head is missing. The Berlin curators don't say so on their description, but her head was stolen—literally hacked off—when the piece was on show at the Phnom Penh museum in the 1970s.
Security, upkeep and finance have all greatly improved at the museum since then. Indeed, the sculptures look a little lost away from their usual habitat in the more informal setting of Phnom Penh. There, the galleries open on to a courtyard filled with coconut palms and vermillion flowers, allowing a visitor to daydream about the landscape where the original artists of Angkor worked.
In their temporary home in Berlin, the sculptures are given descriptions that are a little thin. A visitor would do well to invest in “Art and Architecture of Cambodia”, a history by Helen Ibbitson Jessup, the curator of the blockbuster Khmer exhibition that took place at Washington's National Gallery of Art in 1997, which is available at the museum bookstore.
With the Phnom Penh collection now recognised as a great repository of Khmer art, might some collectors consider repatriating at least part of their booty to its rightful place? Many possessors of stolen Khmer art argue that it is safer in their hands than it would be in Cambodia, but this may no longer be the case. Where, for a start, is Uma's head?

Angkor: Sacred Heritage of Cambodia is at Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, until 29 July. It is then at Museum Rietberg, Zurich, from 19 August 19 until 2 December.
For the first time in Germany and Switzerland, a major exhibition is dedicated to the art of the Khmer, the ancient kingdoms of Cambodia. The Khmer culture is world-famous for its magnificent temples (Angkor Wat being the most renowned) and for the monumentality and artistic sensitivity of its sculptural art. The exhibition comprises more than 200 masterpieces of Khmer art. Of central importance are the large stone sculptures from the Hindu and Buddhist temples of the ancient kingdoms of Cambodia. The visitor will also discover exquisite bronzes as well as wooden figures and ceramics. The loans come mostly from museums in Cambodia, the main lender being the National Museum of Phnom Penh. A number of outstanding loans come from Thailand and the Musée Guimet in Paris which owns the most important Khmer collection outside Cambodia.

No comments: