Sackler Gallery Finds Path to Enlightenment

Posted May 14, 2010 at 3:59pm

The 80-inch crowned Buddha, an elaborately designed, bronze-casted sculpture once worshiped by Hindus and Buddhists in 12th-century Angkor, Cambodia, had disappeared for centuries. The remnants, discovered amid the ruins of a collapsed building near an ancient Angkor temple, were excavated and reassembled from nine pieces in 1931.

Now, the same Buddha stands in a Smithsonian art gallery, 9,000 miles away from its home. It’s one of 36 bronze-casted sculptures and ritual objects — created between the 9th and 15th centuries by Khmer-speaking casters in northwest Cambodia — on display in the “Gods of Angkor: Bronzes From the National Museum of Cambodia” exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

The exhibit is the first of its kind and the largest Khmer bronze sculpture exhibit to come to the United States. It’s also the first time that the bronzes have left their Cambodian home.

Julian Raby, director of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, said the exhibit celebrates the accomplishments of the Khmer bronze casters’ “wondrous art” and will officially introduce the collection to the U.S.

The bronzes are a small portion of 7,000 preserved at the National Museum of Cambodia. Most depict Hindu and Buddhist deities, suggesting the significance of religion to Khmer culture, and all reveal great insights into traditions practiced in Angkor, the capital of the Khmer people between the 9th and 15th centuries, curators said.

Visitors can admire the casts of Buddha standing with palms facing forward, signifying peace to strangers, or study the bronze Hindu gods, including Shiva, the five-headed god of destruction, and Maitreya, the eight-armed “Buddha of the future.” Most are elaborately adorned in headdresses and jewelry, not unlike that which Cambodian royalty would have worn centuries ago, said Louise Cort, the Sackler’s ceramics curator. Seven miniature statues of Buddha, discovered underground in 2006 by a Cambodian woman planting a tree, will go on display for the first time since their discovery.

Cort said the bronzes — once the center of religious devotion in Khmer culture — decorated the temples of Angkor, were worshiped by devotees and were often paraded around the communities on festival days in hopes of bringing blessings to the people. Hinduism and Buddhism, however, were “never divided into [religious] categories as we would think … but existed side by side,” Cort said. In other words, people of Khmer culture often worshiped Buddhist and Hindu gods simultaneously, rather than defining themselves solely as Hindu or Buddhist. Temples boasted sculptures from both religions, Cort said.

The sculptures’ substance, bronze, an alloy mixture of copper and tin, also tells a story of the importance of the precious metal, connoting wealth, success and happiness in Khmer culture, Cort said.

But the bronzes reveal more than a peek into the realm of the Khmer culture. The exhibit is proof of a successful partnership between the National Museum of Cambodia and the Sackler Gallery and celebrates the newly established preservation laboratory in Cambodia, Raby said.

According to Raby, the Cambodia museum was once the “little jewel that got tarnished” by revolution.

Paul Jett, Sackler’s head of conservation and scientific research, said Cambodia underwent a violent revolution that killed nearly a quarter of its population. Cambodians were unable to focus on preserving their ancient artwork, and the bronze sculptures were scattered and unattended in the past few decades, Jett said.

But in a four-year collaboration with the Freer and Sackler’s department of conservation and scientific research, funded by the Los Angeles-based Getty Foundation, the National Museum of Cambodia opened its permanent Metal Conservation Laboratory to preserve the bronzes in 2005. Jett said the collaboration included fundraising, training staff in preservation techniques and shipping lab supplies such as plastics and adhesives to protect the bronzes.

“By sharing our knowledge and time, we were able to empower the staff of the National Museum to care for their own collections,” Jett said. “The Metal Conservation Lab strengthens the museum’s capacity to care for its collection, preserve it for future generations of Khmer people and share it with the world, either at home in the [Cambodia] museum itself or in international loan exhibitions such as ‘Gods of Angkor.'”

“Gods of Angkor” will run until Jan. 23, when it travels to the Getty Center.