Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia,        
5th to 8th Century
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
April 14, 2014–July 27, 2014

Reviewed by Ed Voves

There are few places in the world as extraordinary as the ancient site of Angkor in Cambodia. Many of the temples and shrines at Angkor are gripped by huge, boa-constrictor-like roots of strangler fig trees. The scene, familiar to readers of National Geographic or Smithsonian Magazine, is truly remarkable. But the cultural roots that led to the founding of Angkor Wat are even more remarkable.

The new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th Century, documents how this flowering of sacred art took place in a corner of the world that was regarded as little more than a stepping stone to China.

Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia features 160 sculptures, created in various media including stone, terracotta and bronze. Many of them have never before appeared in the West. Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia contributed numerous works to the exhibition. Several were lent by the government of Myanmar (the former Burma), the first time that this nation has collaborated in an international art exhibition.

Khin Ba Relic Chamber Cover, Myanmar 

These works of art from first millennium Southeast Asia are - almost without exception - of inexpressible beauty and serenity. Some - like the exquisite terracotta Head of Meditating Buddha from the National Museum, Bangkok - rank as iconic national treasures.

Head of Meditating Buddha 

The wonder is that these works were loaned even to such a prestigious institution as the Metropolitan Museum. To grasp the magnitude of the quality and number of the masterpieces of Asian art on display in Lost Kingdoms, one would have to conceive of an exhibition of Renaissance art featuring the Louvre's version of Leonardo's The Virgin of the Rocks, The Birth of Venus from the Uffizi and Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne from the National Gallery in London.

The standing sandstone Buddha from Thailand, which serves as the exhibition's promotional image, is representative of the exceptional caliber of the works of art in Lost Kingdoms. Lent by the National Museum, Bangkok, this contemplative Buddha dates to the first decades of the seventh century.

Buddha, Thailand

In keeping with the traditional elements of Buddhist iconography, this Buddha is depicted with closed eyes and elongated earlobes, the result of having worn heavy earrings before renouncing the use of jewelry. The polished texture of the statue recalls two of the lakshanas, or distinguishing body features that testify to the Buddha's spiritual nature, namely the smooth and shining skin of the Buddha.

One of the key aspects of Lost Kingdoms is the diversity of the depictions of the Buddha. These differences are due in part to regional or cultural interpretations that could be expected from the wide geographical range of the exhibition. However, some of the variations are of a more primal nature, revealing differing conceptions of the nature of God.

The Buddha from Thailand exudes a feminine character of divinity that is strikingly dissimilar to the virile, broad-shouldered Buddha Offering Protection from the National Museum of Cambodia.

Buddha Offering Protection

Created slightly earlier during the second half of the sixth century, this portrayal of the Buddha manifests the strength and redemptive traits that are also features of several statues of Vishnu on display in the exhibition.

The dramatic title of the exhibition, Lost Kingdoms, is entirely appropriate. For large stretches of time, these beautiful works of art were all but lost to view. Even the great temples and shrines of Southeast Asia had retreated before the spread of new religions and the encroaching rain forest.

Borobudur, on the Indonesian island of Java, is the site of the largest Buddhist temple complex in the world. But after Indonesia's conversion to Islam in the 1300's, this holy shrine, built in the ninth century, became the "stuff of legend." In 1814, the British explorer and founder of Singapore, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, was told of its existence by local inhabitants. Likewise, Angkor Wat languished unknown to the outside world until "discovered" by an intrepid French scholar, Henri Mouhot, in 1858.

The arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism in Southeast Asia is even more shrouded in mystery. Wandering Buddhist missionaries and Brahman priests, Hindu merchants and people of noble status brought these great faiths to the lands of Southeast Asia. Angkor, originally a Hindu temple complex, was built by a royal dynasty which came to Cambodia from Java.

The arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism in Southeast Asia was not a matter of passive acceptance. The Khmer Empire of Cambodia, the Champa Kingdom in Central Vietnam, the Pyu city states in Myanmar and the Dvāravatī state in Thailand (which may have been a confederation of independent city states) were vigorous political entities who effectively utilized their position on the trade routes from India to China. But these states did not have sophisticated religious cults to match their political and economic power, making them fertile ground for the great faiths from India.

The earlier animistic cults of Southeast Asia did not give way without resistance. But Hinduism and Buddhism, sometimes in a competitive relationship, could not be denied. The statue of the Hindu goddess, Durga Mahishasuramardini, depicts her standing on the corpse of the Buffalo demon which represents the displaced cults.


This depiction of Durga, from Cambodia, dates from the late seventh to early eighth centuries. Durga, one of the supreme deities in the Hindu pantheon, here radiates a transcendent power combined with beauty that accounts for the appeal of the Hindu gods to the ruling elites of Southeast Asia.

Another of the exhibition's most powerful works of art is devoted to Krishna, the eighth avatar or incarnation of Lord Vishnu. This sculpture is the Krishna Govardhana, from the early seventh century. In 1944, it was discovered in fragments in a cave near the site of the ancient city of Phnom Da in southern Cambodia.

Krishna Govardhana     

According to Hindu mythology, Krishna saved villagers and their cattle from destruction by the vengeful god, Indra, who sent a typhoon to destroy them. Krishna lifted a mountain, Govardhan, and held it aloft over the people and animals to fend-off the storm. This is a frequently depicted incident in Indian art and in some respects is a counterpart to the story of Noah in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, representing the providential power of God.

The Krishna Govardhana from the National Museum of Cambodia, even in its fragmentary condition is remarkably powerful. The expression on Krishna's face recalls the unearthly "archaic smile" of an ancient Greek kouros statue from the sixth century BC. Just as the Greek kouros beamed with an expression of the virtuous character or arete of the hero or god depicted, so too does Krishna as he faces down the vengeful Indra. The smile of Krishna Govardhana radiates his benevolence towards humanity and his confidence in beating back the forces of cosmic disorder and irrational behavior.

Indeed, the overwhelming sensation that one has when beholding these Buddhist and Hindu sculptures is that they represent a key moment in the evolution of the human psyche. Compassion was a rare emotion in the early epochs of humanity. But as you behold these sculptures of meditating Buddhas and beneficent Krishnas, one after the other, the effect is profoundly moving. Here one senses that the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism to Southeast Asia marked the beginning of the globalization of spirituality that, despite theological differences, is uniting the peoples of the Earth.

The concluding gallery is devoted to the Savior Cults of Buddhism. This concept represented a humanization of the religious ideals of Buddhism. It centered on the role of saintly and compassionate beings, the bodhisattvas. Originating in India, the concept of the bodhisattva as an individual seeking enlightenment was widely embraced in Southeast Asia. Regional or national characteristics were grafted on to the original ideal to give it unique manifestations. Bodhisattvas could be male or female, kings or commoners.

Avalokiteshvara is the highest manifestation of the bodhisattva. Dedicated to helping all sentient beings, Avalokiteshvara took a vow to delay his Buddhahood to assist others achieve enlightenment. The stylistic range of the statues depicting this self-sacrificing bodhisattva is very wide indeed, even within the borders of a single country. The exhibit presents two versions of Avalokiteshvara from Thailand that appear to originate from two very different countries or cultures.

Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara   
 The lean, simply clad Avalokiteshvara, cast in copper alloy, is thought to have been commissioned by an ascetic group, the Sri Canasa, about which very little is known.

Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara 
The second, more elaborate, version was also cast in copper alloy, though it shows traces of gilding. It dates from the late eighth century, only a few decades later. However differently they may appear, both sculptures radiate great spirituality, the power of enlightened dedication to the welfare of all humanity.

It is a sobering thought to realize that the religious values, so powerfully expressed in the sculptures assembled in the Metropolitan exhibit, did not lead to an age of peace and harmony for Southeast Asia. What occurred in Medieval Europe after the adoption of Christianity, happened in these rising kingdoms on the trade routes to China. Kings built vast temples dedicated to Vishnu or Buddha and then marched to war, burning the temples of Vishnu or Buddha built by their rivals.

Nirvana is not of this world. There are moments, though, when transfixed by the beauty and spiritual resonance of this once-in-a-lifetime exhibit, that a state of enlightenment seems not far off.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Images Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Introductory Image:

Buddha, Central Thailand, first half of the 7th century Sandstone 67 5/16 × 16 9/16 × 13 in. (171 × 42 × 33 cm) Lent by National Museum, Bangkok (DV6)

Khin Ba Relic Chamber Cover, Sandstone H. 63 3/4 in. (162 cm); W. 55 1/8 in. (140 cm); D. 5 7/8 in. (15 cm); Wt. 1600 lbs. (725.8 kg) Lent by Thiri Khittaya (Śrī Ksetra) Archaeological Museum, Hmawza, Myanmar (1926-27/1/7)

Head of Buddha, Central Thailand, 9th century Terracotta 6 11/16 × 5 7/8 in. (17 × 15 cm) Lent by National Museum, Bangkok (361/2511)

Buddha Offering Protection,
Southern Cambodia, Pre-Angkor period, second half of the 6th century Sandstone with traces of lacquer and gilding Lent by National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh (Ka.1731)

Durga Mahishasuramardini, Southern Cambodia, Pre-Angkor period, late 7th–early 8th century Sandstone 41 3/4 × 16 1/2 × 6 1/4 in. (106 × 41.9 × 15.9 cm) Lent by National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh (Ka.1631) Cat. no. 66
                                                                                                                                                                                                 Krishna Govardhana, Southern Cambodia, Pre-Angkor period, early 7th century Sandstone 47 1/4 × 14 15/16 × 7 7/8 in. (120 × 37.9 × 20 cm) Lent by National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh (Ka.1641)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Northeastern Thailand, second quarter of the 8th century Copper alloy inlaid with silver and glass or obsidian 56 × 22 1/2 in. (142.2 × 57.2 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1967
                                                                                                                                                                             Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Southern Thailand, late 8th–early 9th century Copper alloy with traces of gilding 30 1/4 in. (76.8 cm) Lent by National Museum, Bangkok (SV24)

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Treasures from Korea at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Treasures from Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty, 1392–1910
With Reflections on Landscape Painting, East and West

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The inspiring exhibition currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Treasures from Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty, 1392–1910, presents works of art from the golden age of a country which sadly has known more of war than peace.

During the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth centuries, Korea experienced prosperity and stability rare in its history. The wondrous paintings, ceramics, fabric art and rare books on display in the exhibition are a testament to what the Korean people, ruled by the Joseon Dynasty, were able to achieve when not threatened by foreign invasion or civil war.

Joseon means "Fresh Dawn." But this new beginning for Korea took a long time in coming. The Joseon Dynasty fought nomad attacks from Mongolia early in its history, survived palace coups and defeated a massive invasion by the Japanese warlord, Hideyoshi, during the 1590's. Almost all of the works of art on display date from the 1700's and 1800's.

Treasures from Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty, 1392–1910, will continue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until the end of May and then travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. As a result, a wide audience in the United States will have an opportunity to study the culture of this long-lived Korean dynasty.

The experience of seeing several spectacular landscape screens in the Treasures from Korea exhibit made an especially powerful impression on me. Studying these magnificent evocations of nature revived my interest in the question of how the very different traditions of landscape painting, Asian and European, eventually reached a point of parallel insight, if not outright synthesis.

These Korean landscape screens are monumental in size and astonishing in the artistic skill and verve needed to create them. The late eighteenth century screen, Ten Longevity Symbols, and Sun, Moon, and Five Peaks, an eight-fold screen created during the 1800's, are very colorful. This use of color was a departure from the more muted tones of earlier landscapes, no doubt reflecting the indirect influence of European art via China.


Sun, Moon, and Five Peaks, 19th century

Both Ten Longevity Symbols and Sun, Moon, and Five Peaks are idealized landscapes rather than naturalistic representations of actual topography. This is in keeping with the cultural ideals of Imperial China, dating back to the Tang Dynasty (618-906), which profoundly influenced Korea. Humans, when they appear in Chinese and Korean art, are often depicted as miniature, insignificant beings, dwarfed by the vast scale of nature.

These screen paintings also represent the two paramount ideals of the Joseon Dynasty: the harmony of a well-ordered society based on the teachings of Confucius and the spirit-restoring effects of country living. For the ruling elite of Korea, known as yangban, the natural world represented a refuge from the stress and uncertainties of the political world.

Portrait of Yi Jae (1680-1746)

These scholar-statesmen of the Joseon Dynasty are depicted in several works in the exhibit, particularly Portrait of Yi Jae (1680-1746). This hanging scroll, created with ink and colors on silk, dates to the same period as Ten Longevity Symbols. Yi Jae compiled the essence of the teachings of Confucius into a ready-reference work for public administrators entitled the Easy Manual of the Four Rites.

The Joseon Dynasty took power in 1392 after a long series of civil wars. The Joseon rulers abolished Buddhism as the state religion in order to impose systematic codes of behavior based on Confucianism. Yangban bureaucrats like Yi Jae greatly benefited by the invention of a phonetic Korean alphabet known as hangul by King Sejong, who reigned from 1418–50. For the first time, Korean scholars did not have to depend on Chinese script and could communicate their Confucian laws directly to their people.

Buddhism and the spiritual teachings of Daoism were not expunged from Korean society, however. These religious beliefs and their adherents retreated to the countryside, especially to mountain shrines and temples. In Korea, the countryside, remote from the temptations and dangers of power, was the realm of the spirit.

In Ten Longevity Symbols, you can see how the unknown artist "squared the circle," rendering a landscape that was politically acceptable to the yangban, while extolling spiritual values that could be embraced by all.

Ten Longevity Symbols, 18th century.

Each animal, each tree, the waterfalls and the mountain peaks, even the mushrooms, occupy their proper sphere and represent a unique value in Ten Longevity Symbols. Turtles and evergreen trees symbolize long life; the deer are gentle animals living in harmony. A particularly charming touch is the presence of the white cranes. In Daoist teachings, cranes featured as messengers from Heaven, while in Confucianism they represented the dignity and constancy of scholars. This was a symbol sure to please yangban administrators like Yi Jae.

There were in fact many more symbolical elements in Korean landscape painting, to the degree that almost every animal and plant represented an important spiritual value.

Bamboo branches, which appear as a motif on an exquisite white porcelain vase from the sixteenth century, Korea's National Treasure No. 166, symbolized strength, endurance and adaptability. Bamboo trees bend but do not break even in gale force winds. Such "grace under pressure" earned bamboo trees the nickname of "gentlemen" in Korea, for this was what was expected of the yangban elite. The greatest of Korea's heroes, Admiral Yi Sun-Sin, who defeated the Japanese Samurai during the 1590's war, embodied these traits to perfection.

Peach trees and their succulent fruit likewise symbolized a key facet in Korea's spiritual values: immortality. This belief reached back to the beginnings of Daoism in China, where there was supposedly a mystical peach orchard in the western mountains. Transmitted to Korea, this mythological realm came to figure in one of the greatest of all Korean works of art, the fifteenth century landscape known as Mongyu-dowon-do or Painting of a Journey in a Dream to the Peach Orchard.

Mongyu-dowon-do is not on display in the Treasures from Korea exhibit. But don't blame the curators of the exhibition for this omission. Now in the collection of a Japanese university, the fate of Mongyu-dowon-do reflects the tortured past of Korea.

Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land by An Gyeon

Mongyu-dowon-do was painted in 1447 by the gifted artist, An Gyeon, for Prince Anpyeong, (1418-1453), the son of King Sejong, inventor of the Korean alphabet. Prince Anpyeong was a noted scholar of Chinese literature. The painting underlines both China's continuing influence on Korea and the cultural breakthroughs which took place under the Joseon Dynasty.

According to the historical narratives of the period, Prince Anpyeong dreamed of a journey deep into rugged hill country where he eventually discovered a beautiful peach orchard surrounded by mountainous terrain. The peach orchard symbolized refuge from the political infighting at the Joseon court, for Prince Anpyeong was engaged in a struggle for dominance with his brother, Prince Suyang, for control of the throne as King Sejong neared death. The peach trees also represent the survival of Daoism. Daoist spiritual teachings traced their roots back to ancient shamanic beliefs, in a land now ruled according to Confucian secularism.

Prince Anpyeong's vision of a Utopia was never realized - at least not in his abbreviated lifetime. Prince Suyang launched a well-planned coup, executing Anpyeong and numerous other family members, court officials and scholars. The painting by An Gyeon disappeared, later surfacing in Japan. It is believed to have been taken from Korea as part of the war loot seized by Hideyoshi's army in 1592.

If Prince Anpyeong's dream was "a dream deferred," it came close to realization during the eighteenth century. Events like Suyang's bloody purge and Hideyoshi's invasion receded into memory. Landscapes such as Ten Longevity Symbols represented the world that men like Yi Jae wanted to believe was possible - and worked diligently to achieve.

Another amazing screen painting, Scholar’s Accoutrements, is a virtual catalog of the implements of power which the Korean elite used to preserve the traditional culture of their nation. This ten-fold screen was painted in the nineteenth century, just at the moment when the outside world was beginning to intrude into the "golden age" of Joseon Korea.

Scholar’s Accoutrements, 19th century.

These amazing painted screens on display in Treasures from Korea are fascinating and important in their own right. However, there is a wider significance to these works which can only be briefly sketched here.

The Korean view of nature, reflecting the cosmology of East Asia, was very different from what developed in Europe during the 1400s through 1700's. Landscape painting in the West, with only rare exceptions, served as a backdrop to the religious or mythological narratives of European painting from the Renaissance to the era of the French Revolution.

By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the landscape traditions of East and West reflected a meeting of minds. Impressionist painters like Claude Monet often reduced the scale of humans and animals in their paintings in proportion to the expanse of the landscape. Was this the result of Asian influences transforming the European conception of nature?

Chinese art certainly made an impact on Europe during the 1700's. Later, the craze for
Japanese woodblock prints in France helped shape the revolutionary impact of Impressionism. But the momentous shift in the way that the West has come to perceive the natural world occurred independently from what had transpired in China and Korea.

Take a look at the 1818 masterpiece by J.M.W. Turner, Raby Castle, the Seat of the Earl of Darlington, now in the collection of the Walters Museum in Baltimore. Turner painted the country estate of the fox-hunting Lord Darlington very much in the scale and the spirit of the landscapes of China and Korea. Yet, Turner created this breathtaking view of the English countryside decades before landscapes from these Asian countries became widely known in the West.

J.M.W. Turner, Raby Castle, the Seat of the Earl of Darlington

Turner's Raby Castle is a dreamscape like Ten Longevity Symbols. Lord Darlington was as determined to preserve "his" lands as a refuge from the outside world, as were the Korean yangban elite. The very year that Turner exhibited this great work, Lord Darlington used his political clout to prevent a railroad being constructed through his estates that might disturb his fox hunting.

The route of the railroad was diverted so that Lord Darlington could continue his pursuit of England's foxes. On September 27, 1825, the re-configured Stockton and Darlington Railway, the world's first public railway using steam locomotives, was inaugurated.

Turner's Raby Castle evokes a key date in the Industrial Revolution. It shows the natural world as English aristocrats wanted it to remain, at the moment just before it would be transformed forever. So too, An Gyeon's Painting of a Journey in a Dream to the Peach Orchard, shows the idealized world view of Prince Anpyeong shortly before he was murdered by his brother in one of Korea's savage civil wars.

Great works of art cannot stop the march of time. But these Korean landscape masterpieces and Western counterparts like Turner's Raby Castle share a kindred view of the sacredness of the earth. Moreover, these great works have helped shaped an appreciation for Planet Earth as a refuge for all humankind - not just yangban bureaucrats or fox-hunting English "milords."

When we look at Ten Longevity Symbols and Raby Castle, the Seat of the Earl of Darlington, we are witnessing early steps in the "journey in a dream" to the greatest landscape of all time, Earthrise, photographed by the Apollo 8 astronaut, Bill Anders, on December 24, 1968.

William Anders, Earthrise-Apollo 8-Dec. 24, 1968

These Treasures from Korea are treasures indeed - for all humanity, talismans of our dream of Earth.

March 2 - May 26, 2014 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

June 29 - September 28, 2014 - Los Angeles County Museum of Art

November 2, 2014 - January 11, 2015 - Museum of Fine Arts, Houston


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Images from Treasures from Korea Exhibit Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Introductory Image:

Jar with Design of Bamboo and Plum Trees, 16th to 17th century. Porcelain with underglaze iron decoration, 15 3/4 x 14 15/16 inches (40 x 37.9 cm). National Museum of Korea, Seoul. National Treasure No. 166.

Sun, Moon, and Five Peaks, Artist/maker unknown, Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), 19th century, Eight-fold screen; colors on paper, 82 11/16 × 217 7/16 inches (210 × 552.3 cm), Private Collection

Portrait of Yi Jae (1680-1746), Artist/maker unknown, Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), Late 18th century, Hanging scroll; ink and colors on silk, 38 1/2 × 22 3/16 inches (97.8 × 56.3 cm), National Museum of Korea, Seoul.

Ten Longevity Symbols, 18th century. Ten-fold screen; colors on paper, 98 7/16 × 231 1/8 inches (250 × 587 cm). Private Collection. PMA Only.
Scholar’s Accoutrements, 19th century. Ten-fold screen colors on silk, 78 1/4 x 154 3/4 x 4 3/4 inches (198.8 x 393 x 12 cm), each panel: 77 15/16 x 15 1/2 inches (198 x 39.3 cm). National Museum of Korea, Seoul. PMA Only.

Additional Images from Wikipedia Commons - Public Domain.                                          

Courtesy of Tenri University, Nara, Japan; Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD; NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), Washington D.C.

Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land, slight colours on silk by An Gyeon, 1447; in the Tenri Central Library, Tenri University, Nara, Japan. 38.7 cm × 106.5 cm.

J.M.W. Turner, Raby Castle, the Seat of the Earl of Darlington, oil on canvas, 1817, Accession Number 37.41, 46 7/8 x W: 71 1/8 in. (119 x 180.6 cm). Walters Art Museum, Baltimore MD.

William Anders, Earthrise-Apollo 8-Dec. 24, 1968. Photo ID: 68-HC-870. Image Credit: NASA