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They Weren't Always the Killing Fields

The treasures of ancient Cambodia, hidden for decades because of war and political upheaval, make a dramatic visit to Washington.

June 29, 1997|Stanley Meisler | Stanley Meisler is a staff writer in The Times' Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — For much of the last half-century, most of the great treasures of classical Cambodia, including the wondrous temple of Angkor Wat, have been hidden from the rest of the world by war, American bombing, Pol Pot savagery, Vietnamese occupation and political turmoil.

Now, some of the finest-wrought of the stone and bronze sculptures are making their way around the world in an exhibition that will serve as a dazzling discovery for most of those who see it.

Uniting 99 pieces from the two largest collections of Cambodian art in the world--the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh and the Guimet Museum in Paris--the exhibition, called "Sculpture of Angkor and Ancient Cambodia: Millennium of Glory," opens today at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, in its only stop in the United States. There has never been a Cambodian show of this size and importance in the United States before. In fact, there has not been a comparable show anywhere in the world since the Paris Colonial Exposition of 1931.

The government of Cambodia, which has lent two-thirds of the sculptures in the exhibition, has done so for two reasons. Helen Ibbitson Jessup, the guest curator, says that many Cambodian officials have told her, "This will show the world that Cambodia is not just a bunch of thugs." Cambodians also hope that the exhibition, which runs through Sept. 28, will prompt outsiders to help their impoverished country preserve monumental sites now prey to natural deterioration and looting.

As workers mounted the sculptures in the exhibition space recently, Jessup told a visitor: "People may have read about Oriental art. They may have read about Cambodian art. They may have seen many photos. But when they stand in front of one of these objects for the first time, their mouths fall open."

Almost all the pieces are religious works of art--either of Hinduism or Buddhism, the two Indian religions that took hold in Cambodia during the thousand years (the 6th to the 16th century) that produced the sculptures.

Although the Indian influence is strong, the sculptures have a serenity, gentleness and aloofness that mark them as specially Cambodian. Jessup often describes the Cambodian pieces as exalted and sacred.

Their beauty may also make a Westerner pause to wonder about the crafting of such exquisite, classical forms in Southeast Asia at a time when Europeans, after sacking Rome, were passing through their Dark Ages, trying to learn the most rudimentary techniques of art.

Much of the sculpture in the exhibition comes from an area known as Angkor (near the present-day town of Siem Reap) that served as the capital of powerful Khmer or Cambodian kingdoms for most of the 9th through 16th centuries. French missionaries, officials and travelers came upon the temples of these kingdoms in the forests of Cambodia in the mid-19th century and spread the word to Europe.

They were most enthusiastic about the massive temple of Angkor Wat, with its five intricately carved towers and scores of bas-reliefs of episodes from Hindu mythology. French naturalist Henri Mouhot, who did the most to popularize the glories of Khmer architecture in the 1860s, wrote in his journal after seeing Angkor Wat: "At the sight of this temple, one feels one's spirit crushed, one's imagination surpassed. One looks, one admires, and, seized with respect, one is silent. For where are the words to praise a work of art that may not have its equal anywhere on the globe?"

Angkor Wat has become such an icon of Cambodian greatness that the outlines of its walls and towers appear on the modern Cambodian flag, and now that the borders are open, foreign tourists have started to trickle back to see this wonder of Oriental architecture.

The French took over Cambodia as a protectorate in 1863, but the Angkor area, now regarded as the largest archeological site in the world, had been annexed by Thailand at the end of the 18th century. That political arrangement gave the French access to Angkor from Cambodia but no responsibility for the site, a formula for plunder. In one 19th century expedition, French explorer Louis Delaporte returned with 70 pieces of sculpture and architecture, all now part of the collections of the Guimet Museum in Paris.

In 1907, however, Thailand returned Angkor to Cambodia, and the French began to look on themselves as the protectors of classical Khmer art. French conservators traveled to Cambodia to restore the monuments and to set up a museum in Phnom Penh for those pieces that no longer fit into the ruins of temples.

French administration of Angkor attracted French tourists, who began arriving in 1907 from other parts of French Indochina by steam launch, sampan and water buffalo cart. By 1912, French tour operators organized stays at Angkor at $12 a day for room and board plus $2 for a half-day excursion to the monuments by elephant. Increased tourism, however, led to increased looting.

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