KHMER ART HISTORY
Several prehistoric sites are known in Cambodia
(inc. Samrong Sen, Anlong Phdao, Melou Prei, and Laang Spean). It
is believed that many more prehistoric sites exist, but have yet
to be discovered. However, remnants of circular earthwork villages
dating from the Neolithic times are found in the province of Kompong
Ancient stone, bronze tools and weapons, enigmatic
bronze drums similar to those found at the Dong Son site in Vietnam
(thought to be used in rain and war ceremonies), and ancient ceramics
have been found and documented. Current archaeological research
into Cambodia’s extensive prehistory will no doubt provide
better insight into the lives of the people who made these objects,
and give us a more concrete time-frame for their dates of manufacture.
Recent archaeological excavations at Angkor Borei
(in southern Cambodia) have recovered a large number of ceramics,
some of which probably date back to the prehistoric period. Most
of the pottery, however, dates to the pre-Angkorian period and consists
mainly of pinkish terracotta pots which were either hand-made or
thrown on a wheel, and then decorated with incised patterns.
Glazed wares first appear in the archaeological
record at the end of the 9th century at the Roluos temple group
in the Angkor region, where green-glazed pot shards have been found.
A brown glaze became popular at the beginning of the 11th century
and brown-glazed wares have been found in abundance at Khmer sites
in northeast Thailand. Decorating pottery with animal forms was
a popular style from the 11th to 13th century. Archaeological excavations
in the Angkor region have revealed that towards the end of Angkor
period production of indigenous pottery declined while there was
a dramatic increase in Chinese ceramic imports.
Direct evidence of the shapes of vessels is provided
by scenes depicted on bas-reliefs at Khmer temples, which also offer
insight into domestic and ritualistic uses of the wares. The wide
range of utilitarian shapes suggest the Khmers used ceramics in
their daily life for cooking, food preservation, carrying and storing
liquids, as containers for medicinal herbs, perfumes and cosmetics.
Use of bronze-casting began in Cambodia sometime
between 1,500 and 1,000 BCE. It is widely assumed that this technology
was introduced to Southeast Asia through contact with the Chinese,
but the possibility of independent development of bronze casting
in Southeast Asia has yet to be conclusively ruled out. Whatever
the case, bronze-casting had become a major industry throughout
mainland Southeast Asia by 500 CE - at which time bronze was used
to make a wide range of tools, weapons, ritual objects and ornaments.
After Indian political and religious ideas began
permeating Cambodia (around the time of Christ), a tradition of
casting bronze Hindu and Buddhist divinities emerged. This tradition
reached its pinnacle of output and skill during the Angkor period.
The large bronze figure of the ‘Reclining Vishnu’ (late
11th century) demonstrates the level of mastery which Khmer bronze
artists achieved. The museum’s Bronze Gallery contains bronzes
dating from the 7th to 20th century.
Besides the objects which were made in veneration
of religious divinities, the other types of bronzes on display can
be divided into two categories: ritual objects and secular goods.
Many of the ritual objects in the collection, including popils (stylised
candle holders), bells, bowls and conches for ritual water, are
still used in a variety of Khmer ceremonies today. Many of the secular
goods are objects which would have been bestowed by the royal court
as insignia of rank for officials. These include ornate hooks for
palanquins, gilded rings from the handles of parasols, fans, and
military or official seals.
Recent excavations at a site known as Angkor Borei
and earlier work at Oc-Eo are confirming that this region was the
site of important kingdoms that predate the Angkor empire - those
of Funan and Zhenla (Chenla).
The oldest known Khmer stone sculptures date to
the early 6th century and were found in cave temples which were
carved into the side of Phnom Da, a small hill near Angkor Borei.
Angkor Borei, today a small town in the Mekong Delta region, was
a major city-centre within what is thought to have been the first
large-scale centralised Khmer state (c.1st-6th century; often called
‘Funan’ as it was denoted in Chinese annals of the period).
The Phnom Da sculptures were carved from single
blocks of fine-grained sandstone and depict both Buddhist and Hindu
divinities. Although the sculptures reveal traditional Indian stylistic
influences, one can also see that the Khmer artists strove to break
away from their mentors. Moving away from the Indian tradition of
sculpting in high-relief, the Khmers attempted to make free-standing
statues, supported by an arch or by an attribute of the divinity
(such as a piece of clothing or a hand-held object).
In the 7th and 8th centuries, the power base shifted
north to the plains east of the Tonle Sap Lake. Funan’s dominance
ended when King Isanavarman I established the first capital of this
new power centre (called ‘Zhenla’) at ‘Ishanapura’
(Sambor) in present day Kompong Thom province. In the 8th century,
Zhenla was divided into two competing powers, ‘Land Zhenla’
and ‘Water Zhenla’. This situation remained until Jayavarman
II set up a capital on Mount Mahendraparvata (Phnom Kulen) in the
Angkor region in 802 and successfully unified the Khmer people.
The majority of the sculptures from Zhenla and Funan depict Vishnu,
while another popular deity, Shiva, is usually symbolised by a linga
(stone phallus). Pre-Angkorian sculptors often combined these two
Hindu divinities into one deity, called Harihara. Statues of Buddha
and other Buddhist divinities were also popular with pre-Angkorian
artists of both Funan and Zhenla. The Zhenla period saw an increase
in relief carvings on stone lintels and pediments.
Cambodia is rich in sandstone deposits. Throughout
the Angkorian period, sandstone was quarried from the Kulen hills
(to the north of Angkor) and floated on rafts along rivers and canals
to the building sites.
The first recognisable art style of the Angkorian
period is the Kulen style (c.825-75), named after the hill on which
Jayavarman II built his capital and had his royal consecration ceremony
initiating the cult of the devaraja (god-king) which would be followed
by all subsequent Angkorian kings. This style was the first to dispense
with supporting arches - as a result the figures became heavier.
The body is sculpted rigidly upright with distinctive Khmer features
- round faces and broad brows.
The Koh Ker style (941-944) shows another interesting
development with gigantic figures - human and animal, captured in
dynamic movement. ‘The Wrestlers’ and the ‘Monkey
Kings, Valin and Sugriva’, are good examples of this style.
In contrast, the Banteay Srei style of the late 10th century is
unique in the intricacy and richness of the decoration, and the
warm tones of the pink sandstone.
The statues of the Baphuon style (1010-1080) are
slim and graceful. This was made possible by adding subtle supports
behind the ankles. The eyes are often incised and they may have
been fitted with gems and precious metals.
The Angkor Wat style (1100-1175) presents the highest
achievements in architecture and ornamentation of buildings and
bas-reliefs. Besides the world famous Angkor Wat temple, Phimai
temple (in Thailand) was also constructed during this period. Sculpted
figures are upright, muscular and formal, and are prominently adorned
with ornate belts and jewelled necklaces and bracelets.
The Bayon style of the late 12th to early 13th
century, produced a great number of Buddhist images due to the religious
preference of King Jayavarman VII. Still highly revered today as
one of the greatest Khmer kings, Jayavarman VII, although a devout
Buddhist, was tolerant of other religions as evidenced by the combination
of Hindu and Buddhist symbols in Bayon art. An example of this is
the portrayal of Buddha wearing a diadem (ornamented crown) similar
to that normally worn by Vishnu. The intention was to portray the
Buddha as a powerful universal monarch in keeping with the contemporary
images of Hindu gods. Another defining aspect of the Bayon style
is the development of portraiture-particularly the portrayal of
royalty in the guise of Buddhist deities.
Not long after the end of Jayavarman VII’s
reign, stone art production and monumental temple building become
almost non-existent in Khmer culture. With the wide-spread conversion
to Theravada Buddhism (c.15th century), wood becomes the primary
medium for Khmer sculpture. Although wood would have certainly been
used for statues since pre-Angkorian times, due to its susceptibility
to rapid decay, only a small number of wood statues have survived
from the late Angkorian period.
In post-Angkorian wood sculpture, artists began applying one or
two layers of lacquer which played a decorative as well as protective
role. Also during this period, artists developed the technique of
decorating wood figures with encrusted ornaments - frequently using
ivory, mother-of-pearl, or vitrified lead inlays. Most of the wooden
statues in the museum’s collection were carved in the last
few centuries. One can see varied influences in many of the post-Angkorian
works of art.