Angkor Wat and The Art of the Khmer

Plaster cast of Ravana shaking Mount Kailasa, from a panel of the south wall in the est arm of the southwest corner pavilion of the third gallery in Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, 1890-91, painted plaster, 70 x 123 x 8 cm. The cast shows the demon Ravana shaking Mount Kailasa, the home of Shiva and Parvati

Angkor Wat is widely considered to be among the world’s most magnificent architectural masterpieces – its extensive complexes and detailed stone sculptures, reliefs, and architecture have intrigued innumerable travellers, scientists, historians, and archaeologists since its re-discovery in the late 19th century.

Currently, the Asian Civilisations Museum, in Singapore, is exploring the Khmer civilisation along with the French encounter with Angkor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Objects on view range from large Khmer stone and bronze sculptures from French collections, to drawings, early photographs, and memorabilia produced by French archaeologists and photographers during those early days of exploration in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Angkor, capital of the Khmer civilisation, was the most powerful and opulent empire in Southeast Asia between the 10th and 13th centuries – and the most original civilisation in ancient Indo-China. To explore this ancient civilisation, the museum has on loan from the Guimet Museum in Paris more than 140 sculptures, watercolours, drawings, and historic memorabilia.

Guimet Museum

The Guimet holds one of the largest collections of Khmer art in the world and was created from the merging of several collections of Khmer art between 1927 and 1931. These collections came from the museum of Emile Guimet, where the Khmer collection was originally curated by Etienne Aymonier (1844-1929) and from the Musée Indochinoise at the Trocadero, where Louis Delaporte (1842-1925) was the founding curator. These collections were then joined, in 1936 by works from the Ecole Française d’Extreme Orient (EFEO). From 1907, when Angkor was ceded back to Cambodia by Siam, the Khmer civilisation was once again seen as a world civilisation with Angkor Wat, the biggest religious monument in the world, at its centre. An archaeological park of this vast complex was created in 1920.

The French Protectorate in Cambodia

The French first established a protectorate in Cambodia in 1863 from its capital in Saigon, on the request of King Norodom I. The city of Angkor (802-1431) had been forgotten and engulfed in jungle since its demise in the 15th century. It was only rediscovered in the 1860s and in 1866 the French Mekong Exploration Commission recorded the area and made further archaeological discoveries.

Angkor’s existence outside Asia grew largely because of these French missions of 1866 and 1873 and much of the initial knowledge can be credited to the watercolours made by their members. These missions were primarily to make reconnaissance trips and were organised by the French navy to see if the Mekong was a navigable ‘road’ to south-western China.

They failed in their first goal, but it did lead to the first archaeological survey of Khmer monuments that was published within the expedition’s official report of 1873. The mission was led by Captain Ernest Doudard de Lagrée, who died in Yunnan near the end of the expedition. He was succeeded by Francis Garnier, a young naval officer, who subsequently published a three- volume work on the expedition. Before they set off up the Mekong, they took a detour to visit the recently discovered temples at Angkor.

A Photograph of the Team at Angkor Wat

A photograph of the team by Émile Gsell (1838–1879) was taken on the steps of Angkor Wat. Louis Delaporte (second from right) was the team’s artist and his sketches and drawings became an integral part of the success of Garnier’s publication. This initial visit to Angkor Wat had a profound effect on Delaporte: he subsequently dedicated the rest of his life to exploring, researching, and promoting Khmer art and culture to both French and international audiences.

Reflecting on experience of these ruins in 1866, he recalled ‘The sights of these strange ruins struck me, too, with a keen astonishment, I admired the bold and grandiose design of these monuments no less than perfect harmony of all their parts. Khmer art, issuing from the mixture of India and China, purified, ennobled by artists whom one might call the Athenians of the Far East, has remained the most beautiful expression of human genius in this vast part of Asia that extends from the Indus to the Pacific’.

Much of these initial efforts to record this lost culture can be credited to the watercolours made by French explorer and artist Louis Delaporte and the photographs taken by his countryman Émile Gsell. The first section of the exhibition showcase photographs, watercolours, prints, architectural drawings, rubbings, and mouldings of temple façades made by Delaporte, Gsell and the other early French explorers.

They introduced Europe to this part of Southeast Asia and its cultures, which in turn helped to enhance international knowledge and awareness of Angkor. Khmer art was also seen in the French universal and colonial exhibitions from 1889 to 1906. And famously Angkor Wat, itself, was recreated in 1931 using plaster casts made in the late 19th-century, often on the request of Delaporte. One of the casts in the exhibition is the only remaining record of a bas-relief scene destroyed when a wall collapsed in the 1940s.

Sculpture Showing the Progression of Khmer Art

The second part of the exhibition features important works of art on loan from the Guimet Museum with more than 50 sculptures giving an overview of the progression of Khmer art, illustrating the skill of the Khmer craftsmen as they captured delicate facial features, elaborate drapery, and presented a soft realism to the body of the figure. Works on show include pieces from Angkor’s Hindu and Buddhist pantheon including reliefs that depict Khmer faith and cosmology. The most constant feature of Khmer architecture is that buildings are seen as ‘images’ that can be read. The inscriptions on certain monuments often contain references to Indian cosmography, with Mount Meru being a familiar example.

The Temple of Angkor Wat

The vaishnavite temple of Angkor Wat was established during the reign of Suryavarman II who was a worshipper of Vishnu – and is without doubt one of the most beautiful of all Khmer monuments and represents the height of the classical age in the Khmer empire. The state temple of Suryavarman was built during the first half of the 12th century and is surrounded by a moat, occupying an area of approximately 1,500 metres.

The northwestern and southwestern pavilions contain the large bas-reliefs telling the epics of Khmer culture, along with depictions of apsaras and devatas. The art from the reign of Jayavarman VII, from the end of the 12th century, marked the change in religion to Buddhism, with his entire reign marked by Buddhist compassion. Buddhist art was seen in earlier in the civilisation, especially in the last years of the 10th century, but it was during the reign of Jayavarman VII that Buddhist art reached its aesthetic high point, with includes of realism in the sculpture. The masterpiece of his reign is the town of Angkor Thom and the temple at its centre – the mysterious Bayon.

Until 22 July, Ancient Angkor. Contemporary works by Cambodian artist Sopheap Pich are also on show at Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore,