The civilization of the ancient Khmer in Cambodia is renowned for its extraordinary art and architecture of the sixth to the sixteenth centuries. Initially a collection of small kingdoms or city-states, Khmer society was increasingly consolidated over the course of the sixth century, when the earliest surviving works of sculpture were created. In the ninth century, Angkor emerged in the north as the capital of the unified kingdom of all "Kambuja," which gradually expanded into an empire encompassing much of present-day Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. The three chief periods of Khmer civilization are defined in relation to this capital: pre-Angkor (before the 9th century), Angkor (9th-15th century), and post-Angkor (after the Thai invasion in 1431). The Khmer abandoned Angkor to the Thai in the fifteenth century and moved their capital south, near Phnom Penh, where they nonetheless preserved their cultural heritage.
The Khmer empire created one of the world's most glorious traditions of sculpture and architecture. The hundreds of Hindu and Buddhist temples that were constructed at Angkor and throughout Cambodia reflect the strong influence of the culture and religions of India. In sculpture, Khmer artists demonstrated their technical mastery of stone carving and bronze casting, creating profoundly spiritual images of Hindu and Buddhist divinities. Most of the works of sculpture in this exhibition were made for temples and range from monumental cult statues to small offerings in bronze and narrative reliefs depicting scenes from Indian epics.
Cambodia's artistic legacy has been largely inaccessible to the West owing to decades of political turbulence and isolation. This exhibition, made possible by recent peace accords, brings together one hundred masterpieces from the world's two greatest collections of Khmer sculpture: the National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, and the Musée national des Arts asiatiques-Guimet, Paris, with a few additional loans from other museums. It is the first exhibition in the United States to reveal the richness of Cambodian sculpture during the great millennium of Khmer culture.
Copyright © 2008 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC