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KHMER ART HISTORY

Prehistory

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 Cham.

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.

Ceramics

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 Rolous temple group in the Angkor region, where green-glazed pot shards have been found. 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.

Bronzes

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.

Pre-Angkor period

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).

Phnom Da style (C.540-C.600 A.D)

The style of Phnom Da has previously been dated to the second half of the 6th century. However, recent studies on stylistic continuity indicate it may date from the 7th century.

Example: Vishnu statue with eight arms, Phnom Da, Takeo.

Sambor Prei Kuk style (c.600-c.650 A.D)

Sambor Prei Kuk was the site of the capital of King Isanavarman I (zhenla), one of the greatest kings of the pre-Angkorian time. The influence of Sambor Prei Kuk art spread throughout Cambodia.

Example: Lady of Koh Krieng statue, Koh Krieng, Kratie.

Prasat Andet style  (c.690-c.700 A.D)

This period was critical in Cambodia history as rival factions were fighting for political control. This unrest is reflected in the fact that several artistic styles existed at the same time. Prasat Andet style is contemporaneous with the end of the Prei Kmeng (Prei Kmeng temple near west Baray) and the beginning of the Kompong Preah (Ak Yum temple at west Baray) architectural styles.

Example: Harihara statue, Prasat Andet, Kompong Thom

Angkor period

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.

Kulen style (c.825-c.875 A.D)

The reign of King Jayavarman II (802-850 A.D) marks the beginning of the Angkorian period. According to an inscription, he undertook to unify Cambodia and was consecrated as the “god-king” on Phnom Kulen.

Example: Vishnu statue, Prasat Thma Dap, Phnom Kulen

Preah Ko style  (c.877-c.886)

The reign of Indravarman I, simple plan: one or more square brick towers on a single base. First appearance of concentric enclosures and of gopuras and libraries. Decorative flying palaces replaced by dvarapalas and devatas in niches. First major temple-mountain at Bakong.  (Preah Ko, Bakong, Lolei)

Example: Shiva statue, from Preah Ko temple, Angkor sites.

Bakheng style (c.893-c.927 A.D)

Following his accession in 889 A.D, king Yasovarman I founded a new capital at the site known today as Angkor. His new city was built around Phnom Bakheng

Example: Masculine torso statue, Phnom Bakheng

Koh Ker style (c.921-c.945 A.D)

In 921 A.D. King Jayavarman IV founded a temporary capital at Koh Ker, 85km North-East of Angkor.

Example: Valin and Sugriva statue, Prasat Chen, Koh Ker.

Pre Rup style  (c.944-c.968)

In reign of  Rajendravarman (Pre Rup, East Mebon, Bat Chum, Kutisvara), Transitional between Koh Ker and Banteay Srei. Long halls partly enclose sanctuary. The last great monuments in plastered brick, increasing use of sandstone.

Banteay Srei style  (c.967-c.1000 A.D)

The temple of Banteay Srei was built by two Brahman brothers, not by the king. It was built 21km North-East of Angkor, the temple is carved from pink sandstone and shows decoration of exquisite detail.

Example: Shiva and Uma statue, Banteay Srei, Siem Reap

Khleang style  (968-1010)

In reign of king Jayavarman V, (Takeo, The Khleangs, Phimeanakas, Royal Palace). First use of galleries. Cruciform gopuras. Octagonal colonettes. Restrained decorative carving.

Baphuon style  (c.1010-c.1080 A.D)

The Baphuon temple was built by king Udayadityavarman II in the middle of the 11th century.

Example: Laksmi statue, Khum Samlanh, Kampot

Angkor Wat style (c.1100-c.1175 A.D)

King Suryavarman II (1113-1150 A.D) was a powerful king. He obtained the throne after defeating several other contenders. He dedicated the temple of Angkor Wat to Vishnu. It faces west which is unusual as most Khmer temples face east.

Example: Vishnu statue, Sre Ampil, Kien Svay, Kandal

Bayon style (c.1180-c.1230 A.D)

King Jayavarman VII ruled Cambodia from (1181-1218 A.D). His father was a cousin of Suryavarman II who built Angkor Wat.

Example: Jayavarman VII, Krol Romeas, Angkor

Towards the end of the 12th century, portraitures began to be produced. This statue is thought to be an image of King Jayavarman VII.

Jayavarman VII was a devout follower of Mahayana Buddhism which is reflected in the art of his time. This statue is simple yet expresses great beauty and power. The emphasis is on volume and naturalism instead of line (compare the eyebrows and jaw with those of the Angkor Wat style). The king is portrayed without his insignia and royal regalia, seated in the position of the Buddha in meditation.

Jayavarman VII came to power after the capital had been sacked in 1177 by the Chams. (the people who occupied by Southern Vietnam at this time). He rebuilt the area and added a new citadel, with the Bayon at its centre, know today as Angkor Thom. Also commissioned were the temples of Banteay Kdei, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan and Banteay Chhmar. In addition, 102 hospitals and 121 rest-houses were built throughout the kingdom.

Other example of Bayon style: Jayarajadevi statue, Preah Khan, Angkor.

It is thought that King Jayavarman VII’s first wife died when she was young. The king then remarried her educated elder sister who composed many inscriptions. In one inscription she writes of having set up images in memory of her dead sister. Perhaps this piece (Jayarajadevi) is one such image.

Post-Angkor period (from c.1230 A.D)

Art in stone, so characteristic of the Angkorian period, decreased dramatically in the 13th century. Woodcarving and other forms of art continued to be produced, but were increasingly influenced by art emerging from the new kingdoms in Thailand.

Example: Buddha sheltered by Naga statue, Bayon Angkor Thom.

This statue portrays a time in the Buddha’s life after he reached full enlightenment. Torrential rain fell for a whole week and Muchilinda, kind of the Nagas, came out of the ground to protect the meditating Buddha with the coils of his body and his outstretched hood.

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.

 

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