- Heaven and Empire: Khmer Bronzes from the 9th to the 15th Centuries
Metal-working skills have always offered a criterion of social development. Artistic expression evolves when utilitarian objects like an iron axe head or a bronze water container, themselves the descendants of stone or clay artifacts, are treated in a manner transcending mere use. The incised and molded ritual urns and ewers of the Shang in China and the drums of Dongsonian craftsmen in Viet Nam offer proof of levels [End Page 164] of sophistication that came to define cultural identity.
It is therefore always welcome news when a publication appears to expand insights into the production of bronze objects. The authors of this book are correct in stating that Khmer bronzes are among the least recognized and understood of Southeast Asian forms. In his definitive analysis of Khmer stylistic evolution of 1955 (La Statuaire khmère et son Evolution. Saigon: EFEO, 1955), Jean Boisselier, for example, devotes 267 pages to stone sculpture but only an appendix of seven pages to bronzes.
The Introduction, in explaining the reasons for the pervasive ignorance of Southeast Asian art, states that ". . . the first Europeans coming into contact with Southeast Asia's classical art and architecture took little notice. No mention is made in any records of the striking temples" (p. xiii). This is somewhat misleading. The admiring descriptions of Khmer temples by the Chinese emissary Zhou Daguan (Chou Ta-Kuan), in The Customs of Cambodia (published before 1312 C.E.), had been translated into Italian by the Jesuit mission in Beijing by 1789 and into French by Abel Rémusat by 1819.
There were published first-hand accounts in Europe even earlier, a Spanish sixteenth-century example referring to the "temple with five peaks" (clearly Angkor Wat) as "one of the wonders of the world." In 1668 Father Chevreuil wrote of Angkor Wat's renown, while in 1858 Charles Emile Bouillevaux published an account of his 1850 visit to Angkor, saying "The Angkor pagoda, which is fairly well preserved, is the jewel of the Indochinese peninsula and worthy of ranking alongside our most beautiful monuments." Better known still are French publications by Henri Mouhot (1863), Francis Garnier (1873), and Louis Delaporte (1880), all illustrated. At the Universal Exposition of 1878 in Paris the great naga balustrade of Preah Khan (recently brilliantly reconstructed in its entirety in the rebuilt Musée national des arts Asiatiques-Guimet) was presented as an example of the seventy pieces of sculpture brought back to France by Delaporte. In addition, renowned writers such as Pierre Loti (Un pélerin d'Angkor, 1912), and André Malraux (La Voie royal, 1930) published widely read accounts of Angkor.
While a brief historical overview is useful to introduce works presented in a book like this, the authors' inevitable and understandable need to generalize has unfortunately led to inaccurate oversimplifications in several instances. There is, for example, no evidence for their claim of a "wave of Indian immigration" to Cambodia (p. 1), and the Chinese they mention (p. 2), if we are to rely on written evidence, were emissaries of the Chinese emperor, not traders. In describing the beginnings of the Angkor kingdom the authors state that Jayavarman II "declared himself the supreme sovereign or god-king" (p. 2). In fact, the epigraphic evidence we have for the ceremonial origins of the state of Angkor in A.D. 802 (the inscription of Sdok Kak Thom of 1052) makes it clear that the king was consecrated as universal monarch (cakravartin) by the Brahman Sivakaivalya in conjunction with the installation of a devaraja. We still have no hard evidence of what exactly the devaraja was, whether a linga symbolizing the king's protection by his chosen divine patron or a divine spirit that was invoked as the sanctifying power of the reign, or some other entity. The claim that the Khmer kings were perceived...