Hindu-Buddhist sculpture from places long forgotten

04/25/2014 12:00 AM

04/24/2014 4:42 PM

When the Metropolitan Museum of Art gives its all to an exhibition in terms of space, money and scholarship, and the art involved is as rich as a massed chorale and as haunting as a single-voice chant, no institution on Earth can produce more impressive results. Such is the case with “Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th Century.”

It’s a show about faith, or faiths, that may initially need to be taken on faith by Met visitors for whom religious art from Southeast Asia is an unknown quantity. So let me offer a few belief-building facts: Most of its 160 sculptures, monumental and minute, are national treasures in an unprecedented transmigration from Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. Myanmar, formerly Burma, whose antiquities have never traveled, signed a first-ever international loan agreement for the occasion and sent a king’s ransom in material.

There’s beauty, the first and sustaining persuader, everywhere here, in choirs of Buddhas with self-possessed smiles and hands like flowers, in Hindu gods with stern adult faces and the lithe, barely dressed bodies of teenagers at a beach. How these images from different religions related to one another, and how they emerged from once powerful urban centers in Southeast Asia that had names now hardly known, makes for a complicated tale. This, in turn, makes for a complicated exhibition, though, if you let beauty carry you, it will not be a daunting one.

It starts in India in the sixth century, where Buddhist and Hindu art was in full bloom and ready for export. Monks and Brahman holy men, hungry for new converts and turf, headed south and east from the subcontinent on merchant ships carrying religious objects with them. Most of these items were probably made of light wood and are long gone. A few more durable things, like the 6-inch-high sandstone Buddha in the show’s first gallery, endured. Most likely carved in northern India, it ended up in what we now call Thailand.

In one of the show’s many breathtaking vistas, there are four large seated Buddhas – from Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam – installed back to back on a stepped platform. Together, they demonstrate the inventive uses Southeast Asian artists made of Indian sources. Three of the sculptures are from the sixth century; all four show the Buddha in meditation. But no two are alike.

It is Buddhism that seems most consistently committed to depicting, in an idealized way, life as we actually experience it. A life-size terra-cotta head of the Buddha from ninth-century Thailand is one of the glories of sculptural naturalism, on a par with sculptures by Bernini and Ife artists of Nigeria in the same medium. The slender, curled fingers of three cast-metal Thai bodhisattvas seem to have a magnetic life of their own; it’s as if these spiritual warriors were, in unison, displaying fresh manicures, or practicing “fawn lep” hand moves.

I can’t think of any sculpture anywhere in the Met closer to whatever perfection might be than the larger-than-life dreamboat figure of the Buddhist savior-god of compassion, Avalokiteshvara, found, perfectly preserved, in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, though a cast-metal Malaysian version of the same deity comes close. Considered by scholars to be one of the most important images of its kind from early Southeast Asia, this ends the show with a fitting distillation of old and new, earthly and sublime.

The sculpture’s connection to Indian sources is clear, as is its departure from them. The basic figure is ordinary, unheroic, untranscendent, but its eight arms, rising and waving like water plants, make it omnipotent and fantastic.

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