With Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th Century, the Metropolitan Museum of Art once again proves its stature as a world-class museum — not just because of its collections, size, or location, but because it is one of the few institutions in the world that can luxuriate in mounting shows of profound global impact that are not dictated by the whims of mass popularity.
Gloriously installed by designer Michael Langley in the museum’s Tish Galleries, the groundbreaking, exquisitely subtle show is the first-ever international loan exhibition combining stone, bronze, gold, silver, terracotta, and stucco sculptural objects — including a number of irreplaceable national treasures — from the earliest kingdoms of Southeast Asia. Among the lenders are the National Museums of Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Myanmar, as well as the Musée Guimet in Paris and major museums in the United States. It’s especially noteworthy that Myanmar made an international loan to this exhibition; the country has never lent antiquities before for public display.
According to John Guy, the Met’s curator of South and Southeast Asian art, Lost Kingdoms has “160 works, mostly borrowed from source countries.” It is truly the result of his 30-plus years of cultivating intricate connections, along with a dollop of major funding.
A big surprise is just how important the trade routes of the Buddhist/Hindu kingdom of India were in spreading information and religion southwards. The earliest sculptures from these areas, shrouded in mystery until their unearthing in the 20th century, contain Sanskrit inscriptions from the lost seven “kingdom” cultures of Pyu, Funan, Zhenla, Champa, Dvāravatī, Kedah, and Śrīvijaya of Southeast Asia. The human figures portrayed in many of the sculptures are lush, meaty, and robust. You get the feeling that these ancient peoples of earthy flesh are yearning to appreciate a more abstract spirit.
The exhibition progresses thematically, a utilitarian approach that highlights the unfolding of external influences at play. It begins with a section titled “Exotic Imports,” which contains chance findings in Southeast Asia such as a bronze oil lamp from Byzantium or Roman coins dating from the first to fifth centuries. Indigenous spirits, or “Nature Cults,” as the next section is titled, produced the playful sculpture of the Yaksha and work that echoes ancient Indian Gupta style.
Buddhism began arriving in force thanks to the trade routes of Indian merchants, and one of the Khmer Buddhas on display here bears the oldest Pali, or pre-Sanskrit inscription, known in Southeast Asia. Though Vishnu is a Bramanic god of Hinduism, he was also used to emblematize of kingship, while Shiva, the divine protector, was depicted in an amalgam of forms never seen in India, such as a delicately worked metal portrait of the Lingakosa. As the years progressed, official “state art” came to the fore with such lifelike treasures as “Head of a Meditating Buddha.”
As Buddhism penetrated into the cultures of Southeast Asia, the focus turned outwards. Worship and images of Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, as well as the most popular Buddhist deity, Avalokiteshvara, known in the region as Amoghapasha, the protector of the dharma, were influenced and championed by the great monasteries of India like Nalanda and Vikramashila. These tributes included variations in regional styles, including a more popular four-armed depiction of the latter.
The exhibition’s final section concludes with a focus on the late-8th-century “New Internationalism,” as the seven disparate kingdoms were linked by expanding, robust trade networks. Newer, more complex teachings from Indian monasteries and centers of learning brought forth newer, more intricate visualizations of deities. Bodhisattvas were clad in princely crowns and diadems, and Amoghapasha’s arms multiplied to protect and spread the teachings. Southeast Asia was now inexorably linked to the pan-Asian Buddhist world.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see these rare and unique treasures under one roof. They’ve never been shown together before, and will most likely never be seen together again due to the great expense and delicate maneuvering required to coordinate so many countries loaning their greatest national antiquities. The implications of the new cultural and artistic relationships shown in The Lost Kingdoms and the exhibition’s thorough scholarship will be felt by experts and lovers of Southeast Asian art for countless generations.
Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th Century continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through July 27.