Khmer art on long-term loan at the National Gallery

THE National Gallery of Australia has today unveiled three Khmer sandstone masterpieces from the collection of the National Museum of Cambodia.

"Churning of the sea of milk," Cambodia, Angkor period, 10th century, sandstone.

“Churning of the sea of milk,” Cambodia, Angkor period, 10th century, sandstone.

The sculptures, created during the golden age of Cambodia’s ancient civilisation, will be displayed in Canberra as a long-term loan, a new initiative.

According to the director of the NGA, Ron Radford, they will serve to “lift our Cambodian collection to a new level.”

"Standing Buddha," from Kampong Speu, Cambodia, seventh century, sandstone.

“Standing Buddha,” from Kampong Speu, Cambodia, seventh century, sandstone.

The announcement was also matched by a private donation from an Adelaide-based businessman and member of the NGA Foundation to support new facilities for storage and conservation of textiles at the Museum in Phnom Penh.

According to Mr Hab Touch, director general from the Cambodian Ministry for Culture and Fine Arts, the NGA and the National Museum of Cambodia have built a close connection across three decades, going back to the early 1990s, when preparations began for the ground-breaking “Age of Angkor” exhibition during 1992.

"Prajnaparamita as a child", from Angkor Thom, Cambodia, Bayon style, late 12th to early 13th century, sandstone.

“Prajnaparamita as a child”, from Angkor Thom, Cambodia, Bayon style, late 12th to early 13th century, sandstone.

The loans consist of the “Standing Buddha,” from the seventh century, one of the oldest Buddhist sculptures found in Cambodia, a carved lintel showing part of the creation story of the “Churning of the sea of milk” from the 10th century, and a rare 12/13th century representation of the Buddhist goddess of wisdom Prajnaparamita in child form—a work already seen in the “Age of Angkor” show.

No doubt thinking of the ‘Dancing Shiva” controversy, the National Gallery notes that the market for Cambodian art is beset by illicit trade, looting and reproductions, so that borrowing from great national collection and working to share skills and experience is, for the NGA, “an exciting and proactive initiative,” one that that the Royal Government of Cambodia and the NGA have agreed to on a long-term basis.

The Gallery’s curator of Asian art, Melanie Eastburn, told “Citynews” today that the loan-scheme had been in the pipeline for a few years but that the actual preparations for this loan had been going on for a year. Eastburn said it was very much in the interests of the NGA to give public access to works such like this which, she believed, “act as cultural ambassadors.”

As a child in 1992, Eastburn said, she had been struck by the Prajnaparamita sculpture, which got her interested in Asian art to the point where eventually she was privileged to work at the Museum in Phnom Penh.

“Everything has to begin somewhere,” she said.

The three Cambodian sculptures are now on display the south-east Asian Gallery on level one of the National Gallery of Australia until further notice.

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