To peoples of the western world, whose traditions of religious art are more nearly earthbound than are those of Eastern peoples, Buddhist sculpture has generally appeared an expression so enigmatic and so intangible that any effort toward full understanding is easily relinquished. This difficulty is perhaps to be expected in view of the fundamental difference between the occidental and oriental conceptions of religious art. In the West, the visual manifestation of experience has, until lately, been more representational than abstract. In the East, on the other hand, the artist has always striven to express the impalpable, an ideal of conduct so impossible of visible definition that it must necessarily rely upon suggestion rather than representation for purposes of communication. It is the elusive and intensely spiritual quality of Buddhist art that makes the greatest appeal, or, in the case of many Westerners, raises the most thorny barrier.In view of this fact it is fortunate that members are in a position to further their acquaintance with Buddhist sculpture through a group of the most easily comprehensible of all examples, the Khmer heads and figures in the Alfred F. Pillsbury Collection. In the presence of these pieces, distinguished from others of the Far East by the virile and human cast to their expression of serene contemplation, the spectator finds it possible to meet Buddhist art on a partly common ground. The examples presented here are part of a group now on view in the oriental galleries, and while they, like the collection, are predominantly Khmer in origin one pre-Khmer and one late Thai piece have been included as an indication of the range of Buddhist sculpture in areas that were, for certain periods, under the domination of the Khmer race. All reveal the influence, direct or indirect, of Indian Buddhist art.The earliest example is a limestone head of the Buddha from the kingdom of Dvaravati established in the Lopburi region of lower central Siam by people of the Mon race sometime during the fifth century. These people, of Burmese origin, practiced the Buddhist faith of the Hinayana School. Their sculpture, inspired by Gupta models, is quite distinct from that of the classical Khmer although it exercised a strong influence on Khmer artists following the conquest of Dvaravati by Cambodia earlier in the eleventh century. The characteristic features of the Mon style—lightly stroked, winging eyebrows over slightly prominent lids; large, spiral curls, and an elliptical face—are displayed in this head. Like most Mon sculpture, it is carved from a hard, grayish-blue limestone but unlike some pieces the features are sharply rather than suavely cut. The head probably dates from the eighth century, which would place it toward the end of the Mon domination of the Lopburi region. It is an extraordinary appealing example of an art that exercised a strong influence on sculpture in Siam for several centuries. During the early period of Mon domination (fifth to ninth centuries) there arose in the East the power that was to conquer the Dvaravati kingdom. This was the Khmer, confined until the sixth century to the small state of Chen-la then in vassalage to the kingdom of Funan, which encompassed what is now Cambodia and Cochin-China. Beginning an expansion that was not to end until it engulfed most of present-day Siam, the Khmer first invaded and then overthrew Funan. This occurred early in the seventh century and, although the Khmer subsequently were divided into two states, Chen-la of the Water and Chen-la of the Land, it marked the rise of an influence that was to play a dominant part in southeast Asia for a period of some nine hundred years. Early in the ninth century a Japanese prince united the two states and became the ruler of the Khmer people. Toward the end of the ninth century the capital of this kingdom was fixed at Angkor, where one of the most brilliant civilizations of the old world developed. By the eleventh century the Khmer had expanded west and north, conquering the kingdom of Dvaravati and instituting its domination of Siam. That these people were mighty warriors, magnificent rulers, and inspired builders it abundantly shown by the dramatic remains of their civilization, which ended with the Thai conquest in the fifteenth century. Their sculpture, through its vitality and subtle modelling, often achieved heights unsurpassed by that of other orientals.The Cambodian example shown here portrays a favorite subject of the Khmers, a Buddha sheltered by Mucilinda, Naga king whose seven hoods were spread to protect the Buddha from the rain. This head, fragment of a larger figure, is of fine-grained gray sandstone with the straight, continuous line of eyebrow and the double outline of mouth and eyes that mark it as a fairly early example. Another sandstone head of the Buddha, probably from Lopburi, illustrates the classical Khmer style in Siam. The head is square, with the characteristic straight forehead under curls represented by a scale pattern; the eyebrows are slightly curved over half-closed, downcast eyes; the nose is flat, and the mouth is large and full.From Lopburi also come two bronze sculptures, a seated figure in the attitude of calling the earth to witness and a magnificent head of the Buddha. The former is a Khmer piece betraying a strong Mon influence in the delicately curved eyebrows, the placing of the legs with the soles of the feet uppermost, and the treatment of the robe. But the square head, the straight line of the forehead, and the band confining the hair are pure Khmer. The chin is not cleft, as it appears to be, but dented from a blow. The second bronze, a head of the Buddha from which the flame top of the usnisa
is missing, is one of the most beautiful examples in the collection. Although probably of the period of waning Khmer influence, the superb quality of the modelling and the expression of ineffable compassion place it among the timeless examples of Khmer sculpture. Beside it the jewel-like perfection of the bronze Buddhist head of the Ayudhya School, which marked the culmination of the long-extended Thai expansion from Yunnan in China to the Gulf of Siam, is trivial and cold. Observing it, one realizes how much the uniquely human quality of Khmer sculpture contributed to the universal appeal of Buddhist art.Referenced Works of Art
- Limestone head of the Buddha. Mon type from the kingdom of Dvaravati. Probably 8th century. Bequest of Alfred F. Pillsbury.
- Buddha sheltered by Mucilinda. A favorite subject of Khmer sculptors. Fragment in fine-grained gray sandstone. Khmer, Angkor. Late 10th-11th century.
- Red sandstone head of the Buddha. The treatment of the headdress is in the classical style of Lopburi. Khmer, 12th century.
- Bronze figure of the Buddha in the position of Calling the earth to Witness. Khmer with Mon elements. Lopburi, late 12th century (?).
- Bronze head of the Buddha. The flame top of the usnisa is missing. Khmer, Lopburi, 13th century (?).