Landmark ‘Lost Kingdoms’ Show Gets Warm Reception

By The Irrawaddy 5 May 2014

The landmark exhibition “Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th Century,” which includes treasures from the Pyu civilization in Burma, has been earning accolades since it opened at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art last month.

“It will be hard to cap this: it may well be the exhibition of the year,” wrote Louise Nicholson in Apollo, one of the world’s leading international art magazines, based in London.

The Wall Street Journal called the exhibition, which collects together for the first time some of the finest sculptural art of the region, a “monumental show in about every sense of the word.”

Writing on the blog Art Eyewitness, US reviewer Ed Voves said, “To grasp the magnitude of the quality and number of the masterpieces of Asian art on display in Lost Kingdoms, one would have to conceive of an exhibition of Renaissance art featuring the Louvre’s version of Leonardo’s The Virgin of the Rocks, The Birth of Venus from the Uffizi and Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne from the National Gallery in London.”

The exhibition opened on April 17 and is open to visitors until July 27.

It is the first of two watershed art shows set to mark Burma’s cultural “coming out” to international audiences.

In 2015 the New York-based Asia Society is due to present another ground-breaking exhibition of early Buddhist art from Burma.

The “Lost Kingdoms” exhibition showcases ancient civilizations that are still emerging from the shadows as scholars and archaeologists uncover new clues and offer fresh interpretations of polities long hidden in history’s mists.

The exhibition draws attention to the Pyu civilization, which flourished in Burma before it was absorbed by the Bagan Empire, as well as the Funan, Zhenla, Champa, Dvāravatī, Kedah and Śrīvijaya civilizations in neighboring countries.

This month the Metropolitan Museum will host a day-long symposium on the exhibition, including two talks relating to the Pyu in Burma.

On May 17 scholar Janice Stargadt of Cambridge University will present a paper on “The Great Silver Reliquary of Sri Ksetra: Where Early Epigraphy and Buddhist Art Meet.”

Robert Brown of the University of California, Los Angeles, will discuss “What Was the Impact of Indian Art and Culture in Southeast Asia? Pyu and Mon Art Under the Looking Glass.”

The exhibition includes some 160 sculptures of singular aesthetic accomplishment in stone, gold, silver, terracotta and stucco from Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia.

More than 20 items from Burma are on display.

Together the collection illuminates through art and imagery the emergence of the early kingdoms in the region in the first millennium, and how these embraced many influences from early Buddhism and Hinduism (Brahmanism), grafting the new ideas on to older animistic belief systems based on the worship of nature.

At the center of a display called “Arrival of Buddhism” are a silver Buddha, warrior plaques, miniature silver stupas and a spectacular stone slab from the oldest undisturbed Buddhist relic chamber in Southeast Asia, the Khin Ba stupa mound at the Pyu city of Sri Ksetra, dating from the late fifth to sixth century.

The longest Sanskrit inscription known from ancient Burma can also be seen.

A section called “State Art” focuses on the patronage of the Mon rulers of the Dvaravati Kingdom of central Thailand and includes some of the most monumental works in the exhibition: several large-scale sandstone standing Buddhas, sacred wheels of the Buddha’s Law, and steles depicting stories from the present and past lives of the Buddha.

Other masterpieces of exceptional beauty include an ascetic Ganesha from the 8th century religious sanctuary of My Son in central Vietnam and a spectacular Krishna Holding Mt. Govardhana from the hill shrine of Phnom Da, in southern Cambodia.

“Lost Kingdoms” marks the first time the Burma government has loaned national sculptural treasures for an international loans exhibition. The government will also loan items to the Asia Society event next year. In return, the American institutions will assist with training Burmese conservators.

The latest spotlight on the Pyu comes as Burma is seeking to gain World Heritage List status from Unesco in mid-2014 for three Pyu sites: Sri Ksetra, Beikthano and Hanlin.

There is also a 336-page hardback catalog for the exhibition, featuring contributions from prominent scholars, photography shot on location, maps and a glossary of place names.

It is co-published in this region by River Books in Bangkok, with Yale University Press, and costs around US$70.

Images of the sculptures can also be seen in The Irrawaddy print magazine’s May issue, on newsstands now.