Southeast Asian art and architecture

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Southeast Asian art and architecture includes works from the geographical area including the modern countries of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. The area is also known as Indochina. The art of this region draws from three major sources: indigenous traditions, China, and India.

Early History

As Hinduism and Buddhism were introduced to Southeast Asia, their traditions were altered to conform to the traditions of the indigenous peoples. Works predating outside influence were generally made of perishable materials and have not survived. Neolithic sites in the area produced stone tools, baskets, and pottery. The Bronze age in Southeast Asia dates from about 800 BC; by c.500 BC there were recognizable divisions between those cultures influenced by China and those influenced by India.

The Dongson (or Dong Son) culture, which was centered around the Tonkin gulf in present-day Vietnam, was notable among those drawing influence from China. From this culture various artifacts of great beauty have been excavated such as bronze dagger hilts, ornaments, lamps, and tomb furnishings. Typical of Dongson style are spirals and Greek key ornamentation. Massive bronze drums for burial with the dead are also part of Dongson culture. Such drums are thought to have been part of rituals to create rain. Han China conquered much of the Dongson area in 111 BC after which Chinese taste and techniques became predominant in the area.

Opportunities for trade between W Indochina and India flourished and brought with commerce an influx of Indian expertise in mechanical engineering, social hierarchies, and a pantheon of deities both Hindu and Buddhist. The ancient kingdom of Fou Nan (or Funan, a name given by Chinese historians) spreading into Indonesia was a commercially based and powerful force in the area. Stone temples after the Indian prototypes are found dating back to Fou Nan in the 6th cent. The Fou Nan kingdom eventually moved up the Mekong and united with the Chen La (or Chenla) kingdom and flourished in the middle area of the Mekong. Its early monuments which anticipate Khmer art are for the most part statues of gods and goddesses whose smooth and gracefully sinuous bodies are clothed in draperies of extreme thinness.

Khmer Art

The late 8th cent. saw the disintegration of Chen La, and beginning in the early 9th cent. the Khmer empire of present-day Cambodia began to flourish. Indravarman (877–89), the first Khmer king, began construction of Angkor, a remarkable temple-city which utilized a grid system of canals and large reservoirs to control the river (see Angkor for descriptions of Angkor, Angkor Wat, and Angkor Thom). The temples and palace complex derived much of their architectural style from Indian sources, but much of the style of carving on the deities and supporting figures is uniquely Khmer, with voluptuous figures and serenely smiling faces. So richly decorated were most of the monuments that entire building complexes become a sculptural whole. The empire spread and its wealth increased into the 11th cent.

The most famous of Khmer monuments is Angkor Wat (or Vat), a vast temple-complex built in the early 12th cent. under Suryavarman II. It is an enclosure built of numerous shrines and courtyards the entirety of which represents the cosmic order in architectural sculpture. The Champa kingdom invaded Angkor in the 12th cent., and although it was reclaimed by Khmer kings it no longer had the same splendor. Angkor Thom and Bayon, built in the early 13th cent. under Jayavarman VII, shows the movement away from grace and lyrical carvings toward a more monumental style. From the 15th until the 18th cent. most of the art of Cambodia was wood sculpture, which due to climatic conditions has with rare exception not survived. Later works mostly follow the inspiration of Thai sculpture.

Vietnamese Art

The Champa kingdom which was situated in Annam, lower Vietnam, was roughly contemporary with Chen La. Champa art is best typified by the sculpture associated with architecture, in which lavish ornament is paired with vigorous sensuality. Champa art declined altogether after the 13th cent. China held the Tonkin gulf area as a vassal state until the 10th cent. when the Vietnamese in 938 seized power from the T'ang. Much of the art owes its influence to Chinese models and neighboring Champa styles. Of particular note are ceramics similar to some provincial Sung Chinese wares.

Thai Art

In the 13th cent. the Thai peoples began to amass their considerable power in western Southeast Asia and by the 15th cent. were the dominant force. Siamese bronze sculpture of Buddhist figures in the 14th and 15th cent. showed an interest in an exaggerated elongation of limbs, a serene countenance and an interest in the pose known as the "walking Buddha." In the 16th cent. Buddhist figures adorned with jewels were widespread. Most extant Siamese paintings are of Buddhist subject matter and owe much to Chinese models, yet include a graceful linear quality and affection for brilliant color. The establishment of the capital at Bangkok and consequent increase in trade with the West brought other influences to bear on Thai art.

Laotian and Burmese Art

Laotian art was heavily influenced by neighboring Siam. Thai kingdoms were established there in the latter 14th cent., and in art and architecture Thai and Burmese models were followed. A few temples of stucco and brick survive but for the most part the typical Laotian architectural medium was and is wood, encompassing the quintessential Southeast Asian roof line of graceful upward sweeping curves. In Myanmar the lower Ayeyarwady valley was the most populous area, and Buddhist art forms merged with native beliefs in Nats. In Bagan a 9th-century Nat temple is among the earliest examples of Burmese architecture. Many examples of later date have the typical Burmese flame element, either above the windows or as part of the roof ornamentation. In their sculptural tradition, the Burmese were conservative, initially following Indian styles and later Khmer and Thai models. Burmese lacquerware, made for use in temples and monasteries, is one of the most celebrated of Burmese arts.

Indonesian Art

On the islands of Indonesia, there have been found artifacts from the Dongson culture, including the famous bronze drum known as the "Moon of Bali," the largest of the "rain drums." The culture of the Indonesian islands was strongly influenced by India. The great dynasty of Shailendra (776–864) from central Java made its influence known as far north as Cambodia. Sculptures from 9th-century Hindu temples in central Java show the influence of Indian models. Chandi Mendut, c.AD 800, is a Buddhist shrine incorporating many bas-reliefs which show the Javanese interest in sinuous forms and elegant composition.

The supreme achievement of Indonesian art is the monument of Borobudur, an architectural monument and cosmic diagram in one, built in the 8th cent. Receding terraces mount skyward and support on their walls bas-relief sculptures of great beauty and refinement. Buddhas appear at intervals along the walls, and the highest terraces house 72 Buddhas in stone latticework stupas. Bronze sculptures of Buddhist figures made after the 8th cent. continue the style of Borobudur. In the 11th cent. rock-cut reliefs continue the Javanese sculptural tradition. With the advent of Islam in the 15th cent., figural sculpture was abandoned and ornamentation of mosques took over the Indonesian interest in architectural embellishment. Modern Indonesia has taken a renewed interest in traditional crafts and art forms.


See B. Groslier, The Art of Indochina (1962); H. Munsterberg, The Art of India and Southeast Asia (1970); A. K. Narain, ed., Studies in Buddhist Art of South Asia (1986); P. Rawson, The Art of Southeast Asia (1990).

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Southeast Asian art and architecture

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Southeast Asian art and architecture