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14 September 2007 (swissinfo) – Readers in Zurich might be interested in an ongoing exhibition on Angkor at the Reitburg Museum.

Rare treasures from Angkor come to Zurich

Masterpieces from Angkor in Cambodia, thought to be the world’s first-pre industrial city, are currently pulling in the crowds at the Rietberg museum in Zurich.

With its 140 examples of Khmer art from different periods, the exhibition -“Cambodia’s Divine Legacy” – offers fascinating insights into the ancient kingdoms of the country.

The director of the Rietberg museum, Albert Lutz, couldn’t hide his enthusiasm as he presented the works to the media.

“We have never had so many significant treasures of art history from one country,” he said.

It was largely thanks to German president Horst Köhler, who held discussions with King Norodom Sihamoni, that Cambodia’s national treasures were allowed out of the country.

The two curators of the exhibition, Wibke Lobo from Berlin and Helen Ibbitson Jessup from Washington, are among the world’s most knowledgeable specialists of Khmer art.

“Even if you know the masterpieces by heart, they come to life again at every exhibition”, the United States art historian said when seeing them in Zurich.

“This is one of the most beautiful presentations I have ever seen.”

Orange recesses bring out the contours of the Buddha statues inside them, large panelled walls were chosen for imposing heads and special lighting intensifies the illusion of movement of the four-armed sculptures.

Fitting setting
The Rietberg museum prides itself in providing a fitting setting to such timeless treasures.

The entrance to the exhibition presents a model of the Angkor Wat temple, which was probably built between 1113 and 1150.

“Since the Paris peace agreements in 1991, archaeologists from all-over the world have been working in Angkor” Lobo explained. ” New temples are being discovered all the time”.

According to museum director Lutz, recent archaeological findings show that Angkor could have well been the world’s first pre-industrial city. It is thought to have had up to one million inhabitants.

Beside the impressive model of the renowned temple, the first room contains the bust of a demon made in 1191.

With its squint eyes, the stoneware face comes from one of the monumental statues that lined the “Alley of the Giants” and were intended to ward off visitors.

The first room is also decorated with copies of low relief, which ornamented the galleries around the temple. Over 500 metres in length, these two-metre high panels show all kinds of scenes, such as fighting between gods and demons.

Lobo explained that the photographer Jaroslav Poncar made a “slit scan” of it, a single long negative lit up laterally, which allows you to see numerous figures almost better than in reality. The detail is so fine that it’s as though you’re in front of a painted fresco.

“Angkor smile”
Apart from many linga, phallic symbols of Shiva, the exhibition also shows the first anthropomorphic representations of Shiva, coming from north Cambodia. The shapes are very simple with a very characteristic torso and a meditative posture.

The entrance in the Angkorian period, from the ninth century shows a new wealth and iconography. The kings now identify themselves with gods and want to show it.

One of the most beautiful pieces of the exhibition, “Vishnu Anantashayin”, a face elegantly posed on a double arm, required an “intensive exchange of letters” before the National Museum of Phnom Penh gave permission for the work to leave the building, Lutz said.

With a height of about six metres, it is the biggest bronze masterpiece discovered to this day.

It was found in 1936 in an artificial lake, where it had been “resting” for centuries.

Another significant item in the exhibition is the portrait of King Jayavarman VII (1181 to about 1218), the biggest builder of Angkor, who through his meditative face expresses the two principles of Mahayana Buddhism – compassion and wisdom.

The celebrated “Angkor smile” may well remain engraved in visitors’ minds.

swissinfo, based on an article in French by Ariane Gigon Bormann

Related Books:
Khmer Civilization and Angkor by D. L. Snellgrove
Angkor and the Khmer Civilization (Ancient Peoples and Places) by M. D. Coe
The Civilization of Angkor by C. Higham
Arts of Southeast Asia (World of Art) by F. Kerlogue
Art & Architecture of Cambodia (World of Art) by H. I. Jessup
Apsarases at Angkor Wat, in Indian context by K. M. Srivastava

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