IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS

With a modest goal and information readily available, the project should have presented no difficulty.

Since there was no manual to teach ornamentation—the basis of all decorative work in Cambodia for more than a millennium—the Reyum Institute intended to produce small brochures illustrating the styles taught by master artists at the Royal University of Fine Arts.

Chan Vitharin, a plastic arts student, would start on the research and later write the text with archeology student Preap Chanmara.

Four years and countless discussions later, the brochures have turned into a 530-page book. Titled “Kbach, a Study of Khmer Ornament,” it will be launched on Thursday, at the opening of an exhibition at Reyum featuring some of the photos from the book.

Written in English and in Khmer, the hard-cover book, printed on glossy paper, contains nearly 400 color photographs of ornamentation in silver work, architecture, historical monuments and even embroidery. It also includes about 1,200 illustrations showing the steps involved in drawing Cambodian decorative patterns.

Besides being a teaching tool, the book’s concise text and numerous images make it easy for casual readers to understand those intricate styles and to appreciate the combination of talent and technical ability involved in the decorations that adorn buildings, furniture and even leather work in the country.

From the institute’s inception in 1998, co-Directors Ly Daravuth and the late Ingrid Muan were concerned with the lack of teaching material in fine arts and archeology at the university, Ly Daravuth said.

“There was the knowledge of the teachers being transmitted to students, in the oral tradition. It was vibrant [in creative terms] but when a teacher left, his knowledge would disappear with him,” he said.

This led Reyum to publish in 2002 the book “The Raemker,” in which Chet Chan shows traditional techniques for painting scenes from the Raemker—the Cambodian version of the Indian epic Ramayana.

The other project Muan and Ly Daravuth had in mind was an exploration of decorative styles, whose examples appear on cavern temples built about 1,500 years ago in Kampot province and at Angkor 300 years later.

Chan Vitharin’s first task was to get information on kbach, or ornaments, from the master teachers. Right away, the hurdles he faced multiplied. “There were as many opinions on the subject as there were masters,” Ly Daravuth said.

The book had to combine the thoughts and techniques of all masters, without favoring one over the other, he said. Meetings held in the hope of getting masters to agree on some points met with little success.

This highlighted the project’s major difficulty, Ly Daravuth said. “We were about to record a living aesthetic tradition—how could we do this without immobilizing it in a rigid frame? This was uncharted territory.

“[Ornamentation] is a living art. If we did not do this manual, the oral tradition that keeps it alive may disappear. And if we did, we ran the risk of freezing this art into set rules.” Reyum decided to produce the manual but stressed in the introduction that the ornament categories and designs were not “set in stone,” Ly Daravuth said.

Still, dividing styles into categories posed huge problems, said Preap Chanmara, who became a senior researcher at Reyum after graduation.

The term kbach can refer to an ornament as well as to a style, he said. For example, “kbach phni tes” refers both to a particular shape of leaf and to a way of decorating inside a shape.

“Kbach Angkor” is a lotus pattern. However, a lotus can be drawn in a “kbach phni voa” pattern, whose designs closely resemble plants and flowers, or in a “kbach phni pleung” pattern based on a stylized tongue of flame.

Getting specifics was no simple task, Chan Vitharin said. Each master artisan teaches his own interpretation of each style, illustrating lessons with his own drawings on canvas, he said.

The authors resorted to differentiating between patterns and shapes, outlining basic characteristics of styles and adding examples of possible variations to try to “describe the system of kbach as a way of thinking form,” as they write in the book’s introduction.

Each of the four principal patterns has its own chapter with information on their designs and applications: “kbach Angkor” is often used on pagodas and government buildings; “kbach phni tes” for furniture, musical instruments and traditional dance costumes; “kbach phni voa” for lacquer objects and masks; and “kbach phni pleung” on buildings associated with ceremonies including coronations and religious rites.

This first book on the subject concentrated on the basis of ornamentation. The next step will be to research the styles’ evolution within fields such as wood and silver and to study “kbach” development through the centuries in different parts of the country, Chan Vitharin said.

The books’ photos and illustrations were done by Chan Vitharin, now teaching photography at the university. The text was written by him and Preap Chanmar, and edited by Muan and Ly Daravuth.

The book was published through the support of the Albert Kunstadter Family Foundation, the Japan Foundation Asia Center, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Toyota Foundation.

The book and the exhibition are dedicated to Muan, who passed away in January.

Since there was no manual to teach ornamentation—the basis of all decorative work in Cambodia for more than a millennium—the Reyum Institute would produce small brochures illustrating the styles taught by master artists at the Royal University of Fine Arts.

Chan Vitharin, a plastic arts student, would start on the research, and later write the text with archeology student Preap Chanmara.

  • Four years and countless philosophical discussions later, the brochures have turned into a 530-page book. Entitled “Kbach, a Study of Khmer Ornament,” it will be launched on Thursday (March 31) at the opening of an exhibition featuring some of the photos from the book.

Written in English and in Khmer, the hard-cover book, printed on glossy paper, contains nearly 400 color photos of ornamentation in silverwork, architecture, historical monuments, and even embroidery.

It also includes about 1,200 illustrations showing the steps for drawing Cambodian decorative patterns.

Besides being a teaching tool, the book’s concise text and numerous images make it easy for casual readers to understand those intricate styles and to appreciate, maybe for the first time, the combination of talent and technical ability involved in the decorations that adorn buildings, furniture and even leather work in the country.

From the very start of the institute in 1998, co-directors Ingrid Muan and Ly Daravuth were concerned with the lack of teaching material in fine arts and archeology at the university, said Ly Daravuth.

“There was the knowledge of the teachers being transmitted to students, in the oral tradition. It was vibrant (in creative terms) but when a teacher left, his knowledge would disappear with him,” he said.

This led Reyum to publish in 2002 the book “The Raemker,” in which Chet Chan shows traditional techniques for painting scenes from the Raemker—the Cambodian version of the Indian epic Ramayana.

The other project Muan and Ly Daravuth had in mind was on decorative styles, whose examples appear on cavern temples built about 1,500 year ago in Kampot province, and at Angkor founded 300 years later.

Chan Vitharin’s first task was to get information on kbach, or ornaments, from the master teachers. Right away, hurdles multiplied. “There were as many opinions on the subject as there were masters,” said Ly Daravuth.

The book had to combine the thoughts and techniques of all masters, without favoring one over the other, he said. Meetings held in the hope of getting masters to agree on some points met with little success.

This highlighted the project’s major difficulty, said Ly Daravuth. “We were about to record a living esthetic tradition—how could we do this without immobilizing it in a rigid frame? This was uncharted territory.

“(Ornamentation) is a living art. If we did not do this manual, the oral tradition that keeps it alive may disappear. And if we did, we ran the risk of freezing this art into set rules.” Reyum decided to produce the manual but stressed in the introduction that the ornament categories and designs were not “set in stone,” Ly Daravuth said.

Still, dividing styles into categories posed huge problems, said Preap Chanmara, who became a senior researcher at Reyum after graduation.

The term kbach can refer to an ornament as well as to a style, he said. For example, “kbach phni tes” refers both to a particular shape of leaf and to a way of decorating inside a shape.

“Kbach Angkor” is a lotus pattern. However a lotus can be drawn in a “kbach phni voa” pattern, whose designs closely resemble plants and flowers, or in a “kbach phni pleung” pattern based on a stylized tongue of flame.

Getting specifics was no simple task, said Chan Vitharin. Each master teaches styles as he sees them, bringing to class his own drawings on canvas to illustrate the patterns, he said.

The authors resorted to differentiating between patterns and shapes, outlining styles’ basic characteristics, and adding examples of possible variations to try to “describe the system of kbach as a way of thinking form,” as they write in the book’s introduction.

The four principal patterns have their own chapter with information on their designs and applications—“kbach Angkor” is often used on pagodas and government building; “kbach phni tes” for furniture, musical instruments and traditional dance costumes; “kbach phni voa” for lacquer objects and masks; and “kbach phni pleung” on buildings associated with ceremonies including coronations and religious rites.

This first book on the subject concentrated on the basis of ornamentation. The next step will be to research the styles’ evolution within fields such as wood and silver, and to study “kbach” development through the centuries in different parts of the country, said Chan Vitharin.

The institute also would like linguists to study the origins of the words used to describe the patterns, said Ly Daravuth.

The books’ photos and illustrations were done by Chan Vitharin, now teaching photography at the university. The text was written by him and Preap Chanmara, and edited by Muan and Ly Daravuth.

The book was published through the support of the Albert Kunstadter Family Foundation, the Japan Foundation Asia Center, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Toyota Foundation.

The book and the exhibition are dedicated to Muan who passed away in January.

The opening of the exhibition and book launch will take place on Thursday (March 31), from 5 to 8 pm, at Reyum which is located at 47 Street 178, near the National Museum.

 

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