US Research Institute Exhibits Artworks Reflecting Buddhist Faith

The exhibition “Framing the Sacred: Cambodian Buddhist Painting,” which opens Wednesday at the Institute of East Asian Studies in Berkeley, California, is a departure in many respects for this research institution.

“We are not a professional museum, and our primary criteria for exhibits is not aesthetic—though of course this is a factor,” said Caverlee Cary, the institute’s assistant director for program planning. “Our primary goal is educational. We saw this exhibit as an opportunity to both show traditional Buddhist scenes and less seen images.”

Oil painting on cloth featuring the Buddha attending to his dying father (Shaun Burgess)
Oil painting on cloth featuring the Buddha attending to his dying father (Shaun Burgess)

The exhibition consists of episodes from the life of the Buddha painted on cloth or glass that were lent to the institute by Joel Montague, a U.S. expert in conflict-zone emergency relief and public healthcare who worked in Cambodia throughout the 1990s.

One painting on cloth shows the Buddha at his father’s deathbed. “This huge work—2.3 meters long by 2 meters high—is extremely rare,” Mr. Montague said. “I’ve only seen one that large in all my collecting.”

The oil-paint works on cloth are known in Cambodia as preah bot. “They were not sold: They were all given to the pagodas, to the monasteries, by people wishing to earn merits by doing so,” Mr. Montague said. “Then they just pile up. Pagodas get so many of these things that sometimes, officially or not officially, they sell them.”

Mr. Montague’s collection now includes around 60 preah bot and 50 Buddhist scenes on glass that were painted since the mid-1980s.

“I got the majority of them over the last 10 years in the Phnom Penh area…most of them, believe it or not, from dealers in the Russian Market,” he said. “Normally they are not hung on walls in shops, partly because they are considered religious art but also because that kind of thing does not really sell: There are very few people now who buy them.”

Some of the works were obviously painted by professionals who trained at the Royal University of Fine Arts, Mr. Montague said. But there is no way of knowing who they actually were since artists never sign their preah bot or paintings on glass, he said.

“That would be an effrontery to put their names on something which is a holy object.” On the other hand, the name of the donor who purchased the work to give to his pagoda often appears on it, he added.

“In the past these [preah bot] canvases were a substitute for murals in wooden viharas [sanctuaries] where murals could not be painted, or where there was no permanent vihara and the villagers prepared simple altars with preah bots suspended at the back of the altar,” write iconographer Vittorio Roveda and researcher Sothon Yem in their book “Preah Bot, Buddhist painted scrolls in Cambodia,” which is the only study ever published on those paintings.
Preah bot would occasionally hang in people’s homes during religious festivals, weddings or funeral rites, they write.

The paintings on glass, however, have been meant for private homes rather than pagodas, serving both as educational tools on the life of the Buddha and as votive objects in modest homes in the countryside, Mr. Montague said.

The 50 or so works in his collection were done by artists from Kampuchea Krom communities in Vietnam, he said. The scenes are painted on one side of the glass so they can be seen from the other side. This way, the painted side on glass serving as window is inside a house, protected from the elements, and the finished side is displayed for all to see outside.

“It requires a lot of skills to do these things because you are painting in effect not only on the reversed side, but you do everything in reverse,” Mr. Montague said. “It’s an art which, I believe, is now lost in Cambodia.”

One of the glass paintings in the exhibition features the Buddha preaching from a throne of lotus flowers, surrounded by deities.

The style of those contemporary works on cloth or glass has not changed, which makes the works all the more difficult to date. “The Buddha is always shown in monastic attire, having dispensed with all his regalia and other princely emblems,” Mr. Roveda and Mr. Sothon write. “The image of the Buddha respects local canons of beauty that require a face with radiant skin.”

Works done since the 1980s do not feature references to today’s life and clothes, which, they write, “demonstrate that the Buddhist visual tradition is deeply rooted and unaffected by modernization in Cambodia.”

Some scenes in the exhibition are, Ms. Cary said, “unusual in the Southeast Asian tradition…especially the scene of the Buddha’s stepmother “Mahapajapati Gotami’s Offering of the Triple Robe”…which reminds us of the establishment of an order for women among Buddhist devotees.”

To stress the fact that these works are part of religious practice in Cambodia, a Buddhist monk will hold a blessing ceremony Wednesday at the exhibition opening, Ms. Cary said.

The exhibition will also include a panel discussion on January 31 with speakers such as Penny Edwards, associate professor and chair of the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Ms. Edwards, who initiated the exhibition, is the author of the 2007 book “Cambodge, The Cultivation of a Nation, 1860-1945.”

In addition to Mr. Montague’s preah bot and glass paintings, the exhibition, which will run until March 20, will include photographs illustrating how Cambodians display those works today.

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