In recent decades, art museums have moved beyond simple identification labels and have attempted to give the historical and philosophical background of the their art objects. Two current exhibits of Hindu art both attempt a deeper look at the roots of Asian religious art, but with very different results.
Sculpture of Angkor and Ancient Cambodia
A seven-headed serpent looms over visitors to the East Building of the National Gallery of Art. "Sculpture of Angkor and Ancient Cambodia: Millenium of Glory," which runs through September 28, examines a thousand years of art in the kingdom of the ancient Khmer in Cambodia. Most of the sculpture comes from Hindu and Buddhist temple ruins discovered by Westerners in the nineteenth century, although, as the exhibit's film points out, the temples were never "lost" to the nearby inhabitants, and they continue to be used for worship.
Among the objects on display are a fragment of an 11th-century statue of the god Vishnu which would have extended nearly 20 feet when intact, and a sandstone votive monument from the 12th century which contains carved images of over a thousand tiny people. Nearby is an 8th-century statue of the elephant-headed god Ganesa, whose belly, the label explains, "has become shiny from the touch of people seeking blessing for new ventures."
The exhibit ends with a 16th-century statue of a worshipper kneeling in prayer, but the irony of the exhibit is that visitors get very little sense of how the art was used in worship. Despite an attempt at coherent explanation by the exhibit's film (which comes, frustratingly, at the end of the exhibit), "Sculpture of Angkor" is a hodgepodge of themes. At times, the exhibit narrates the historical events behind the art; at times, the exhibit explains the artists' religious beliefs; at times, the exhibits shows interest in the changes in artistic style. None of these themes is carried forward in a consistent manner, and as a result, the visitor is left with little sense of the historical, religious, and artistic context of these nonetheless interesting objects.
A very different approach to Hindu Art can be found at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. "Puja: Expressions of Hindu Devotion" is an ongoing exhibit which has a definite and compelling theme: Hindu worship.
Visitors are drawn into the world of Hindu worship from the moment that they walk into the first room of the exhibit: this has been set up to imitate the layout of the central sanctum of a Hindu temple. Hanging from the ceiling are bells which you can ring; immediately in front of you is a bronze image of Nandi, the sacred bull on which the god Shiva rides, and which you are encouraged to touch for good luck. A label on the wall explains, "As in all Hindu shrines, it is correct to move clockwise around the central image before approaching the god." Visitors, who have probably walked counterclockwise around the central image in order to reach this sign, hastily back up.
The remainder of the exhibit is a mini-introduction to Hindu teachings, with each of the three rooms devoted to Hinduism's three main gods. One of the rooms contains a little study area where children can read a comic book describing the life of the god Krishna. Here also, visitors can look through a photo album of household shrines in America; one practical California couple has converted their bar into a shrine. The Californians, the captions reveals, "are particularly pleased that [the shrine] is near the sink, which is convenient for washing the holy vessels."
Replicas of shrines abound, including a tiny cupboard shrine set into one of the walls. Three videos show indoor and outdoor shrines in use. Instead of treating Hindu art merely as aesthetically pleasant objects (as the nearby Freer Gallery of Art does), Sackler tries to show how such objects are used in the everyday lives of their owners. The exhibit succeeds in this laudable goal.
Hinduism, says a label at the end of the exhibit, "could be called a religion of opposites. Western religions tend to draw clear distinctions between good and evil: good is of God while evil of the Devil. Many Hindu deities, however, embrace the light and the dark. These gods are the sum of all of existence: right and wrong, masculine and feminine, happiness and sadness, creation and destruction, disease and health." This remarkably clear account of Hindu beliefs is an apt conclusion to a well-designed and fascinating exhibit.
National Gallery of Art, 4th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., Washington, D.C. 20565. Metro: Judiciary Square (Red Line), Archives (Yellow and Green Lines), and Smithsonian (Blue and Orange Lines). (202) 737-4215. 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Monday–Saturday; 11 a.m.–6 p.m. Sunday. Closed Christmas and New Year's Day. Free admission.
"Sculpture of Angkor and Ancient Cambodia: Millenium of Glory." Councourse galleries (East Building). Through September 28.
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. 1050 Independence Avenue S.W., Washington, D.C. 20560. Smithsonian Metro (Blue and Orange Lines). 202-357-3200; 202-786-2374 (TTY). 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m. daily except December 25; 10 a.m.–8 p.m. Thursday (through Labor Day). Free admission.
"Puja: Expressions of Hindu Devotion." Indefinitely.
©1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson