Ancient Viet Nam: From River Plain to Open Sea (Houston)

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Before entering "Arts of Ancient Viet Nam: From River Plain to Coastal Sea," it pays to pause in front of the 6½-foot statue at the entrance. Feet planted atop a splayed water buffalo, the male figure stands ready to attack: His eyes bulge, his right hand clutches a dagger, his legs are braced.

In the ninth century, this Dharmapala guarded a Buddhist temple complex with a fierceness so great he was known to defeat death itself. Today, set against the deep purple walls of the gallery, he vanquishes the assumption that Vietnamese artists did nothing more than absorb Chinese and Indian models.

Indeed, the overturning of such preconceptions is the principal take-away from this show, which independent scholar Nancy Tingley first conceived 20 years ago. Having had to shelve the research until U.S.-Vietnamese relations thawed, she has now assembled 130 pieces from nine Vietnamese museums and used them to highlight key civilizations that successively dominated trade in that coastal region.

The range is impressive: gold, stone sculptures, bronzes, ceramics and gemstones dating from the first millennium B.C. through the 18th century. And, to be sure, there are Indian and Chinese influences throughout. In the first gallery, large bronze-cast drums and vessels from the fifth to first centuries B.C. bear a striking similarity to pieces from southern China, just as, in the next gallery, statues from the fifth to seventh centuries A.D. are immediately recognizable as Buddhas or the Hindu gods Vishnu and Ganesha.

But there are also salient particularities. A large bronze drum (fifth to third century B.C.) could be mistaken for Chinese, but a close look at the decorations reveals the etched outlines of people wearing large feathered headdresses. They are sitting in boats in what scholars assume was a local, as yet little understood, burial practice. Interestingly, the headdresses recur on other pieces in the show, including on a slightly later bronze panel, whose purpose nobody knows for sure, and on a second- to third-century basin, where the motif is highly stylized.

The stamp of indigenous sensibilities becomes clearer with the show's first display of Buddhist and Hindu imagery. These are the products of Vietnam's Fu Nan civilization, which thrived in the Mekong River Delta in the south from the first through the eighth centuries. Most striking here is the range. A 5½-foot-tall Vishnu, wearing the pillbox headdress that came to be associated with Cambodian sculpture, stands tall and proud, as immovable as the stone from which he is carved. By contrast, a sixth-century wooden Buddha appears poised to step off his pedestal: About a foot shorter than the Vishnu, he has the slender, elongated body of a youth and the poise of a wise elder.

In a nearby case, the small, sixth-century bronze of a devotee shows a similar combination of animation and poise. Low to the ground, he lunges forward, one leg extended backward while his right hand reaches forward, holding out an offering plate. Like the Buddha's, the devotee's features have been worn by time, but enough remain to discern a broad face, large eyes and heavy lips—characteristics that feature prominently in the next gallery, where we encounter the art of the Cham people. If there was any lingering doubt about Vietnam's claim to a distinctive art heritage, the issue is settled in this gallery. Some of the work here is blocky—you can almost see the outlines of the stone rectangle from which an upended lion and a trumpeting elephant are carved. But it is also exuberant, alive with decorative patterns or movement, with an iconography that breaks away from Indian and Chinese prescriptions or models...

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