Cambodia’s religious artists have historically taken some liberties on period accuracy – with interesting results
Visiting Pursat in 2004 during the first ever comprehensive survey of Cambodia’s monasteries, Danielle and Dominique Guéret found a painting in Wat Sbov Rik’s temple – or vihara – depicting the birth of Siddhartha (who went on to become Buddha). The scene was fairly typical apart from one detail: the women looking on were wearing wristwatches.
Such out-of-place features are surprisingly common in Cambodia’s religious artwork, and provide a fascinating insight into the painters and the society they lived in.
“My wife could have done a thesis on just the anachronistic elements, because there are so many,” said Dominique during an interview in Phnom Penh this week, following a seminar the pair held on their work at the French Institute.
In the Wat Ba Baong Kraom sanctuary in Prey Veng, built in 1965, a painting depicts a scene in the life of Siddartha in which he had to prove his skill with the bow. In that instance, the artist chose to show him achieving this by shooting out streetlights. Other paintings feature clocks on the walls, public announcement systems, packets of cigarettes, French people, soldiers and flags, banjos, flying chariots with car tyres, and planes flying through the sky. At Wat Angkor Khang Cheung, located next to Angkor Wat, a 1950s mural depicts the Buddha being tempted by three sirens – two were originally naked but had dresses painted on at a later date – clearly modelled on Marilyn Monroe.
Danielle, an archaeology professor, said contemporary objects, people and styles of dress could be found in pagoda paintings dating back to the turn of the century; however, they were most common between the 1940s and 1960s.
When a painter was commissioned to illustrate a religious scene, they were only required to include the principle elements of the story, she said.
Danielle gave the example of a classic story from the life of the Buddha in which Siddhartha first leaves his home and has four encounters – with an old man, a sick man, a corpse and an ascetic – which put him on the path to enlightenment.
“To express this story, the painter paints Siddartha and the four people, but other than that, he does what like wants, so he might also put a car or planes or Marilyn Monroe,” she said.
Dominique and Danielle first came to Cambodia in the early 1990s after Dominique was appointed the deputy director of UNTAC’s civil administration. At the time it was rumoured that the Khmer Rouge had systematically destroyed Cambodia’s religious buildings. When the Guerets discovered that this was not the case and that the remaining pre-1975 viharas were being demolished one by one, they decided to catalogue them.
Starting in 2004, they spent more than a decade researching and visiting hundreds of sites, taking photographs of the artwork inside and sketching out the architectural plans of the buildings. The result of their work was compiled into a pair of theses – Danielle’s on artwork and Dominique’s on architecture – which were accepted by the Sorbonne Paris IV university last November.
In the chapter on anachronistic painting are photos of one at Wat Srei Tuol in Kampong Thom, which was built in the 1950s and features the French general Charles de Gaulle at Siddhartha’s wedding.
When the Guerets tracked down the painter, Eng Buthan, in 2011 and asked him why he included the general, he told them he was just following a request from the local villagers who had given him a magazine with De Gaulle’s picture.
“De Gaulle was quite important because he was a symbol of independence, and maybe they wanted to celebrate independence,” said Dominique. “We don’t know.”
The Guerets research found that there were about 3,450 wats in Cambodia in 1975. They estimate about half were destroyed during the war and by the Khmer Rouge. However, only about 563 of those pre-1975 wats are still standing today.
The primary cause of their destruction, Dominique said, was the traditional cycle of renewal, which involved the demolition of old viharas to make way for new ones.
“The tradition used to be, when sanctuaries were built entirely out of wood, that they would plant koki trees next to it,” he said. “Then, after 50 years or so, the pagoda would be nearly falling down and the trees would be big enough they could use them to build another sanctuary.
“So the tradition was to not to do a lot of maintenance, just wait until the old one is nearly collapsing and build a new one the same as before.
“But now with the buildings built out of bricks and concrete, there is no need to destroy the buildings after 50 years, but the tradition continues.”
Not all the old viharas have been knocked down.
“Fortunately, if the vihara is not built on the same spot, they will keep the old building, at least until it collapses on its own, so we still have about 30 ancient viharas located next to big new ones.”
The Guerets hope that by raising awareness of the heritage contained in the temples – and especially the artwork – they can spark a conservation movement that could save at least some of them.
“If nothing is done, all these paintings will disappear,” he said. “However, we met the minister of Culture and Fine Arts, and she is very concerned about this, so hopefully it won’t come to that.”
Dominique said that he saw the main value in the buildings and artwork not in their aesthetic beauty but in the way they reflected the society and perspective of the people that painted them.
“I think these painting show that at the time society wasn’t so bad,” he said. “The people were very outward looking.”
“After independence, it’s very common to see people smiling in the painting. You can find people smiling everywhere,” he added. “Before, there was no smiling. And you don’t see smiling in the paintings in the modern pagodas now either.”