This exhibition celebrates a spectacular donation of thirty-three Southeast Asian art objects from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. On view are highlights from that gift, which includes Buddhist sculpture and religious and secular pieces from Thailand and Myanmar (Burma). Related works from the permanent collection, including the Museum’s beautiful Angkor-period Cambodian head, provide context for these new acquisitions.
Two facts inform the presentation of this material: first, the overwhelming importance of Buddhism and religious art in the context of Southeast Asian culture; and second, the high level of craftsmanship of the works on view. Deep religious sentiment inspired the meticulous care involved in making such refined Buddhist devotional images and ritual materials, and at the moment of observance the objects themselves inspired awe and piety. The ornately embellished surfaces and tactile beauty of the secular materials complement the ritual objects and reflect the same aesthetic of rich adornment demonstrated throughout the exhibition.
Doris Duke’s Collection of Southeast Asian Art
Doris Duke (1912-93), the heiress to the Duke family fortune established by her father, James Buchanan Duke (1856-1925), first visited Asia in 1935 as part of a round-the-world honeymoon. Her love of travel and her lifelong fascination with the arts of Asia began with this journey. In 1937-38, she built her Honolulu residence, known as Shangri La, purchasing sections of Islamic buildings and constructing the house around them. It is now a museum showcasing her noteworthy collection of Islamic art, much of which is actually part of the architecture’s physical structure.
In the late 1950s, Doris Duke began traveling again to Asia and the Middle East. During a brief 1957 stay in Thailand, she apparently became enchanted with Southeast Asian art. She soon formed a plan to build a “Thai village” in Hawaii and in 1961 established the Thai House Foundation, quickly renamed the Foundation for Southeast Asian Art and Culture (SEAAC). The black lacquered sculpture of Viṣṇu on display in the adjacent gallery (acc. no. 2004.12.27) is believed to have been the first object purchased through SEAAC. Between the late 1950s and early 1970s, she acquired approximately 2,000 objects, mostly of the 18th and 19th centuries, but an appropriate site was never found for the village. In 1972, the artworks were shipped from Honolulu to Duke Farms, her family estate in Hillsborough, New Jersey, where they remained on view in the coach barn until the dispersal of the collection to museums in Europe and the United States, a process begun in 2002 by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
Doris Duke is well known locally through another of her philanthropic interests, the Newport Restoration Foundation, which implemented extensive conservation of 18th-century architecture in Rhode Island’s colonial capital. One residence, the Samuel Whitehorne House, contains Doris Duke’s collection of antique Newport furniture. Her summer home, Rough Point, is filled with paintings and decorative arts that reveal a strong sense of quality and individual taste. Most striking is her bedroom, where she spent much of her time. It is filled with mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture originally upholstered with Thai silk (the photograph shows the pieces recovered with very similar fabrics). The room’s color scheme and rich patterns bear witness to how deeply she had absorbed the aesthetic preferences of Southeast Asia, as do her Mughal (Islamic Indian) and Mughal-inspired jewelry and numerous Asian objects at Rough Point.
Buddhist Art in Southeast Asia
Buddhism, one of the world’s great religions, evolved in India. The historical Buddha was born in the 6th century BC to the noble Gotama clan. He taught that to escape life’s suffering, one should strive to attain enlightenment. To achieve this goal, one must extinguish all worldly desires within oneself and seek deliverance from the eternal cycle of rebirth. Reincarnation is an important aspect of India’s traditional religious beliefs, out of which Buddhism evolved.
Buddhism was transmitted from India via Sri Lanka (Ceylon) into Southeast Asia perhaps as early as the third century BC. The Buddhism of Southeast Asia is Theravāda, or “The Doctrine of the Elders.” Only in Vietnam is Mahayana (“The Great Vehicle”) still practiced. Theravāda coexisted with Mahāyāna and other religious beliefs, including Hinduism, until the early second millenium, when it gradually gained ascendancy in the region. In its focus on the monastic community (sangha) and emulation of the Buddha’s discipline, Theravāda gives prominence to the life and teachings of the historic Buddha. According to tradition, the community originally consisted of the Buddha’s disciples and followers, who were charged with the important role of disseminating his teachings. It is the continuity of that tradition within the Theravādist monastic community that is so distinctive.
The Buddha’s birth, attainment of enlightenment, and death all occurred on the same day in widely separated years. These three significant events are commemorated on the Buddha’s Day (Visākhā Pūja), the most sacred of the religious festivals of Southeast Asia (see the Death of the Buddha sculpture, acc. no. 2004.12.1, in the adjacent gallery). The traditional standing Thai Buddha (acc. no. 2004.12.26, at the entrance to the exhibition), crowned and in royal garb, evokes the ideal Buddhist ruler, or “universal monarch” (cakkavattin) through its costume details. The vision of the enlightened Buddhist ruler in Theravādist doctrine provided significant religious support for the political structure of the various Southeast Asian states. Made as devotional images for worship and to obtain merit, these works convey the solemnity and power of the beliefs that inspired their creation.
Craft Traditions of Southeast Asia
Whether Buddhist or secular, many of these objects sparkle with color and shimmer in the light. Most striking are the gilded lacquer surfaces of the Death of the Buddha (acc. no. 2004.12.1) and other Buddhist ritual objects (acc. nos. 2004.12.2.1, .2.2, and .3) in the next gallery. Not only were wooden sculptures gilded, but also the bronzes. The standing Buddha (acc. no. 2004.12.24) was originally covered with gold leaf, traces of which are still visible. The small gilded Thai head of the Buddha with its mother-of-pearl inset eyes (acc. no. 36.007, exhibited nearby) conveys some sense of the lavish decoration applied to bronze devotional images. The manufacture of these works and the others on view required mastery of elaborate techniques.
Lacquered objects were fashioned from wood, palm-leaf, or coiled bamboo cores, then prepared and coated with several layers of sap from the pipal tree, sometimes mixed with ash or clay. In the Burmese technique used for the Death of the Buddha, the offering containers, and the manuscript chest (acc. nos. 2004.12.1, 2.1-2, 3, and 4), the surface decoration was modeled in lacquer paste made from sap mixed with cow-dung ash or finely pounded cow bone. Pieces of colored glass backed with foil were then inset into the design, and the surface was coated with lacquer and finished with gold leaf.
The same lacquer sap was used in the production of the mother-of-pearl inlaid tray (acc. no. 2004.12.8) in this gallery. The wood core has been finished on the interior with a coat of red lacquer. The mother-of-pearl inlay, made from finely cut and prepared sections of the seashell Turbinidae turbo maroratus, was set into patterns on the surface of the vessel using a mixture of sap and charcoal from burned banana leaves. The spaces around the inlays were also filled with this mixture, and then the object was cleaned, polished, and coated with a thin layer of clear varnish to seal its surface.
Basketry also makes use of lacquer sap as a sealant. The betel-nut box (acc. no. 2004.12.5.1-5) and some of the purses (acc. nos. 2004.12.29, .31, and .33) in this gallery are sophisticated examples of Thai weaving techniques. Their intricate manufacture is based on coiling systems in which indigenous fibrous materials are woven and then sealed with lacquer.
Objects of silver such as the ladle (acc. no. 2004.12.7, next to the inlaid tray) were hammered into the desired shape. In a technique known as parcel gilding, gold mixed with mercury was applied in patterns; when the piece was heated, the mercury evaporated and the gold adhered firmly to the metal surface. The second design, of niello, consists of an inlaid black mixture of lead, copper, and silver which, when heated, fuses with the silver base and contrasts with it in color. In yet another example of metalworking technique, enamels applied to copper were fired to yield the brightly painted yellow-ground water bowl (acc. no. 2004.12.6, displayed in the freestanding case).
Since the ceramics on exhibit were made in China for the Thai market, their techniques of manufacture are omitted here; yet their elaborate enameling and brilliant colors certainly relate to the rich palette and textured patterns seen on the Southeast Asian objects in these galleries.