You don't have to know anything about Buddhism, Hinduism or the art of Southeast Asia to be charmed and seduced by "The Sculpture of Indonesia," opening today at the National Gallery East Building. The first salvo in a two-year cultural offensive titled "Festival of Indonesia," which will include three other traveling exhibitions and performances in 40 American cities, it sets a high standard for the entire enterprise, which officially opens at the Kennedy Center in September.
This exhibition consists of nothing less than the greatest masterpieces of Indonesian art not attached to the walls of its temples and shrines -- 135 works in all, loaned by museums in Indonesia, America and Europe. Among them: spellbinding life-size figures in stone, endearing narrative reliefs, gorgeous clapperless bronze bells and small figural objects in brass, gold and silver that range from the awkward to the exquisite.
There is an intimacy, an unusual approachability about these works: A 9th-century couple fashioned in gold hold hands; a 14th-century royal wife sits on her husband's stone lap, her arm around his neck, his hand on her rump; a former child-eating ogress, transformed into a good mother by the Buddha, tenderly holds the hand of one child at her side, another bound to her hip with a sling.
All date from what is called the "classical" period, the years between the 7th and 15th centuries, by which time Buddhism and Hinduism had pervaded all of the Indonesian archipelago -- the more than 3,000 lush green islands (Java, Bali and Sumatra among them) that garland the sparkling seas between Southeast Asia and Australia. Introduced from India by merchants and missionaries, these religions unleashed an outburst of building and sculptural activity that has no parallel in the ancient world, even in India itself. Borobudur, built in the 9th century in Central Java, for example, is not only the most famous Indonesian archaeological site; it is also the largest Buddhist temple ever built, with a mile and a half of narrative reliefs. Some sense of its scale is transmitted here by both a photo-mural and one of the 504 life-size Buddhas that adorn this stupa-topped stepped pyramid.
By the 10th century, for reasons unknown, building and accompanying sculptural activity shifted from Central to East Java, where most of the later treasures were found. By the 15th century, however, the religion of Islam, which forbade images of the deity, had taken over, and this great period of figurative sculpture came to an end.
A highly diverse culture with more than 300 languages and dialects, Indonesia was previously known as the Dutch East Indies and, in part, as the "Spice Islands" -- Columbus's destination when he stumbled upon the New World. As the 500th anniversary of that discovery approaches, it apparently seemed to the Indonesians, the National Gallery, the guest curator and renowned scholar Jan Fontein, and Mobil Corp. (which put up $1.6 million for the show) high time that the two cultures met, and that Americans got a sense of what Columbus was really after -- and missed.
The first gallery alone is worth the trip, and was intended by Fontein to make a key point -- that Indonesia had a lively, highly developed culture long before the Indians arrived. He makes it magnificently, with five Bronze Age objects, among them a delicately wrought, gracefully shaped ceremonial ax, far too fine to have done damage to a neck, and a large, beautifully incised water flask.
A single Bronze Age object, however, could have made the point: a highly simplified and altogether captivating elephant, actually a water vessel with a trunk for a spout. Apparently meant to be immersed and then poured (there is only one orifice), this vessel was probably used for some ritual purpose -- perhaps akin to that depicted in the 9th-century stone relief carving of the "Goddess of Good Fortune," installed over the nearby door to the next gallery. In it, this "Goddess" spouse of Vishnu is flanked by two elephants, which, with their trunks, are sprinkling her with holy water.
This elephant vessel, by the way, was missing one leg when it was first discovered inside a kettledrum on the north coast of East Java. For this show, it has been masterfully repaired by the National Gallery restoration lab -- one of several such favors done these objects since they arrived, some still covered with jungle lichen and moss.
Indonesians found the necessary prototypes for their proliferating figures of the Buddha, and Hindu divinities such as Siva and Vishnu, during pilgrimages to the holy cities in India, from which they brought back small bronzes. As the show moves on, we see them adopting some conventions -- such as the habit of casting the lower lips of holy figures in gold and the eyes in silver -- and dismissing others, such as the raised, linear, Greek-derived drapery style, which turns up early in this show and then quickly disappears. Even when Indian iconography is employed, there is a roundness and suppleness, an emphasis on the real human presence rather than the stylized, forbidding deity, which seems distinctly Indonesian.
It is a sense of gentle persuasion-by-example that the most beautiful of these figures project, and the spectacular pairing of two 9th-century pieces from Central Java -- one the aforementioned Buddha from Borobudur, the other the "Meditating Monk" from Plaosan -- offers a rare opportunity to observe this, as well as to examine the subtle differences between the rendering of divine and human figures in the same pose of meditation.
Here, as always, the Buddha is distinguished by certain bodily characteristics, including the wisdom bump, a protuberance on top of his head; the hair made up of small, tight curls, with one on the forehead; and the elongated earlobes, signifying the heavy ear ornaments he had once worn, but had given up, along with his other worldly goods.
In comparison, the monk's head is shaved, his face more real. But his earlobes are long, suggesting in this case, according to Fontein, a person who not only gave up worldly goods but donated them to the temple at Plaosan, a place with the curious latter-day distinction of having the names of its various donors inscribed on its walls. The payoff in those days came not in tax write-offs, but in the next incarnation. Only four such heads have been preserved at Plaosan, each with a different expression, which leads to the assumption that they are donor portraits.
But in the end, the Buddha's lips are curled, his serenity deeper -- he seems to know something the monk, as yet, does not. And that is the real difference between them.
Later in the show, we see an even more pronounced example of this surpassing serenity in the face and figure of the beautiful 14th-century "Goddess of Tranquillity," perhaps the single most important work here, since it is also thought to be the portrait of a dead queen whose descendants ruled Singasari for centuries. Though done in the more elaborate, almost gothic style that characterized carvings of East Java after the 10th century, her monumental stillness seems to transform the space around her into a shrine.
There is so much more, including narrative reliefs that read like soap operas: episodes from the Indian epic Ramayana, or about the irrational cravings of pregnant women -- in one case a queen who wanted to bathe in blood, and when she did was mistaken for hunk of meat by a bird of prey.
Other narratives are played out on small bronze candelabra, which, Fontein is convinced, were meant to provide high drama after the sun went down. In the flickering candlelight, these figures, some riding on the backs of birds, would cast shadows that moved. Given the importance of shadow puppets in Indonesia, he's probably right.
Though Indonesia has long been careful to preserve its artistic heritage, works are still being uncovered, and Fontein, to his great delight, made a few in the course of organizing this show. One was the discovery, in the drawer of an Indonesian museum, of two of the four arms of the 9th-century silver Bodhisattva that glows from a case in the fourth of six galleries here. For the first time in centuries, they are together again.
"The Sculpture of Indonesia" and its clarity of purpose and presentation make an incontrovertible case for liberating scholars from their bureaucratic shackles and letting them do what they were trained to do -- conduct research, make exhibitions and write. Fontein retired from the directorship of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to do this show, which he worked on exclusively for three years, most of it in Indonesia. The result is a little masterpiece of simplicity -- in its labels, its catalogue, even the Acoustiguide. It could have been forbiddingly esoteric.
Fontein also set himself some extra-artistic goals for this exhibition: to instill a sense of national pride among Indonesians and to return something to the country, which he has already done by arranging for young curators to spend time in American museums, learning up-to-the-minute conservation, storage and installation techniques.
He now hopes it will encourage Indonesian cultural officials to bring about some change in the Museum Nasional. "That museum in Jakarta is the oldest in Southeast Asia -- more than 200 years old -- and with a superb collection," says Fontein. "I would like to see it inspired, by this show, to make the works look as well there as they do here."
"The Sculpture of Indonesia" will continue at the East Building through Nov. 4, after which it will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in December; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in April 1991; and the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, in September 1991.