Archive of Posts by Forrest McGill

Chief Curator and Wattis Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art

Ancient Modern

Ceramic vessel, Iran. 1200-800 BCE.

Two-handled vessel in the shape of a water skin, approx. 1200-800 BCE. Northern Iran; probably Amlash. Earthenware. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60P2015.

What old objects in the Asian Art Museum strike you as modern (or contemporary) in some way? With the exhibition Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past opening, now is the time to think about this.

We’ve created a page on Tumblr with a few of my picks, including the vase pictured. You can also submit your own candidates, with a short statement for each saying what you find modern about it—see what others have added here. Take a look through our online collection; you may be surprised by what you find.

Cambodia and the Asian Art Museum Collection

A wall with bas-relief among trees and foliage, Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia.

Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia.

Recently Cambodia (along with its neighbors Thailand and Laos) celebrated new year. This seemed like a good time to report on one or two interesting outcomes of a study trip to Cambodia last year.

Four hours of dusty, bumpy dirt road northwest of Angkor lies the 800-year-old temple complex of Banteay Chhmar. The complex is so spread out and so ruinous that no picture can suggest its extent and importance. The site is so remote that until 2008 it had not been cleared of landmines. It has also been a target of looters; entire sections of wall have been stolen by well-organized, well-armed raiding parties.

Reconstruction begins in Banteay Chhmar.

Reconstruction begins in Banteay Chhmar.

Now, though, Cambodian and Western archeologists are working together on the clearing and restoration of Banteay Chhmar—a process that will take decades.

While I was there, a Cambodian archeological team discovered a large demon head and were able to reunite it with its body. They were eager to record their latest accomplishment. They clustered around the restored figure for photos—insisting that my hosts and I join in—and passed cameras so that everyone got a photo with themselves in it. (I’m the second from the right).
Archeologists and others gather around the reconstructed demon at Banteay Chhmar.

Reproduction of the head of a deity, CambodianA large head in a style related to that of Banteay Chhmar has been in in the Asian Art Museum’s collection for many decades. When I showed a photo of it to Hab Touch, a respected Cambodian archeologist and senior official with the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, he asked if the sculpture might not be of cement. Over the years, as the heads of Cambodian sculptures have been stolen for sale on the international art market, cement replacements have sometimes been made. If the sculpture were one of an identical set, and other heads from the set remained, a mold would be taken from a genuine head and a cast, very close in appearance to the original, made in cement.
I assured Hab Touch that our piece had every appearance of being original, but he reminded me how much genuine Cambodian sandstone and cement made with Cambodian sand might resemble each other. Recently, Mark Fenn of our museum’s conservation lab has confirmed that our head is indeed cement. So much for the certainties of an American curator. Cheers for the sharp eyes of a Cambodian archeologist!

Seriously: we’re always eager to learn more about art objects in the museum’s collection, and to correct our records, even if it means discovering that a work is a reproduction.

I’ll be giving a talk on the study trip to Cambodia and more of its results related to the Asian’s Cambodian collection on the evening of May 3.

For those interested in the current political situation in Cambodia, here’s a recent interview from Australian radio.



The Art of Passion

A story of steamy passion turns out to be behind an Indian painting in the museum’s collection.

Painting from India's Mewar kingdom, approx. 1720, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. George Hopper Fitch

Painting from India's Mewar kingdom, approx. 1720, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. George Hopper Fitch.

The subject of the painting, which came to the museum in 1984, had been identified in very general terms before. We knew that it showed the Hindu deity Krishna and his beloved Radha parted and longing for each other.

But the painting’s inscription had never been read. Recently Joan Cummins, a specialist in Indian painting at the Brooklyn Museum, was here to give a lecture. During her preparations she read the inscription and found its source:

What her companion said to him:
Hearing her moan
with the burning pain
of parting
I emptied a whole bottle
of rosewater on her,
but the flames of his separation
vaporized it in mid-air
and not a drop
fell on her!

(From Bihari: The Satasai. Translated from the Hindi and with an introduction by Krishna P. Bahadur. London: Penguin Books, 1992.)

In the upper left a companion of Radha’s, who serves as an intermediary between Radha and Krishna, describes to Krishna Radha’s intense longing for him. The situation the companion describes is shown at the lower left: a bottle of rosewater is poured on Radha to cool “the burning pain of parting” to no avail.

If you want to take steamy passion beyond the art, join us for a multi-sensorial MATCHA on February 16. If you’d rather stick to the art, Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts and Sanjay Patel’s Deities, Demons and Dudes with ‘Staches offer different perspectives on Indian culture and spirituality until April 2012.

Jeepers Creepers, Where’d You Get Those…

A journalist asked us today about the enamel eyes sported by our Vishnu and Lakshmi sculpture in Sanjay Patel’s Deities, Demons and Dudes with ‘Staches.

Enamel eyes for deity statues

One of our conservators with some ready-made enamel eyes.

This sculpture was originally intended to have eyes like these. There are carved depressions in the stone for them, as you can see from the picture below. We don’t know whether the sculpture never got its eyes, or lost them at some point.  Years ago we made a mold of the eye depressions, and I gave the mold to an artisan in India who makes such eyes. The artisan then created a pair for us from enameled metal, as is traditional.

Sculpture of Vishnu and Lakshmi.

Vishnu and Lakshmi in their former, eyeless state.

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Striving for number one

emerald cities at bangkok international airport

The number two best seller at Asia Books in Bangkok’s international airport is the Asian Art Museum’s Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam and Burma 1775-1950. We’ll keep working to get the top spot!

Avatar at the Asian, part II

Having now seen the movie Avatar, I can’t say there’s much Hindu lore in it beyond the word “avatar” and an approximation of its ancient concept.

It’s true that the hero of Avatar, like the Hindu deity Vishnu, has blue skin and rides a mighty sun bird, but hey, we’re in the realm of myth, and X doesn’t have to be derived from Y.

Here’s a painting from the museum’s collection showing a very blue Vishnu (and his consort) riding through the sky on the great bird Garuda. It’s from the north Indian state of Rajasthan, and dates from around 1760.


If you see the movie and notice other connections with Hindu lore, write in and tell us, OK?

Avatar at the Asian

There you go again, Hollywood, stealing from ancient Hindu lore.

The word “avatar” comes from Sanskrit avatara, literally meaning “descent.” It referred, originally, to the incarnations of the great deity Vishnu. When humankind was threatened with disorder and violence Vishnu would take on an appropriate form and descend to earth to set things right.

There are usually thought to be ten incarnations, and they include animal or part-animal forms such as The Tortoise and The Man-Lion, and human forms such as The Dwarf, Rama, and Krishna.

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Space Aliens Invade Emerald Cities

Emy Kim IMG_3742

No, actually it is contract conservator Emy Kim finishing the cleaning and consolidation of the surface of an elaborately lacquered, gilded, and inlaid table from nineteenth-century Siam that will be on view in the Emerald Cities exhibition.

She wears a respirator for protection from the fumes from solvents used in the cleaning.

Emerald Blooper

Nightmare: you are looking at the final, too-late-to-change proofs of a book you are responsible for, and notice a glaring mistake.

On page 21 of our soon-to-be-released publication Emerald Cities, Arts of Siam and Burma, 1775-1950, there’s a photo of one of Thailand’s most important  temples. The only problem is, the photo is of the wrong building.

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Inscription Found


Shiho Sasaki holding a Siamese painting. She discovered a faint inscription, which extends between her hands in this photo.

The sorts of Siamese and Burmese artworks that will be shown in our Emerald Cities exhibition seldom have inscriptions or other documentary evidence associated with them. This makes research particularly challenging. When an inscription turns up, it’s exciting.

Our conservator of paintings Shiho Sasaki phoned me this morning to say she had found a previously unnoticed inscription on one of the Siamese paintings she is preparing for display.

The one-and-a-half-line inscription on the back of the painting is very faint and so far hasn’t been read. The few words that can be made out suggest that the inscription records donors’ names and their pious intentions.

Next steps are to ask our photographer to take detailed shots under optimal lighting conditions, and to ask the conservators to try infrared photography, which sometimes reveals what cannot be seen in ordinary light.

Thanks go to Shiho for her careful, sharp looking.