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Glittering Cache of Ancient Treasures

Sculpture show is prelude the Festival of Indonesia

THERE is no lure like being told you are among the first to see two gold statues holding hands, hidden underground for 11 centuries. And that is just one of the attractions of ``The Sculpture of Indonesia,'' which has just opened at the National Gallery and includes 135 treasures from the Indian classical period. It is the opening gong in an 18-month Festival of India series of cultural exhibits and performances, beginning formally this September and touring the United States.

The gold statues were discovered several years ago by a team of archaeologists and investigators in a limestone cave filled with stalagmites and stalacties in central Java. The show's curator, Jan Fontein, says the diggers, ``when they had penetrated 500 yards into the cave, risking snakes and animals, ... saw a stone shaped like an altar and on top of the altar stood a bronze jar. And in that jar was [this] beautiful pair of gold statues.'' They were in the vault of the archeological service until recently, adds Fontein. ``And you are among the first to see [them].''

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This exhibition is full of buried treasure, some dug from the earth like potatoes or fished from the mud or rice paddies and rivers centuries later. One of the glories of the collection is a 9th-century temple bell, reportedly the largest ever found in Java. The bell was discovered west of central Java in 1927. As Fontein explains, the huge bronze bell was discovered only because the owner of the plantation decided to switch to a new variety of sugar cane that required plowing six inches deeper than they had done before. When they hit the bell, they found right next to it in a jar the chain from which the bell had been suspended. The chain, says Fontein, was made of iron from the bell so it was ``one big clump of rust'' they found.

Guest curator Fontein has made a life-long study of Indonesian art. He is the former director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and now Matsutaro Shoriki curator for research in that museum's department of Asiatic art. He is the force behind this show and lived in Indonesia for two years working on it.

The exhibition was organized by the National Gallery of Art, with support from Mobil Corporation. Like the other parts of the Festival of Indonesia, it is endorsed by the governments of the Republic of Indonesia and the United States. It is the first such exhibition to include collections on loan from Indonesia, Europe, and the United States.

The exhibition's focus on the Indonesian classical period between the 8th and 15th centuries, includes Buddhist and Hindu life- size stone sculpture, gold and silver objects, and ceremeonial pieces. A quartet of pieces from the Bronze Age is also included.

Asked how much Indonesian treasure is still underground, Fontein says, ``Who knows? Who knows? On the 21st of June last year, an Indonesian schoolboy doing work in a garden found a huge gold necklace, 1,669 grams. ... The boy got half the gold value, the owner of the garden half, because of a law of about the preservation of cultural property which dates from 1931. And the boy's education has now been assured.

``A farmer trying to expand the kitchen of his house finds a jar full of statues. ... The frequency with which this happens gives me the certainty much more will be found. Of course in the climate of Indonesia nothing made of wood or other perishable organic material will survive. But objects in stone or silver or bronze will always continue to be found. Hundreds and hundreds have been found in the last 20 years.''

Fontein had a sumptuous shopping list when he went to the Indonesian authorities to ask for the treasures he needed. ``I got everything I asked for,'' he says. ``If you feel after going through this exhibition that that Indonesian art is not for you, I can only say there are no better pieces in the world than these. There are three pieces we did not get, and that was because their removal from the museum where they had been embedded in the walls for more than 100 years would have caused a risk to the objects.''

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He notes the government has been unstinting, despite a previous exhibition tragedy: In Vincennes, France, in 1931, over 100 pieces of Indonesian art, including small bronzes, stone sculptures, gold pieces, and fine examples of tribal art were lost in a fire which consumed the exhibition building.

``They still have at the Jakarta Museum a number of pieces that are partially melted, which somebody took from the smoldering ruins. It was terrible at the time, but the museum still has the courage to put all their eggs in one basket.''

This time all packing and other protective precautions have been observed, and ``the pieces are in better hands now. I. M. Pei builds better buildings [the East Building of the Gallery] than the one lost in the disaster.''

Foremost among the treasures in a serene and mystic portrait sculpture of the goddess of trascendental wisdom, a 13th-century prize on loan for the first time in this exhibition. The gold lower lip and silver third eye of a 9th-century bronze of the diety Siva make that another show-stopper. Siva, four arms and all, was found in a river. The show also includes one of the 504 life-size Buddhas first made for the largest Buddhist temple ever built, Borodbudur.

One of the firsts of the show is bringing together a treasure from the Jakarta Museum - a bronze figure coated with silver which had lost its arms during excavation. The arms ended up with a private museum, the figurre with the national museum, but both were reunited through negotiations. The National Gallery has done an extraordinary job of mounting the arms, hinged so that you can see they are still separate but belong to the piece. Fontein joked that if he'd managed to reunite the Venus de Milo with her arms, he'd really be famous.

As Fontein points out, there is often a discussion about the relationship between Indonesian art and Indian art. ``Rather than relying on the catalog ... we have tried to make it visually convincing that Indonesia was a country with a strong flourishing culture at the time when Hinduism and Buddhism were brought to the shores of Indonesia.

``We have included five masterpieces of the Bronze-Iron Age, which preceeded this Hindu-Buddhist period, to show that the Indonesians were not a country without culture. when Indian religions arrived in that country, but had highly developed technical skills and a beautiful sense of art in that period.''

The show continues at the National Gallery through Nov. 4, then goes to: he Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Dec. 9-March 17, 1991; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New YOrk, April 27, 1991-Aug. 18; and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Sept. 28, 1991-Jan. 5, 1992.

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