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Lifting Hazy Veils From Centuries of Vietnamese Art

The “Arts of Ancient Viet Nam” show at Asia Society, and the book written by Nancy Tingley who spent the better part of the last two decades putting it together, lay bare some of the avatars that led to the formation of the country now called Vietnam.

Culture after culture emerged on its territory, often leaving no trace other than objects of which the precise meaning eludes us.

They are made more intriguing by the display conceived by Adriana Proser, curator of the traditional arts of Asia at Asia Society. Every major work stands out on its own, inviting questions to which there are no easy answers.

Some pieces, like the molds for casting ax heads that came to light on a site called Dong Dau and may date from as early as about 1500 B.C., are only of documentary interest. The sophistication of others like the bronzes associated with another site, Dong Son in the central province of Thanh Hoa, reveals a powerful culture that started around the 5th century B.C. and lasted for at least 600 years. Frustratingly, nothing is known about the people who made them, not even their name. If they ever had a system of writing, it left no trace.

The Chinese, keen to expand and push back their borders, mention this area in their chronicles. But, only concerned with the materials imported into China or the tribute paid by the “barbarians,” they do not even explain how and in what language they communicated with these people.

Curiously, the comparisons to which some Dong Son bronzes lend themselves are not to be found in China, but far away, in the Middle East.

An ax head is engraved with three standing stags. With their huge antlers, these closely resemble the small bronze figures of the early 1st millennium B.C. that have come out of north Iranian sites, while a dagger recovered from Dong Son has a hilt that finds parallels in 2nd millennium B.C. Egypt.

Large bronze drums, of a type also found in Malaysia and Indonesia, played a considerable role for centuries. When Chinese troops led by General Ma Yuan occupied northern Vietnam in A.D. 42, the invaders carried off the drums, underlining their perceived importance, perhaps as symbols linked with sovereignty.

Although Chinese rule was to last for 900 years, no information of any kind is provided about these objects — nor any others, for that matter.

The culture that the Chinese encountered appears to have had a strong identity. Surprisingly, no early interaction can be detected between the people who made the Dong Son objects and the northern invaders with their powerful, more ancient culture.

True, after the suppression of an uprising that led to the Chinese occupation in A.D. 42, Han-style tombs appeared in the region. Chinese and Dong Son patterns were occasionally combined on artifacts, pointing to some influence. But this remained superficial.

A bronze vase meant to imitate the Han “hu” type does not look Chinese. The proportions are different, and the pattern of minuscule rings cast between the horizontal grooves, is unknown in China, as is the openwork base. An inscription in partly deciphered Chinese ideograms running around the neck is traced in hesitant characters by a hand clearly unfamiliar with the script.

Even the closest attempts by Dong Son craftsmen at imitating Chinese models resulted in original works. A pottery wine ewer with a spout in the shape of a cockerel on loan from the National Museum of Vietnamese History is quite unlike its Han prototype with its salient ridge, and, most tellingly, the liveliness of the cockerel’s head.

Further south, another enigmatic culture thrived. A jade ear pendant, excavated in 1994 in the area of Ho Chi Minh City, offers a bold example of animal stylization leaning toward abstraction. Pottery from the site reveals a similar aesthetic orientation, as for example, a red clay jar with an angular geometrical pattern.

Relish in abstraction did not preclude an interest in figural art. A bronze pangolin recovered in the Dong Nai Province is given a broad 3rd century B.C. to 2nd century A.D. dating. The anteater, alert and watchful, is a unique piece that only adds to the mystery surrounding the Dong Son culture.

 
A greater mystery hovers over the south of what is today Vietnam but only became part of the Vietnam kingdom in the 18th century. Chinese sources call it Fu Nan. In the first centuries of our era, a state that sent embassies abroad and traded as far afield as the Middle East and Central Asia arose in the area. Contacts with India were sufficiently sustained for Hindu proselytism to spread, leading to the “Indianization of Fu Nan,” as Miss Tingley puts it.

This is shown by inscriptions in Sanskrit as early as the mid-5th century. None, alas, yields the merest clue to who the people of Fu Nan were, nor to the circumstances in which Hinduism and Buddhism came to spread. How or why Fu Nan collapsed around the 6th century A.D. likewise eludes us. So does the appearance on its territory of an admirable school of stone sculpture similar to early Khmer statuary from neighboring Cambodia, which at least tells us that the area was Khmer by then.

Several of its most admirable statues have come to light in recent decades. A standing Vishnu on loan from the Fine Arts Museum in Ho Chi Minh City may date from the 6th or 7th century A.D. It is closely related to the early Khmer style. Another Vishnu from Bien Hoa, lent by the Dong Nai Museum in Dong Nai Province, belongs to the school represented by the statuary discovered south of Angkor Borei in Cambodia.

The 7th century A.D. date that is put forward is educated guesswork. What is not in doubt is the mastery of the unknown artist who carved the Vishnu from Dong Nai. The elongated proportions, the rhythmical stylization of the loincloth, and the inscrutable expression of supreme authority speak of an art at the apex of a first blossoming.

Uncertainty likewise surrounds the rise and fall of a kingdom called Champa along the coastal areas of Vietnam. A marked trend toward the grimacing rendition of the human face in Hindu and Buddhist statuary alike, occasionally leading to cartoon-like characters, characterizes the highly distinctive art of the Chams, whose descendants in Vietnam and Cambodia speak a Malay-related language. A puckish seated figure from the Da Nang Museum of Cham Sculpture could be laughing at our inability to write a coherent history of their culture.

The most extraordinary object from Champa in New York is vaguely described in the exhibition book as a “silver/electrum covered vessel.” It must have served as a pedestal to a Buddhist statue, now missing, and was once a reliquary containing offerings such as miniature rock crystal and gold artifacts loaded with Buddhist symbolism. Extensive traces of gilding remain. These were probably renewed over time, in keeping with Buddhist ritual practice.

The date, given as “12th-15th century,” reflects the vagueness surrounding much of Cham culture, but for once it is possible to be more precise. The tribolate arches with a cusp visible on the lobes of the lotus chalice are borrowed from the Iranian world and point to the late 14th or 15th century A.D., adding one more to the many examples of contacts between that part of the world and Southeast Asia at that point.

Ironically, the birth of the most original aspect of Vietnamese art is also poorly understood. The ceramics related to the Song Dynasty wares of 12th-to-13th century China that have come out of Thanh Hoa Province as a result of massive commercial digging and of recent archaeological excavations greatly differ from the wares of Chinese potters. Vietnamese preference went to different shapes. Their colors, which are rarely truly similar to those of Chinese wares, included exquisite nuances of ivory, honey or lilac. Regrettably, the ceramics in the show are not the greatest.

Next to nothing is known about individual workshops or the evolution of the art over time and our understanding of the blue and white wares of the 15th and 16th centuries is hardly more advanced.

Bedeviled by the destruction of entire cultures, but fraught with marvelous creativity, the Indochinese peninsula has yielded few of its cultural secrets. The day competent archaeological work is carried out on a systematic scale, a hugely complex picture will emerge, with many more gems than we know.

Arts of Ancient Viet Nam. From River Plain to Open Sea. Asia Society. New York. Until May 2.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/27/arts/27iht-melik27.html?pagewanted=2

 
 
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