Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 15, 2022
Sonya Rhie Mace and Bertrand Porte, eds. Revealing Krishna: Essays on the Conservation of Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan from Phnom Da Exh. cat. Cleveland Masterworks Series, vol. 5. Cleveland, OH: D. Giles Limited in association with Cleveland Museum of Art, 2021. 192 pp.; 142 color ills. Paper $28.95 (9781911282785)
Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH, November 14, 2021–January 30, 2022

An exquisite but incomplete stone sculpture of the god Krishna, found at Phnom Da, Cambodia, close to the pre-Angkorian capital city Angkor Borei, was acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) in 1973. Krishna is depicted as a vital youth raising up Mount Govardhana with a single arm. In this myth, first articulated in the early centuries of our era, Krishna holds up the mountain for seven straight days and seven nights. Rain and winds lash the landscape all around. Men, women, children, and animals huddle beneath the mountain. Through his effortless strength the boy-god shelters his townsfolk and their livestock from the violent storm unleashed by the Vedic god Indra. Witnessing the incredible feat, Indra realizes he is no match for Krishna, thus putting an end to the storm and also paying homage to Krishna. As Thierry Zéphir explains in his catalog essay, Indra’s acknowledgement of Krishna’s superiority marks the end of one spiritual order—characterized by sacrificial offerings made to aniconic Vedic gods—and the beginnings of a new one—founded on image worship and a sensorially charged and intimate connection with a personal god.

As is well known, Krishna is one of the most popular avataras (incarnations) of the Hindu god Vishnu, and the world is fortunate to possess not one but two sandstone icons of Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana from this early period of Khmer art making, dated from the sixth to the eighth century. The other Krishna Govardhana belongs to Phnom Penh’s National Museum of Cambodia. Both images, along with six other large-scale sculptures from the mountain sanctuary of Phnom Da (that is, eight images in total), were seen together in a landmark exhibition at CMA from November 14, 2021, through January 30, 2022. The seven essays in the accompanying catalog Revealing Krishna, edited by Sonya Rhie Mace and Bertrand Porte, narrate the historical and art historical lives of the Cleveland Krishna. While the Krishna image was but a torso with severed limbs when it came into CMA’s possession in 1973, the essays collected here attest to the decades-long restoration that led to the image’s present, more complete form as well as the inter-institutional and cross-border collaborations that contributed to that astonishing restoration. These, like the object at the heart of this volume, are nothing short of thrilling. The texts also elucidate the wider archaeological, iconographic, religious, and social environment from which the image emerged, and together with 140 photographs and two maps, stitch together a fascinating if fragmentary biography.

The opening essay by Rhie Mace, the exhibition’s curator, introduces CMA’s Krishna, also known as Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan. After describing the image’s attribution, iconography, and original context in Phnom Da’s Cave D, Mace proceeds to explain how the Krishna torso came to CMA. The narrative involves twists and turns: the sculpture’s 1920 purchase by Adolphe and Suzanne Stoclet of Brussels; its inheritance by their granddaughter Michèle in 1949; complications due to Michèle’s suicide in 1967; and the persistence of CMA Director Sherman Lee in acquiring the object. Of the facts recounted, the most startling is the burial of seventeen sculptural fragments in the garden adjoining the Stoclets’ home and their eventual retrieval and arrival in Cleveland in 1977. These fragments belong, crucially—as we gather piece by piece from subsequent essays—with a number of Phnom Da images, including CMA’s Krishna. While it is possible to gain a complete picture of each Phnom Da image piecemeal from the essays, the appendix is essential reading for a comprehensive overview of all eight images included in the exhibition, their present locations, and the dates of discovery and movement of component parts between institutions.

Conservation history follows naturally from the first essay. Beth Edelstein, Colleen Snyder, and Amaris Sturm highlight the remarkable developments in conservation methods that led to CMA Krishna’s present form. Of course, advances in engineering since the object’s first 1973 installation—such as computerized tomography, laser scans, and 3D modeling—played a vital role, but the restoration is also a testament to the astonishing level of cooperation between the museum and its sister institution in Cambodia. Importantly, restorers discovered that sculptural segments incorporated into one Krishna image—Cleveland’s base and legs, for example, and Phnom Penh’s upper stele and raised arm—actually belonged to the other image! Thus, collaboration led to both Krishnas approaching their original forms through careful “de-restoration” and the transfer of materials between museums. It is such generous and unprecedented exchanges of information, technology, and artifacts that the catalog emphasizes and that one hopes will set the standard for future partnerships.

Christian Fischer’s contribution to the catalog delves into the geological underpinning of the eight predominantly Vaishnava Phnom Da sculptures. Besides the two Krishna Govardhana icons, Khmer sculptors produced an eight-armed cosmic form of Vishnu; two other prominent incarnations, Rama and Balarama; two Hariharas (a composite of Vishnu and Shiva); and a still-unidentified last deity. As in the conservation essay, Fischer foregrounds the scientific methods—particularly spectroscopy—that have illuminated the mineralogical content of the Triassic sandstone of the images. The stone’s material properties and its attractiveness to sculptors, especially for achieving a luscious black luster that is now all but lost, lay the groundwork for the essay by Bertrand Porte and CHEA Socheat.

Porte and CHEA begin by considering the creator of these images. Just who that individual was, not to mention what methods they employed, remains enigmatic, however, and the larger picture of Phnom Da’s material culture—though told exhaustively with what objects remain—is tinged with the poignancy of loss. Particularly noteworthy is the ethos of conservation articulated by the text and often involving what the authors call de-restoration. Underlining the practices cataloged here are two key ideas. The first is the undoing of “unsound” or “excessive” decisions made by previous restorations. The second accords varying degrees of value to modifications made by the objects’ subsequent communities of use, raising tricky ethical questions for museum professionals and history as a discipline. These are not explicitly raised by the essays, however, though they must have been considered extensively at each step in the restoration process. Models, even ones from an era less concerned with the issues of repatriation that define our moment, do exist. One instance of retrieval—in 1944, of the Harihara and Krishna images now in the collections of the National Museum of Cambodia—engaged community leaders and authorities in dialogue, and sought their permission for removing the images, revealing a special sensitivity to local sentiments and religiosity.  

The next essay in the catalog, by Pierre Baptiste, reconstructs the architectural and environmental context of the early capital city Angkor Borei, widening the cultural ambit of the Phnom Da images. Drawing on Buddhist, Shaiva, and Vaishnava objects recovered at the site, Porte cites the range of cultures—Cambodian, Indian, Vietnamese, and Thai—that contributed to Angkor Borei’s visual language. Haunting the historiography no doubt, and problematized by Baptiste, Rhie Mace, and others, is the colonial-period framework of “Indianization” as a model for explaining Cambodian visual culture. While acknowledging the influence of the “Sanskrit cosmopolis” (though none of the essays overtly name that groundbreaking paradigm), the volume argues for local agency as an equally compelling driver. Despite the paucity of sources—particularly inscriptions—that make any firm conclusions about dating difficult, Baptiste’s chronology for all eight Phnom Da images, which he situates between the sixth and seventh centuries, is valuable.

Thierry Zéphir moves the narrative into the Angkorian period (ninth to fifteenth century), observing its remarkable absence of monumental images of Krishna Govardhana like our two Phnom Da exemplars, both of which are over six feet tall. Instead, narrative bas-reliefs featuring Krishna and his adventures as a youth and an epic hero animate the walls and galleries, lintels and frontons of many of Angkor Wat’s monuments. Zéphir’s account enlivens these energetic scenes with equal attention to their textual and visual treatments. Noting the circulation of such texts as the Mahabharata, Harivamshsa, Bhagavata Purana, and Vishnu Purana between South Asia and Cambodia from the first millennium onward, Zéphir situates the significance of Krishna’s life story both to the Vaishnava canon and to Khmer kingship. Of special importance, as I noted at the outset, and exemplified by the Govardhana myth and imagery, is the god’s role as protector and conduit to salvation for believers. To that end, the last essay in the catalog, by ANG Choulean, rounds out the picture by considering the foundation myths of Cambodia from the point of view of Chinese, Cambodian, and Cham sources.

There is no doubt that visitors to CMA’s Revealing Krishna exhibit experienced the multisensorial thrill of traveling to the densely forested terrain of Phnom Da, and encountering there its eight standout stone sculptures in their restored splendor. This catalog is no less exciting for documenting in lucid, often riveting prose the painstaking, intensely collaborative, and interdisciplinary scholarly efforts that made that show possible. Together, they bring CMA’s masterwork Krishna Govardhana to life during its era of production and religious adoration, and into its present afterlife as a cherished artifact of world culture.

Subhashini Kaligotla
Assistant Professor, History of Art Department, Yale University