CLEVELAND, Ohio – The Cleveland Museum of Art's seventh-century Cambodian statue of the Hindu god Krishna, a broken masterpiece painstakingly reassembled in 1978, is ready for a yearlong radical makeover in the museum's conservation lab.
The goal of the project, funded by a $70,000 Bank of America Art Conservation Project grant, is to dismantle and reconstruct the sculpture's 11 pieces to re-create its correct pose for the first time since the fragments were unearthed in stages starting more than a century ago.
The pose matters because it will help reveal the work's true religious meaning at its time of origin — a pivotal moment in the development of Hinduism.
"It's going to be fun," Sonya Rhie Mace, the museum's curator of Indian and Southeast Asian art, said during a recent interview in the museum's conservation lab.
French archaeologists first discovered the head and torso of the Krishna in 1912 outside a sacred cave on a hillside at Phnom Da, the earliest monumental Hindu temple complex in Cambodia.
Pieces of the sculpture's legs and feet were found in the 1930s and shipped to Brussels, Belgium, where the banker and art collector Adolphe Stoclet, who then owned the piece, attempted a reconstruction.
But the collector decided he preferred displaying the Krishna head and torso in his palatial Brussels mansion as a fragment, shorn of its limbs and hence of suggestions of its original spiritual meaning, Mace said.
Stoclet tossed Krishna's legs and feet into his garden, where they remained buried until Stan Czuma, Mace's predecessor at the Cleveland museum, found them in 1975.
Close but not quite
A 1978 restoration undertaken at the museum represented a vast improvement over Stoclet's failed attempt. But Mace and her colleagues believe the museum can do even better.
They're convinced they can fully realize the springy, elastic position originally taken by Krishna as he raises Mount Govardhan overhead like an umbrella to shield mankind from a catastrophic flood.
"It's going to be a major difference," Mace said. "He's [Krishna has] been beautiful, but he's going to be even more awesome."
The new restoration will show that instead of gazing straight ahead as he has in the museum's galleries for decades, Krishna was designed to face down slightly, enabling him to gaze directly at worshipers to foster a form of Hindu observance known as Darsan.
Darsan is Sanskrit for connecting spiritually and emotionally to an auspicious person or deity through eyesight.
Seeing is believing
"Krishna is going to look down at you, the viewer," Mace said. "He's going to be turning more dramatically in space. He's going to be holding up the mountain more actively and turning down to look at you, which is important in the religious history of Hinduism at that moment."
Krishna's pose is one of the earliest known monumental expressions of the then-new Bhakti form of Hinduism, which emphasizes direct spiritual communication with a deity, without the intercession of a priest, Mace said.
In addition to recovering the original pose, the new reconstruction will enable viewers to walk around the sculpture to view it from all sides, just as worshipers once did, Mace said.
The restoration will also enable conservators to disassemble and reassemble the Krishna so it can travel to other museums, she said.
Diplomacy and scholarship
The Krishna project is as much a product of cultural diplomacy as of cutting-edge scholarship.
Mace, who joined the museum in 2012, helped initiate a multiyear collaboration between the Cleveland museum and the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh that includes the Krishna project.
Her painstaking research convinced the museum in 2015 to return to Cambodia a much-beloved 10th-century statue of the kneeling monkey god Hanuman.
She gathered extensive evidence showing that the Hanuman probably had been looted and removed illegally from Cambodia in the 1970s, before the museum bought it in good faith in the early 1980s.
Gratitude and generosity
In gratitude for the restitution of the Hanuman, the National Museum of Cambodia agreed to lend the Cleveland museum a spectacular sculpted wall from the Buddhist Temple at Banteay Chhmar, now on view through Sunday, Jan. 7.
The Cambodian museum also agreed to return to Cleveland two large fragments that all parties now agree belong to the Krishna.
The Cleveland museum originally obtained the fragments in the 1970s, but shipped them to Cambodia in 2005 after failing to figure out how they would fit the Krishna.
As the museum discovered in 2015, the newly returned pieces from Cambodia comprise Krishna's left forearm and hand reaching up to hold a rectangular slab representing the base of Mount Govardhan.
The breakthrough came after the museum used 3-D digital scanning and printing technology at Case Western Reserve University's ThinkBox innovation center to fabricate small-scale and life-size plastic replicas of the Krishna.
By manipulating the lightweight pieces of plastic – as opposed to the heavy stone – the museum was able to show conclusively how the Krishna should be rebuilt, and how the newly returned fragments from Cambodia should fit.
The real sculpture now stands in the museum's conservation lab attached to a steel back plate that hangs by straps from a newly installed two-ton crane.
The museum bought the crane – without which the project would not be possible — with money from the Bank of America grant.
Colleen Snyder, the museum's associate curator of objects and her new colleague, Beth Edelstein, who recently joined the staff after more than a dozen years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, will use the crane first to correctly position the life-size, 3-D plastic printouts of the Krishna pieces.
Then, after dismantling the sculpture as it now stands, they'll repeat the reassembly with the actual stone pieces.
For both the dress rehearsal and the final reassembly, the conservators will hold the fragments in place by circling them with snug-fitting collars made of carbon fiber cloth layered with epoxy resin, to which straps can be attached.
Additional equipment will enable the conservators to position the Krishna fragments firmly and precisely in relationship to one another before new epoxy patches and metal fasteners are created to join everything together.
Sharing versus owning
For museum director William Griswold, who has supported the exchanges with Cambodia, the Krishna project marks the latest chapter in understanding one of the most important works in the museum's collection.
"It is thrilling to have played a part in the long story of this, one of the greatest and most celebrated masterpieces of Khmer art," he said in an email.
The project also demonstrates how American museums and archaeological source countries can benefit from collaboration rather than contesting ownership of ancient treasures.
"We aren't the only museum to have entered into a cultural cooperation agreement with another institution or another country," Griswold said. "But ours with Cambodia has been extraordinarily successful, yielding benefits to both parties, while truly advancing cultural understanding."
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