Exoticising Angkor: A look at Cambodia's most famous monument through a colonial lens

Exoticising Angkor: A look at Cambodia's most famous monument through a colonial lens

Text: Adibah Isa

Image: Musée national des arts asiatiques – Guimet

Asian Civilisations Museum’s new exhibit on Angkor sheds light on its past through the prejudiced lens of French colonialism

Taking liberties is nothing new. Artists have been known to embellish historical events and narratives for the sake of making their work more interesting than the reality it's based on, or more appealing to the audience they're trying to woo. You see it in film as well, with many a cinematic masterpiece loosely based on actual events, individuals or periods in time. When you visit Asian Civilisations Museum's blockbuster exhibition of the year, 'Angkor: Exploring Cambodia's Sacred City. Masterpieces of the Musee national des arts asiatiques-Guimet', check out how Angkor was given a similar treatment by French colonial explorers. Among Asian Civilisations Museum's showcase of historic memorabilia, one section narrates how the UNESCO World Heritage site had been depicted as an orientalist fantasy in an exoticisation of Khmer culture that lasted through to the 20th century.

In collaboration with Guimet Museum (which houses one of the richest panorama of Asian art abroad) in Paris, the exhibition journeys through the Khmer civilisation, one of the greatest in Southeast Asia. Built between A.D. 1113 and 1150, Angkor's image is familiar with those who have personally visited the temple city, or caught depictions of the statuesque form in films such as Lord Jim (1965) and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001).

Louis Delaporte, second from right, among members of the Commission on the steps of Angkor Wat in 1866.

But to the French population in the late 19th century, their knowledge of Angkor was through the watercolour drawings and paintings by Louis Delaporte, a French artist and explorer who made his first trip in 1866 when he was 24 years old. Tagging along with the French Mekong Exploration Commission who journeyed to find a navigable route into South-western China, the trip left lasting impressions on the young explorer, who went on two more expeditions to Angkor, continuing to dedicate the rest of his life to Khmer art. "Khmer art... has remained the most beautiful expression of human genius," said Delaporte in 1866.

Introduced in Asian Civilisations Museum's first section of the exhibition, Delaporte was one of three other names that were profiled and credited as raising Angkor's profile in the international stage: Henri Mouhot, a naturalist who visited Angkor in 1860 and published his findings in Le Tour du Monde; as well as Émile Gsell, who was the first commercial photographer based in then Saigon.

'View of the west entrance of Angkor Wat', Louis Delaporte, 1870-73

Struck by Angkor's bold and grand design, Delaporte permeated a sense of mystery and fantasy around the Orient in his works. Filtered through the lens of French colonialism, Delaporte often romanticised landscapes around Angkor. He constantly framed temples with lush jungles and vegetation, conjuring images of lost cities that subscribed to the 19th century convention of depicting ancient ruins in nature.  In a wood engraving by Charles Alphonse Deblois that was based on one of Delaporte's drawings, a man was shown wearing a loincloth around bare-chested women as a naked child plays with a monkey. More liberties were taken with exoticised locals: In a drawing circa 1870-1873, Delaporte drew himself being tended to by a local (again dressed in a loin cloth) as other characters sailed along the moat with parasols. In reality, there was never such a moat in front of the terrace for boats to circulate. While Delaporte tried his best to restore the monuments of Angkor in his architectural drawings based on what he saw on site, what resulted was a state of perfection that never existed in reality.

Depictions of religious rituals and ceremonies were also further embellished to suit the French narrative of the exotic Khmer civilisation. Instead of showing Buddhists making offerings and prayers in a reserved manner — hands clasped together — in 'Ceremony in the Preah Teuk Caves' (1873-1874), Delaporte depicted the monks and worshippers as though they're participating in an occult ritual with wild abandon.

'Phimeanakas. Palace of the Khmer kings in the centre of Angkor Thom', Louis Delaporte, around 1890

These watercolour paintings and sketches weren't for admiration purposes only. The popularity of such works fuelled further exploration of Angkor, conveniently justifying French colonialism which began in 1887. In a classic tale of the white man's burden, the French took it upon themselves to restore the lost history of Angkor that the Cambodians had supposedly forgotten. 

Angkor: Exploring Cambodia's Sacred City. Masterpieces of the Musee national des arts asiatiques-Guimet runs till 22 July at the Asian Civilisations Museum.
This exhibition is part of the Voilah! French Festival Singapore 2018.

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