Art History Angkor and Environs
by
Dawn F. Rooney
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0070

Introduction

Angkor is the name of an ancient kingdom and capital of the Khmer Empire in northwestern Cambodia that flourished from the 9th century to the mid-15th century. At its peak of power in the 11th and 12th centuries, Angkor’s control extended beyond the borders of modern Cambodia over much of mainland Southeast Asia, including parts of Thailand, Malaysia, and Myanmar. Today, Angkor refers to a historical park encompassing an area of 77 square miles with ruins of some one hundred temples. Angkor is renowned for its art and architecture that was created during the Khmer Empire to honor the religious belief (Hinduism or Buddhism) of the reigning king. A vexing concern in researching the history of the Angkor kingdom is the scarcity of primary sources. As only one firsthand account of the period exists, knowledge of the ancient civilization derives from three other main sources for study: (1) more than 1,200 epigraphic inscriptions carved in sandstone on the temples in either Sanskrit or Khmer and translated into French or English that document the accomplishment of the kings; (2) sculpture, in stone and bronze; and (3) ruins of the monuments. After France established administrative control over Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos by the end of the 19th century, the École Française d’Extrême-Orient was founded to study the history, language, and archaeology of the three countries known as Indochina. French administrators and scholars, therefore, were the first to publish research on Angkor. Their early work combines observations, local legends, and translations of inscriptions that were, at best, imperfect in the beginning. Diaries by early European travelers to Angkor in the first half of the 20th century constitute a firsthand source for impressions of the art and architecture of Angkor. Guidebooks written by French conservators of Angkor provide detailed and systematic descriptions of the temples. The closure of Cambodia for some twenty years (c. 1970–1990) due to the Pol Pot regime and the accompanying civil unrest curtailed research advances and study of the temples. Catalogues of public collections in museums published in the last decade of the 20th century and since 2000 have added substantially to knowledge of Khmer art. Recent research on the art and architecture of Angkor benefits from new technology, generous research grants, and international technical expertise. Classic publications by French scholars working at Angkor in the first half of the 20th century are cited in this article, but the emphasis is on research advances and scholarship since the 1950s.

General Overviews

This section includes relevant history books, general surveys of the Angkor period, and books on the art of Southeast Asia that have a noteworthy chapter on Angkor and that are useful for understanding the history of the Khmer Empire in relation to neighboring, contemporary kingdoms. Clémentin-Ojha and Manguin 2007, a history of the École Française d’Extrême-Orient, is an important record of its work in Indochina for more than one hundred years. Girard-Geslan, et al. 1998 surveys the art of Southeast Asia and includes recent research up to the end of the 20th century. Rawson 1990 includes chapters on early Angkor and the classical age of Angkor. Cœdès 1990 provides an informative introduction to Angkor in general. Two good overviews by Thierry Zéphir are included: Zéphir 1998a and Zéphir 1998b is an introduction to Khmer art suitable for all levels, and Zéphir 1998a covers a broader period in more detail. Jacques and Lafond 2007 discusses the entire Khmer Empire. Jacques 1997 covers Angkor (before and after) and is a volume that includes lavish illustrations.

  • Clémentin-Ojha, Catherine, and Pierre-Yves Manguin. A Century in Asia: The History of the École Française d’Extrême-Orient, 1898–2006. Singapore: Éditions Didier Millet, 2007.

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    A revised, English-language version that examines the work of the École Française d’Extrême-Orient in Indochina from its founding in 1898 through 2006 and presents the latest developments. Includes a section on the history of the institution’s museums and libraries in Indochina. Illustrated with archival photographs. English translation of Un siècle pour l’Asie (Paris: Éditions du Pacifique, 2001).

  • Cœdès, George. Angkor: An Introduction. Translated and edited by Emily Floyd Gardiner. Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1990.

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    A revised, English-language version with text by a renowned French scholar. Content is based on eight lectures that place the monuments of Angkor in a historical and religious setting. Considered a classic work. English translation of Pour mieux comprendre Angkor (Paris: A. Maisonneuve, 1943).

  • Girard-Geslan, Maud, Marijke J. Klokke, Albert Le Bonheur, et al., Art of Southeast Asia. Translated by J. A. Underwood. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998.

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    English translation of essays by leading scholars on the art of Southeast Asia with an informative chapter on Khmer art (pp. 152–249). With a preface by Albert Le Bonheur, former Director of the Musèe Guimet, large format and lavishly illustrated. Originally published in French, L’Art de l’Asie du Sud-Est, 1994.

  • Jacques, Claude. Angkor: Cities and Temples. Translated by Tom White. Bangkok: River Books, 1997.

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    A good introduction to Angkor, from the pre- to the post-Angkor periods, by an eminent French historian and epigraphist. Extensively illustrated with photographs by the internationally acclaimed Michael Freeman. English translation of Angkor: Les cities et temples, first published in 1990 (Paris: Bordas).

  • Jacques, Claude, and Philippe Lafond. The Khmer Empire: Cities and Sanctuaries, Fifth to the Thirteenth Centuries. Translated by Tom White. Bangkok: River Books, 2007.

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    Covers the entire Khmer Empire (the temples of Angkor and those in northeastern Thailand, formerly part of the empire) and tracks their history from the pre-Angkor period to the capital’s demise. Preface by David Chandler, a leading historian on Cambodia; amply illustrated.

  • Rawson, Philip. The Art of Southeast Asia: Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Burma, Java, Bali. World of Art series 251. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990.

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    A good introduction to the temples of Angkor for students; written by the former director of Oriental Art at the Gulbenkian Museum, University of Durham. Includes illustrations with temple plans, thirty in color.

  • Zéphir, Thierry. “Khmer Art.” In Art of Southeast Asia. Translated by J. A. Underwood. By Maud Girard-Geslan, Thierry Zéphir, Albert le Bonheur, et al., 151–249. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998a.

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    Extensive, illustrated overview covering Khmer art from pre- to post-Angkor periods. English translation of L’art de l’Asie du Sud-Est (Paris: Citadelles & Mazenod, 1994).

  • Zéphir, Thierry. Khmer: Lost Empire of Cambodia. Translated by Francisca Garvie. London: Thames and Hudson, 1998b.

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    A small volume that is readable and amply illustrated. Tracks the Khmer civilization from the beginning to its demise at Angkor in the mid-15th century. Includes documentation on inscriptions, bas-reliefs, and customs of Cambodia. Recommended for students. Written by a French scholar renowned for his work on Khmer art. English translation of L’empire des rois khmers (Paris: Gallimard, 1997).

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