Arts of Ancient Vietnam: From River Plain to Open Sea

The show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston focuses on precolonial art, before Vietnam became part of the French empire.

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Through Jan. 3, 2010

Too much of Americans’ knowledge about Vietnam is “confined to what we’ve heard or read” about the war the United States fought there, said Douglas Britt in the Houston Chronicle. So the revelations of this exhibition—the first in almost half a century to feature precolonial art from the region—“may come as a surprise.” Many centuries before Vietnam became part of the French empire, it was a nexus of trade between East and West. This show’s opening sections trace artifacts from two early cultures, the Sa Huynh in the south and the Dong Son in the north, as well as the “wealthy walled city of Oc Eo, which was the crossroads of trade routes linking the Roman, Indian, and Chinese empires.” But the most exquisite examples in the exhibit come from Hoi An, a prominent port city during the 12th through 17th centuries.

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Many of these objects were only recently fished out from shipwrecks in the area, said Lee Lawrence in The Wall Street Journal. A true “treasure trove,” this collection includes newly discovered masterpieces that have changed the way scholars think about the region. While art historians once thought that the medieval cultures of Southeast Asia had been heavily influenced by China and India, we now know that they had entirely unique aesthetics all their own. “The stamp of indigenous sensibilities” is most clearly on display in works of Buddhist and Hindu religious art. “Some of the work here is blocky,” raw, and roughly finished rather than polished and refined. “But it is also exuberant, alive with decorative patterns,” and full of symbols and inscriptions unlike anything found elsewhere. “If there were any lingering doubt about Vietnam’s claim to a distinctive art heritage,” these works will remove it.

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