from the Cambodia Life Magazine, July, 2007

Religious iconography is not new to Cambodia. However, though temple walls have been daubed with murals for over a millennium, it is the religious art of the 20th century that is most at risk. A new book from the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture is the first record of these fascinating images.

by Sam Chambell

Daravuth Ly, 30, is the head researcher of the project. He and two others spent over six years scouring rural Cambodia to document murals from over 600 temples. The team took over 20,000 photographs.

"This is the first time Khmer Wat paintings have been studied," said Ly. "People are more interested in ancient temples and statues."

The project was vital, as much temple art faces immanent obliteration. "Monks and villagers like new temples and new paintings," explained Ly. "If they get money from outsiders, they will destroy old paintings to make new ones. The improving economy is dangerous for old paintings."

Time was of the essence. Researchers preferred no-frills documentation to in depth study. A feeling of urgency drove the team on.

"We felt we must document as many as we could," said Ly. "Several temples had already been destroyed the second time I returned."

Wat painting is not unique to Cambodia. A shared belief in Thevarda Buddhism means Thailand, Laos, and Burma all have similar religious art. Though most stories are the same, some distinctive local legends make Khmer versions distinctive. The well known tale of Preah /Co Preah Keo, where a holy cow and magic gem are stolen by the Thais, is a good example.

"Preah Ko Preah Keo is very special because it relates to a [comparatively recent] historical event," said Ly. "The story relates to the war with Thailand in the 16th century. Only two temples showed the complete story. Other temples just showed a single scene."

Stories like this are passed down through the generations. Even those commemorating a historical event, like Preah Ko Preah Keo, normally have a moral aspect and are linked to Buddhist beliefs. The eponymous hero of Jinavong becomes one of the previous Buddhas and thus part of the Jataka (tales of the 550 lives of the previous Buddhas).

Wat art of the 20th century is extremely important as it shows transition from age-old techniques to new and modern styles.

"Wat paintings are divided into two styles - traditional and modern," said Ly. "Traditional style refers to the paintings done before 1940."

After 1940 French influence bought modern materials and techniques, changing Cambodian art forever. "Now modern painting is more popular," said Ly. "Chemical colours give much brighter colours in the beginning but they quickly fade. Traditional painting uses natural things, like trees and fruits, to make the colours. Though they are not as bright, they last much longer".


Modern soldiers and ancient deities march together

 A hunter trying to kill a monk is torn apart by his own dogs

The difference is obvious at the Reyum exhibition. Large canvases in the traditional style are markedly different from photos of modern paintings. Traditional paintings are intricate but have flat figures and scant use of perspective. Large blocks of colour are applied before details are painted in with minute brushes. Modern paintings are more natural. Shading helps to give more relaxed and realistic representations. The fusion of old and new has helped to create some unique images. In one painting, rifle toting soldiers march in file under the watchful gaze of elephant riding deities. In another scene, John F. Kennedy, Khruschchev, Jawaharalal Nehru, Sukarno, and Mao Tse Toung are grinning onlookers. Some pictures are darkly disturbing. Many of the images of hell depict tortures well known in Cambodia's troubled recent history.



Royal Oxen at the Ploughing Festival


Though a good start, Ly said the book is only the first step towards safeguarding Cambodian Wat paintings. "If we want to take care of these paintings, it will need a lot of money and skilled technicians," he said "My ability is to collect data - I have no ability to safeguard. The Ministry of Culture must take this role. We [Reyum] are just a small organisation. If we are given money from donors, we will use it protect the most important and vulnerable temples."

A top priority is ensuring the survival of traditional painting techniques. Luckily, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts now teaches traditional methods, as is Reyum's own art school. These students are unlikely to ever paint onto a temple wall however. Most pictures are painted onto canvas and sold to well-heeled art lovers.

"I visited more than 600 temples and only one was being painted in the old way," said Ly. "Painting like this takes a lot of time and money."

'Wat Painting in Cambodia' costs $ 12 and is available from - Reyum Gallery, #47 Street 178. Phnom Penh. There is also a free exhibition of traditional and modern Wat paintings.