The term "South-East Asia", which has become so common nowadays, denotes a huge area comprising Indo-China, the Malacca Peninsula and the archipelagos of the Philippines and Malaysia. The largest countries in the region are Burma, Vietnam, Indonesia, Kampuchea, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. In spite of the differences in the national history and artistic culture of these countries, they can be said to have much in common in terms of their general historical development.
The collection of South-East Asiatic art is among the youngest in the Museum. It was set up in the 1940s and 1950s, and its growth was to a certain extent determined by the success of the national liberation movements which resulted in the formation of a number of independent states in that area.
The collection numbers some 2,000 artifacts representing the culture of South-East Asian countries. However, while the art of Kampuchea and Thailand is represented by few, though first-class, exhibits, the collections of Burmese, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Laotian art are sufficiently comprehensive to give a fairly vivid picture of the most typical and important features of their national cultures.
The collections are continually being enlarged, one of the sources being purchases from private collectors; and another the exchange of works of art between countries. For example, in 1976, through such an exchange with Burma, the Museum received a number of valuable objects of Burmese art dating back to the seventh, seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.
Considerable contributions to the stocks of the South-East Asiatic Department were made by the governments of Burma and Laos, which presented the Soviet people with numerous valuable items shown in Moscow at the exhibitions "Burmese Folk Crafts" (1973) and "Folk Art of Laos" (1976).
At present the Burmese section contains over 700 exhibits which represent both classical and contemporary Burmese art. The classical part is formed by not very numerous but highly artistic items among which is a splendid statue of the Buddha (19th century) carved in teak-wood and illustrative of the classical Burmese iconography of the Buddha.
Yet the bulk of the Burmese collection represents traditional crafts whose origin goes back to a very remote past and whose history has brought about many interesting manifestations. The display in this section features lacquer articles, silverware, wickerwork, clay sculptures, wood- and mother-of-pearl carvings, glassware, marbles and leatherwork, etc. These varied exhibits give an idea of the versatile art and crafts practised by the people of Burma, of its largely unique artistic traditions and of their place in the history and present-day life of the nation. The value of this collection is also determined by the fact that very few museums in the world (no more than five, including the Moscow Museum of Oriental Art) can boast large and representative collections of Burmese art.
Vietnamese art is represented at the Museum by a fair amount of classical wood-carvings, contemporary lacquer and oil paintings, paintings on silk, popular prints and works of contemporary minor arts (ivory, mother-of-pearl and horn carvings, ceramics and china, wickerwork, lacquers and silverware).
The major part of this collection is formed by different kinds of contemporary painting. The latter reveals the modern Vietnamese artists' aspiration to show the present-day life of the Vietnamese people, to convey the beauty of their free labour and to glorify the common people who fought for their country's independence and who now do all they can for its prosperity.
The most interesting and significant phenomenon in contemporary Vietnamese painting is lacquer painting- a totally new genre of art which emerged in the 1930s and became very popular during the late 1940s and the early 1950s. The Museum displays works by the leading artists in this field-Phan Ke An, Hoang Tick Chu, Tchan Din Tkho, Nguyen Van Ti and many others.
The Indonesian section for the most part consists of objects of contemporary minor arts. The only two groups of exhibits which do not answer this description are the nineteenth-century batiks and beautifully made steel krises-daggers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with their characteristically twisted blades. The merit of this collection is determined by the high artistic value of its items. They demonstrate the vitality of the oldest handicrafts practised by the peoples inhabiting the islands of Java and Bali. The wayang puppets, the batiks and the daggers in the collection are believed by many experts on Indonesian art to represent the most remarkable and typical crafts that form the core of classical Indonesian artistic culture. Their origin is associated with the oldest religious and mythological beliefs of the Indonesian people, and their decor reflects the complicated symbolism which developed in the course of religious history. The ornamentation of batiks, daggers and other articles testifies to the exceptionally high standards of decorative arts and the superb skill of Indonesian craftsmen. As for the puppets, their variety displays the multitude of iconographical types within the national puppet theatre tradition.
Wooden sculptures, pictures (size colours on canvas and watercolours on paper) and wicker articles from Bali hold a special place within the Indonesian section. The original artistic culture of this island presents a curious blend of Hindu and local features going back to remote antiquity.
The Museum possesses some 130 artifacts illustrating contemporary decorative arts in Laos-textiles, silverware, wooden and wicker articles and musical instruments. This list should also include dolls in the traditional costumes of different nationalities forming the population of Laos. A notable part of the Laotian collection consists of ceramic wares, carved wooden panels, wooden sculptures, portraits made in grain mosaic and oil paintings. These are mostly works by the students of the art school in Vientiane which trains new generations of Laotian artists both in fine and applied arts. The young artists draw their inspiration and their subjects from the contemporary life of their country, its heroic struggle for freedom and independence and the daily concerns of its people. At the same time, they continue national artistic traditions enriching the repertory of their themes and techniques.
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