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Southeast Asian Art History & Influences

Southeast Asian art includes all the area of Indochina : Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Indonesia, Burma, Malaysia and Singapore. The art of this area has been influenced by three major sources which are the indigenous cultures, China and India.

During the Neolithic period, stone tools, baskets, and pottery were the main productions. The art of the Bronze age (800B.C – 500B.C) in Southeast Asia was influenced by China and India. The Chinese Dong Son culture was first present in the north of Vietnam. Many artifacts of this culture have been excavated in this area, such as bronze dagger hilts, ornaments, lamps, tomb furnishings and drums for burial. Spirals and Greek key ornamentation are typical of this culture. The Han culture in China conquered much of the Dong Son area from 111B.C.

The Indian influence began with the trade that the country was exercising with Indochina. The influence of India in the societies  brought to the foreground Hindu and Buddhist religion in art and architecture.

Khmer Art

The Khmer empire represents the present-day Cambodia. Indravarman, the first Khmer king, began the construction of Angkor in the late 8th century. The architecture of this temple-city have mainly Indian sources, but the style of the voluptuous and serenely smiling sculptures on the temples is typically Khmer. The most famous of Khmer monument is Angkor Wat, a complex temple built in the early 12th century. From 15th to the 18th century, most of Cambodian art was wood sculpture. Nowadays, the main works of Cambodian art follow the inspiration of Thai sculpture.

Vietnamese Art

The art during the Champa kingdom (2nd-17th century) in central Vietnam is also characterized by the sculpture in the architecture. The peak of Champa art reveals luxuriant and graceful ornaments. Champa art declined after the 13th century. Before the 10th century when the Vietnamese spilled the Chinese imperial domination, much of the art owes its influences to Chinese style (ceramics) and neighboring Champa models.

Thai Art

Between the 13th and 15th century Thailand considerably increased its power in Western Southeast Asia. In the 14th and 15th century the Siamese style presents an elongation of limbs, a serene countenance and an interest in the « walking Buddha » pose its sculptures. In the 16th century the Buddhist sculptures were mostly adorned with jewels. The Siamese paintings represent Buddhist subjects with brilliant color owe to Chinese models. Lately, the development of the commercial links between Thailand and the West brought new influences in the Thai art.

Lao and Burmese Art

Thai kingdoms were established in Laos in the 14th century. Lao art was largely influenced by Siamese Artstyle. The major part of Lao art was in wood, that we conserve almost no demonstrations. Even so, a few temples of stucco and brick have survived.

Burmese art was influenced by Buddhist art forms, and the beliefs in Nats spirits. Nats temples established during the Kingdom of Pagan (9th-13th century) are the first examples of Burmese architecture. The Burmese flame is a typical element found in the architecture. Above the windows or as part of the roof ornamentation. Lacquerware is the most  widespread art tradition in Burman. Lacquerware objects are usually used in temples and monasteries.

Indonesian Art

Indonesian art was strongly influenced by Indian culture, but we also found bronze drums from the Dong Son culture. The « Chandi Mendut » shrine in Java, shows the interest in bas-reliefs with sinuous forms and elegant compositions. The monument of Borobudur built in 750 B.C represents the typical Indonesian tradition. Receding terraces, wall bas-relief, Buddhas sculptures of great beauty, and stone stupas. With the advent of Islam in the 15th century, figural sculpture was abandoned and ornamentation of mosques modify the Indonesian tradition in architectural embellishment.


See B. Groslier, The Art of Indochina (1962) H. Munsterberg, The Art of India and Southeast Asia (1970) A. K. Narain, ed., Studies in Buddhist Art of South Asia (1986) P. Rawson, The Art of Southeast Asia (1990)