Reconstructing Krishna at the Cleveland Museum of Art
A 1,400-year-old statue of the Hindu god Krishna is getting a 21st century facelift at the Cleveland Museum of Art. He was assembled from broken pieces four decades ago, but, it turns out they didn’t quite get it right.
In the art museum’s conservation lab, Colleen Snyder fired up what looked like a high-powered hairdryer and focused a blast of heat on the thigh of this Cambodian relic. She then chipped away at a patch of filler that was used to repair the stone statue in the late 1970s. The museum’s chief conservator, Per Knutas, said it’s delicate work.
"We approach each project with a certain amount of risk management," said Knutas. "We know that each intervention that we do will put some kind of stress on the object. Is this really necessary?"
The conservators are also taking care to preserve the cultural importance of Krishna. The deity is one of the most popular in the Hindu world and this particular sculpture depicts one of his most spectacular stories. Legend has it that he lifted a mountain into the air to protect his people from a devastating rainstorm.
Sonya Rhie Mace, the museum’s curator of Indian and Southeast Asian art, said this Krishna was built in a mountain cave temple in southern Cambodia.
"In the back of the temple, Krishna spanned from floor to ceiling," she said. "So, he’s actually holding up the mountain itself."
But, the statue was found in pieces on the abandoned temple floor about a century ago, possibly the victim of thieves looking for sacramental gold hidden in its base. Those pieces were then bought, sold and traded a number of times over the next 70 years. For instance, Mace says Belgian banker Adolphe Stoclet and his wife Suzanne liked the head and torso, but weren’t that interested in the rest of it.
"So, they buried the pieces," she said. "Some of them were used as edgings for the garden."
Years after the banker died, the Cleveland Museum of Art bought the torso and had the other pieces exhumed from the garden in Brussels.
"They attempt the reconstruction; it is not easy," said Mace. "There are no joints between the pieces, the angles are difficult."
And, a key piece was missing -- the left hand which holds the mountain over Krishna’s head. It turns out that fragment had been mistakenly attached to a different statue, still in Cambodia. This was confirmed, thanks some modern technology from Case Western Reserve University. In 2014, the Krishna and his missing hand were digitally scanned and then combined via 3-D printing.
"So, if you do a virtual reconstruction, you can see that it looks right," Mace said.
Once the digital match was made, the actual piece of stone was shipped from Cambodia to Cleveland, where a new and improved Krishna is slowly taking shape.
Chief conservator Per Knutas walked around the work-in-progress pointing out the changes.
"You can see here in the back how angled this is," he said. "So, imagine this being straightened up."
Knutas said that once the reconstruction is done, Krishna will strike a significantly different pose, closer to the way he was meant to be. For the last 40 years, his gaze has been straight ahead, into the distance.
"And when we’re done with this campaign, he will look more down," said Knutas.
The previous image of an aloof god will return to what conservators believe was his original position, looking down to watch over his worshippers. This focus on cultural respect and getting it right is part of a larger relationship the Cleveland Museum of Art has developed with Cambodia in recent years.
For example, in 2015, Cleveland discovered that a visitor-favorite sculpture of the monkey god Hanuman -- bought in good faith years ago -- had likely been looted from a temple site. The museum sent it back. Sonya Rhie Mace said Cambodian officials applauded the move.
After years of separation, the pieces of an ancient heritage are coming back together. The revamped Krishna is due for his debut in early 2019.