PARIS — 'I've been dreaming of this exhibit for at least 10 years," says the woman who conceived "Ten Centuries of Khmer Art," currently on display at the Grand Palais in Paris. As she speaks, Helen Jessup stands amid a forest of sculptures. A smile haunts the features of the gods, goddesses, and kings hewn from beige or salmon-colored sandstone some 12 centuries ago.
This historic exhibit brings together 113 masterpieces from the world's two greatest collections of Cambodian art, the Musee Guimet in Paris, now closed for renovation, and the Phnom-Penh National Museum, whose treasures have never left Cambodia.
Ms. Jessup, guest curator of the National Gallery in Washington, lived in Indonesia in the 1980s and avidly followed the progress of international meetings groping toward a peace settlement for violence-torn Cambodia. An agreement in 1991, elections, and the UN peacekeeping mission that accompanied this breakthrough, paved the way for an exhibit whose aim, in part, is to show the world a different face of Cambodia - far removed from the "Killing Fields" of painful memory.
"Cambodia does not only mean war, the Khmer Rouge, and a lot of problems," says Hor Nam Hong, Cambodian ambassador to Paris. "Cambodia also means centuries of civilization and culture."
His countrymen remain enormously attached to this cultural heritage, Mr. Hor adds, noting that through five changes of government in the past 30 years, the Angkor Wat temple symbolized the country on five successive flags. "These temples, these statues are revered as symbols of Cambodia's very soul," he says.
The reverence for these works of art, whose inspiration is almost exclusively religious, explains a certain reticence expressed in Phnom-Penh and by much of the Cambodian community in Paris at seeing 66 statues and relief carvings leave the National Museum.
"Everybody realized that we were in fact borrowing the entire national heritage of Cambodia," says Jessup. "There was lots of need for reassurance, discussion, explanation of our techniques and security systems."
Organizers are also using the show as a chance to draw attention to the desperate problem of pillage in Cambodia. More and more of the statues and relief carvings that embellish the stunning Khmer temples are missing heads, or hands and feet. The lure of a trafficker's cash is often irresistible to villagers struggling under dire economic conditions. Exhibit organizers castigate dealers and collectors for taking advantage of this situation, in violation of Cambodian law and international conventions, and buying the artworks or even commissioning their theft.
To accompany the exhibit, the International Council of Museums published a new edition of its "One Hundred Missing Objects," a catalog, with photographs, of objects that have disappeared from Cambodian temples and museums. Officials hope the show will raise consciousness about the problem and lead to recovery of some pieces.
What further helped to win Cambodians over to the idea of the show was the enormous restoration effort, funded in part by UNESCO, that accompanied the four years of careful preparations the show required.
"The surface of the bronze sculptures is often highly ornamented," says Claude Forrieres, head of Arc'antique, the French laboratory that restored 24 bronzes dating from the 8th to the 16th centuries. "These rich surfaces were terribly clogged. It took hundreds of hours of work to clean them, with scalpels, Q-tips, tiny vibrating points."
Even more important was the structural work done on a number of stone statues. Old iron supports had begun to rust inside some, threatening to split them asunder from inside.
"This piece," says Jessup, standing in front of a Harihara, dating from the 7th century, "is not only of surpassing beauty, it is also one of the happiest things that's come out of the exhibition." It's a long-limbed male figure, half the destructive god Shiva, half the creator Vishnu.
"It was found in pieces and had been reconstructed," she says. But they'd miscalculated the proportions, so there was a big chunk of protruding square iron that kept the feet from joining the ankles. It has now been magnificently restored to its proper proportions. Cambodians who have seen it have almost wept at the success."
* 'Ten Centuries of Khmer Art' opens at the National Gallery on June 30, before traveling to Tokyo and Osaka, Japan.