Skip to main content

“Decadence and Revival” in Cambodian Arts and the Role of George Groslier (1887–1945)

  • Chapter
Cultural Heritage as Civilizing Mission


This paper focuses on the work of George Groslier (1887–1945), the creator and first curator of the Musée Albert Sarraut in Phnom Penh and the director of the Service des Arts cambodgiens from the 1920s to the 1940s. George Groslier was an artist, a painter, and one of the most important individual protagonists in the French initiative to “revive the Khmer arts” in Cambodia during the French Protectorate (1863–1953). In this particular political and cultural context, he sought to “restore Cambodia’s proper cultural identity” by creating an institutionalized programme of “Khmer arts renovation.”

This paper will attempt to consider the “civilizing vision” of George Groslier within two major developmental steps. First, the presentation of Groslier’s work will bring to light his personal values, terms, and writings addressing the pretended decadence of Khmer arts and heritage and its intended revival. This will provide a basis from which to explore, second, the process of how this individual value system imposed upon Khmer cultural heritage and gradually formed the ideological basis for two colonial institutions. These institutions became the core of the “Khmer arts renovation programme” and were led by George Groslier himself: (1) a museum to collect, classify, protect, and display works of art; and (2) a school of arts to re-create, teach, and perpetuate the Khmer artistic “tradition.” They were instrumental in the establishment of a canon of Cambodian heritage within French colonial politics, a canon that has retained its dominance to this day.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this chapter

USD 16.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Available as EPUB and PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
Softcover Book
USD 139.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Compact, lightweight edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info

Tax calculation will be finalised at checkout

Purchases are for personal use only

Institutional subscriptions

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. 1.

    Cf. biographical note (no date, after 1931), no author, National Archives of Cambodia (N.A.C.), R.S.C. file n°8338 C/2.

  2. 2.

    George Groslier took more than 2,000 negatives of dancers, a selection of which were displayed in 2012 at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh.

  3. 3.

    In fact, Groslier had already participated in the 1922 National Colonial Exhibition in Marseille where he contributed sketches of the entry doors to the main Cambodian pavilion.

  4. 4.

    Original text: “Chez ce moribond brusquement métissé, où trouver et comment utiliser les germes encore susceptibles de fleurir, les gouttes de sang pur?”

  5. 5.

    Original text: “Par un sort vraiment malheureux, les traditions cambodgiennes semblent appelées à disparaître d’autant plus vite qu’après une décadence de dix siècles, elles sont soumises depuis cinquante ans à l’influence prédominante et profonde de l’Occident.”

  6. 6.

    Original text: “Si l’art cambodgien tenait encore, il était vermoulu, à bout de résistance. Les influences occidentales, survenant avec une force et une rapidité inouïes, l’achevèrent d’un seul coup.”

  7. 7.

    Baudoin, François-Marius, Résident supérieur du Cambodge to Gouverneur général in Hanoi, June 9, 1917. Official telegram. N.A.C. (R.S.C.), file n° 17663.

  8. 8.

    Rapport du Résident supérieur au Cambodge à Monsieur le Gouverneur Général, April 13, 1922, N.A.C. (R.S.C.) file n° 11886.

  9. 9.

    Royal Ordinance of December 31, 1919, founding the Direction des Arts Cambodgiens. See: Arts et Archéologie Khmers I (1921-3), 114–115.

  10. 10.

    Groslier was director of the École des Arts from 1920 to 1922 and curator of the Musée Albert Sarraut from 1920 to 1944.

  11. 11.

    Royal Ordinance of 31 December 1919, art. 2.

  12. 12.

    Decree by the Gouverneur général de l’Indochine, August 9, 1922, formalizing the Service des Arts.

  13. 13.

    Baudoin, François-Marius, Résident supérieur du Cambodge, in a letter to all Résidents, July 13, 1917, N.A.C. (R.S.C.), file n° 15200.

  14. 14.

    In 1866 the scientific Mission d’exploration du Mékong led by Ernest Doudart de Lagrée arrived and brought plaster casts and several original Khmer art pieces back to France. These were displayed at the 1867 Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair) and the Exposition permanente des colonies. A few years later, Louis Delaporte (1842–1925) asked the French government permission to undertake a mission to Angkor. From this mission he brought plaster casts, sculptures, and architectural pieces back for display outside Paris in the Compiègne castle and later at the Trocadéro museum where they formed the collection of the Musée indochinois (cf. Falser 2013). In 1887–1888 the architect Lucien Fournereau brought many drawings, plans, and sections of Khmer temples, as well as casts and original pieces back from his mission. These plaster casts and drawings served as the basis for future “Khmer pavilions” in colonial and universal exhibitions from 1889 until 1937. See Falser 2014b, 2011.

  15. 15.

    Some examples of the museums created in Southeast Asia by colonial powers include: Great Britain in Calcutta by the Asiatic Society on February 2, 1914, in Madras by the Madras Society Library in 1851, and in Colombo in 1877 from a collection united by the Royal Asiatic Society in Colombo since 1847. Museums were also created by the Netherlands: the Batavia Society for Arts and Science united artworks and opened a museum in 1868 in Batavia (now Jakarta).

  16. 16.

    Decree by the Gouverneur général of December 15, 1898.

  17. 17.

    EFEO’s organization decree, February 26, 1901. Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient (BEFEO) 1 (1901): 289.

  18. 18.

    Decree of August 17, 1905, see BEFEO 5 (1905): 508–9.

  19. 19.

    Decree of August 17, 1905, art. 4.

  20. 20.

    M. Khuon, the Directeur des travaux du Palais, worked from a project designed previously by Henri Parmentier, see BEFEO 7 (1907): 422.

  21. 21.

    Foundation decree by the Gouverneur général, creating the Musée du Cambodge, August 12, 1919, renamed Musée Albert Sarraut by Royal Ordinance, April 10, 1920.

  22. 22.

    Although those plans could not be located during our research, nevertheless, many sources attribute them to George Groslier.

  23. 23.

    Decree by the Gouverneur général, creating the Musée du Cambodge, August 12, 1919.

  24. 24.

    See: N.A.C. (R.S.C.), file n° 9076.

  25. 25.

    As a reference, we can give some figures for the items sold at the Office des Ventes, including commands: 68 in 1918, 360 in 1920, 1,479 in 1922, 2,273 in 1924, 6,937 in 1926, 4,434 in 1930 (Groslier 1931, 24).

  26. 26.

    We must remember that although the teaching team was Cambodian, the direction of the school and the choice of programme were entirely in the hands of George Groslier’s French team. Art created under these auspices was a sort of “ideal” and encouraged a stereotyped Khmer art that corresponded to a Western vision of it. For a complete study of the influence of George Groslier’s programme of artistic creation in Cambodia, see Muan 2001.

  27. 27.

    Royal ordinance of December 14, 1917 relative to the École des Arts cambodgiens.

  28. 28.

    The third article of the Royal ordinance of December 14, 1917 provided for the creation of exhibition rooms inside the School of Arts.

  29. 29.

    Decree by the Gouverneur général de l’Indochine, August 9, 1922. This decree replaced the Royal ordinance of December 14, 1917 and linked the School of Arts to the Instruction publique de l’Indochine.

  30. 30.

    Compare an overview on the art production in Indochina (André-Pallois 1997).


  • BEFEO Bulletin de l’École française d‘Extrême-Orient

    Google Scholar 

  • E.F.E.O. École française d‘Extrême-Orient, Paris, France

    Google Scholar 

  • N.A.C. National Archives, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

    Google Scholar 

  • Abbe, Gabrielle. 2011. “Donner à voir les arts khmers.” Bulletin de l’Institut Pierre Renouvin 34: 55–65.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • ——. 2013. “Eléments pour l’histoire du Musée de Phnom Penh.” Siksacakr, Journal of the Center for Khmer Studies 12–13 (special issue Cambodge: une rencontre coloniale (1856–1963), edited by Jean-François Klein), 219–34.

    Google Scholar 

  • André-Pallois, Nadine. 1997. L’Indochine: un lieu d’échange culturel? Les peintres français et indochinois (fin XIXe-XXe siècle), Monographie 184. Paris: Presses de l’E.F.E.O.

    Google Scholar 

  • Baudoin, François Marius. 1919. Résident supérieur au Cambodge, Rapport au Gouverneur général sur le fonctionnement de l’École des Arts (Report on the functioning of the School of Arts sent to the Gouverneur general), N.A.C. (R.S.C.), without number, February 19, 1919.

    Google Scholar 

  • ——. 1920. “Discours d’inauguration de l’École des Arts cambodgiens”, April 23, 1920. Arts et Archéologie Khmers 1:1 (1921–1922), 90–5.

    Google Scholar 

  • Delobel, Simon. 2005. Eléments pour l’histoire des musées du Cambodge, du Laos et du Vietnam. Le système muséal colonial indochinois. 1900–1954. Diplôme de Recherche Appliquée, École du Louvre.

    Google Scholar 

  • Falser, Michael. 2011. “Krishna and the Plaster Cast. Translating the Cambodian Temple of Angkor Wat in the French Colonial Period.” Transcultural Studies 2: 6–50. Accessed September 30, 2012.

  • ——. 2013. “From Gaillon to Sanchi, from Vézelay to Angkor Wat. The Musée Indo-chinois in Paris: A Transcultural Perspective on Architectural Museums.” RIHA Journal 0071 (19 June 2013). Accessed January 9, 2015.

  • ——. 2014a. “From a Colonial Reinvention to a Postcolonial Heritage and Global Commodity. Performing and Re-enacting Angkor Wat and the ‘Royal Khmer Ballet’.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 20/7-8 (special issue on ‘Reenacting the Past’), 702–723.

    Google Scholar 

  • ——. 2014b. “The first Plaster Casts of Angkor for the French métropole: From the Mekong Mission 1866–68, and the Universal Exhibition of 1867, to the Musée Khmer of 1874.” BEFEO, 99 (2012–13), 49–92.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gravelle, Charles. 1915. “Discours à la réunion du Comité cambodgien de la Société des Amis d’Angkor.” April 20, 1915. Quoted by George Groslier under the pseudonym Necoli in Arts et Archéologie Khmers 1:1 (1921–1922): 86–7.

    Google Scholar 

  • Groslier, George. 1913. Danseuses cambodgiennes anciennes et modernes. Paris: Challamel.

    Google Scholar 

  • ——. 1916. A l’ombre d’Angkor: notes et impressions sur les temples inconnus de l’ancien Cambodge. Paris: Challamel.

    Google Scholar 

  • ——. 1917. “Letter to the Résident supérieur” (December 19, 1917). N.A.C. (R.S.C.), file n°17663.

    Google Scholar 

  • ——. 1918a. “La tradition cambodgienne.” Revue indochinoise XXIX, 5: 459–69.

    Google Scholar 

  • ——. 1918b. “L’agonie de l’art cambodgien.” Revue indochinoise XXIX, 6: 547–60.

    Google Scholar 

  • ——. 1918c. “La prise en charge des arts cambodgiens.” Revue indochinoise XXX, 9: 251–64.

    Google Scholar 

  • ——. 1918d. “La convalescence des arts cambodgiens.” Revue indochinoise, XXX, 10: 267–281.

    Google Scholar 

  • ——. 1918e. “Rapport relatif à l’organisation du Musée du Cambodge à Phnom Penh [to the Résident supérieur]”, October 7, 1918. N.A.C. (R.S.C.), file n° 17663.

    Google Scholar 

  • ——. 1920. “Discours d’inauguration de l’École des Arts cambodgiens,” April 23,1920. Arts et Archéologie Khmers 1:1 (1921–1922): 95–106.

    Google Scholar 

  • ——. 1921a. “Le Service des Arts cambodgiens.”Arts et Archéologie Khmers 1:4 (1921–1923): 433.

    Google Scholar 

  • ——. 1921b. “La psychologie de l’artisan cambodgien.” Arts et Archéologie Khmers 1:2 (1921–1922): 125–37.

    Google Scholar 

  • ——. 1922. Rapport au Gouverneur général, April 13, 1922. N.A.C. (R.S.C.), file n° 11886.

    Google Scholar 

  • ——. 1925. “Rapport sur les arts indigènes au Cambodge. Leur état au moment de la reprise par l’Administration française et exposé historique du Service des Arts cambodgiens (1918–1924).” Phnom Penh, May 7, 1925. N.A.C. (R.S.C.), file n°11332.

    Google Scholar 

  • ——. 1931. “L’enseignement et la mise en pratique des arts indigènes (1918–1930).” Bulletin de l’Académie des Sciences Coloniales XVI: 44.

    Google Scholar 

  • ——. 1942. “Letter to the Director of the E.F.E.O.” January 19, 1942. Archives EFEO, Box XI, file 12.

    Google Scholar 

  • Marchal, Henri. 1913. “L’art cambodgien moderne,” Bulletin de la Société des Études indochinoises 65, 2e semestre: 69–75.

    Google Scholar 

  • Muan, Ingrid. 2001. Citing Angkor. The ‘Cambodian Arts’ in the Age of Restoration 1918–2000. PhD diss., Columbia University.

    Google Scholar 

  • Necoli, S.-G. 1921a. “Ce qui a été fait au Cambodge pour la pratique et la protection des arts indigènes (I. Historique du Service des Arts Cambodgiens (1917–1920)).” Arts et Archéologie Khmers 1:1 (1921–1922): 83–106.

    Google Scholar 

  • ——. 1921b. “Ce qui a été fait au Cambodge pour la pratique et la protection des arts indigènes (II. Historique du Musée khmer jusqu’à l’organisation du Musée du Cambodge (1905–1920).” Arts et Archéologie Khmers 1:2 (1921–1922): 155–176.

    Google Scholar 

  • ——. 1921c. “Ce qui a été fait au Cambodge pour la pratique et la protection des arts indigènes (III. Le Musée du Cambodge).” Arts et Archéologie Khmers 1:4 (1921–1922): 403–8.

    Google Scholar 

  • Silice, A. 1926. “Lettre à Victor Prouvé, quoting Victor Tardieu.” February 21, 1926. Archives Ecole de Nancy Museum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Silice, A. 1933. “Lettre à Victor Prouvé.” March 22, 1933. Archives Ecole de Nancy Museum.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Gabrielle Abbe .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

Copyright information

© 2015 Springer International Publishing Switzerland

About this chapter

Cite this chapter

Abbe, G. (2015). “Decadence and Revival” in Cambodian Arts and the Role of George Groslier (1887–1945). In: Falser, M. (eds) Cultural Heritage as Civilizing Mission. Transcultural Research – Heidelberg Studies on Asia and Europe in a Global Context. Springer, Cham.

Download citation

Publish with us

Policies and ethics