This week, exactly seventy four years ago, George Groslier, the founder of the National Museum and École des arts Cambodgiens, which would become the Royal University of Fine Arts, died in an interrogation room at the hands of Japanese authorities in Cambodia. It was a great loss for the country, for this French scholar and writer, also the first French to be born in the Kingdom, had devoted his entire life to promoting Khmer traditional art and culture, as well as introduce Cambodia to the world. In memory of the “Cambodia Scholar”, Taing Rinith talks to his biographer Kent Davis, who has also published some of his books in English for the first time, about Groslier’s life and work.
GT2: When did you first learn about George Groslier? What motivated you to work on the translation of his books?
Kent Davis: My wife and I first visited Angkor in November 2005. I was immediately entranced by the artistic beauty of the female devata images that fill the temples, particularly those in Angkor Wat. Their complexity and precise variations convinced me that many of these were portrait carvings of real Khmer women who served in the court of King Suryavarman II. From that day I’ve been committed to solving their mysteries, but it’s been a circuitous path and I’m not near the end yet.
I learned about George Groslier from Paul Cravath’s research when we were preparing “Earth in Flower, The Divine Mystery of the Cambodian Dance Drama.”
Groslier was the first Western scholar to write extensively about Cambodia’s sacred royal dance tradition. As Cravath’s book was the most comprehensive study of the dance, it seemed appropriate to also restore the first study of the dance.
I spent years preparing the first English edition of Cambodian Dancers – Ancient and Modern, which was the first Groslier book translated by Pedro Rodríguez. The biggest breakthrough, however, was meeting George Groslier’s daughter Nicole in 2008. She lived near my home in Florida and, upon meeting her, she generously guided me in restoring her father’s works and memory.
Before that encounter, Groslier was a bit of a mystery, with only a few short paragraphs of biography available and only a couple of low resolution photos.
GT2: In your own words, can you briefly describe the life and work of George Groslier?
Kent Davis: To start, I’ll describe Groslier in two words: passionate polymath. But to begin to understand what those words mean, I’ve had to translate and republish his scholarly work on Cambodian dance, two of his Cambodian travel journals, and two of his novels…all while working with his daughter and grandchildren. After all that, I still know there is much more to learn, both from the man and about the man.
The evidence suggests that Groslier’s soul was infused with the spirit of Cambodia from the moment of his conception and birth there. He was the first son of colonial civil servant Antoine-Georges Groslier and his wife Angélina. After losing her second child at birth, Groslier’s mother whisked him back to France at age two, where he stayed until age 23. Even so, we see him with his mother at the Exposition de Lyon in 1894, which featured an impressive Cambodian display. [I have that photo, also I just published a new book by Joel Montague and Jim Mizerski related to the Expo here]
In 1906, King Sisowath and his royal dancers went to France for the first time to attend the Exposition coloniale in Marseilles. It was a media sensation throughout the country. At the time, Groslier and his mother lived near Marseilles and, though we have no proof, it seems logical that he would have seen them. And perhaps this planted the seed for his first book.
In 1908, we see the 21 year old Groslier in his very Oriental artist’s studio in Paris while attending the Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-arts. But it was in 1910, on his first working visit to Cambodia, that the die was truly cast. From those adventures he published Danseuses cambodgiennes – anciennes et modernes, the world’s first book documenting on this ancient and sacred tradition, and his first travel journal A l’ombre d’Angkor; notes et impressions sur les temples inconnus de l’ancien Cambodge. From his first return to Cambodia since childhood until the day of his death, Groslier devoted himself to the people, arts, culture and history of Cambodia.
Designing and curating the National Museum of Cambodia and the School of Fine Arts, where he is now honored by a statue, are legacies of Groslier’s commitment to Cambodia and Khmer traditions. My biographical profile, Le Khmérophile -The Art and Life of George Groslier provides more complete details.
GT2: How do you feel about George Groslier’s writing? Do his books reflect on Cambodian lives and should be considered important historical accounts? Why?
Kent Davis: His diverse talents are what make his books and views so readable and relevant, from the time they were written to the present day. In his life Groslier trained as a classical painter and architect. His skills expanded to include anthropology, archaeology, history, ethnology and photography. In the military, he learned organization, administration and discipline, all of which he used designing, organizing and curating the museum and school of arts. He communicated his knowledge first through his drawings and paintings, and increasingly through the written word as his writing continued to evolve.
French scholar Henri Parmentier criticized George’s early work on dance as not being “scholarly enough.” Indeed, his early book on dance and his tour of remote temples in Cambodia included his personal observations, his emotions, hardships he faced, his personal theories and, most important, his humor. This is what makes Groslier readable, informative and entertaining!
After returning to Cambodia following WWI, Groslier published a series of scholarly essays and books to perhaps make up for his earlier shortcomings. I find these works rather dry. It was in 1926 that he returned to the creative style of his youth, releasing two wonderful novels about life in early 20th century Cambodia. Despite being categorized as fiction, the books contain an abundance of information and ideas about what life was like then. He followed these with a travel diary of two extended river cruises on the Mekong, Water and Light, describing life on the river.
On looking at Groslier’s body of works it is amazing, and wonderful, that so many of the cultural values and traditions that he witnessed in Cambodia a century ago, are still very much alive today.
GT2: How do you feel about the tragic death of George Groslier at the age of 58? Do you think he would have done much more if he had lived longer?
Kent Davis: Yes, and what a loss! This multi-talented genius was unable to pursue what may have been his most creative project after his retirement. I began working on his books when I was 51. Groslier was murdered at 58. I’m now 63 and see, there is so much more to do.
In his later years, Groslier’s works became more creative. He was an early adopter of technology throughout his life. We see him taking a balloon ride in 1908, serving in the balloon corps in WWI, and then becoming a ham radio enthusiast in the 1930s to talk with people around the world. His final works included a noir fiction novel and a murder mystery! I believe that he had more ideas, history, and even entertainment to share with the world.
GT2: Should we consider George Groslier a symbol of something? If we should, what is that?
Kent Davis: Passion for knowledge, humanity, art and culture that transcends nationality and borders. Groslier loved art and truth. He was loyal to his Cambodian birthplace despite his French nationality. In his works, he didn’t hesitate to praise, or criticize, either group. He strived to share the realities he saw.
GT2: What has happened with his family right now? Are you still in contact with them?
Kent Davis: Yes, most certainly we are. We exchange Groslier news frequently. Nicole was George and Suzanne’s last surviving child. Nicole’s daughter, George’s granddaughter, lives in the US with one grandson. George’s first son, Gilbert, has four grandsons in Europe with numerous great grandchildren and even great great grandchildren. His youngest son, Bernard-Philippe, also a renowned archaeologist, never had children.