KINGDOM OF SIAM
THE ART OF CENTRAL THAILAND, 1350-1800
A Review by Gary Gach
Our relative lack of knowledge about the beautiful, elegant, refined arts of Thailand tends to dwell in inverse proportion to their importance. That cultural gap is now being filled in with a major exhibition curated by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, just the kind of rare and needful effort at which they excel. The Kingdom of Siam: The Art of Central Thailand, 1350-1800 runs February 18 to May 8, then travels to the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, Mass., where it will be on view July 16 to October 16, 2005. It's the world's first major exhibition of art from Thailand's lost kingdom of Ayutthaya, and the first exhibition of classical art from Thailand shown in the United States in more than thirty years.
Ayutthaya (ah-YOOT-tah-yah) was one of the largest and most powerful kingdoms in Southeast Asia. Founded in 1351, it flourished for more than four hundred years -- longer than China's Ming dynasty. It was a major trading center holding diplomatic ties with China, Japan, Persia, Okinawa, Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Portugal. Despite the kingdom's power, prosperity, and influence, it was destroyed by an invasion from neighboring Burma in 1767, and the kingdom's splendor faded from memory.
The Kingdom of Siam draws together 89 of some of the finest suriviving arftifacts from Ayutthaya, drawn from collections in Thailand, Europe, and the U.S., many displayed for the first time in the West. They include stone and bronze Buddhas, sculptures of Hindu deities, figural and decorative wood carvings, temple furnishings, illuminated manuscripts, jewelry, and textiles. Among the highlights are gold royal regalia and ceremonial objects, a full-sized temple pediment, and sections of royally commisioned temple doors with inlaid mother-of-pearl.
The fruit of five years' labor, the exhibition is curated by classical Thai art authority Dr Forrest McGill, the Museum's Chief Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art; and co-curated by ML Pattaratorn Chirapravati, Assistant Professor of Asian Art, California State University, Sacramento. It's accompanied by a must-have catalog (200pps, illustrated) featuring essays on the history, art, and culture of Ayutthaya by leading scholars.
Regarding these works of art, this author was delighted to discover beneath an austerity of overall formal design a certain playfulness and bubbly joie de vivre. A mid-eighteenth-century manuscript cabinet, for example, of lacquered and gilded wood, at first sight looks like it bears an ornamental design inlaid with mother-of-pearl and mirrored glass (fig. 1). But on closer look, we find a work of art in its own right, present on the cabinet, rather than merely an object of decorated furniture. In one roundel, a large dragon is trailed by a smaller one, like a mother and duckling gliding across a pond. They take their place admidst other creatures: horse, elephant, lions, birds, and even smaller dragons. It's a vision of bounteous, harmonious nature teeming with interdependent life forms, real and imaginary, amid the dance of life.
Another cabinet bears on its front doors a European who might well be Louis XIV across from a Persian who's probably a Mogul emperor (fig. 2). Here we locate this art as taking place within a dance of international trade, a kind of Venice of the East, the Hongkong of its day. A bolt of textile material from India, placed near this cabinet, is known to have been made for the Siamese market by its design: such patterns have been preserved across centuries and are kept in use on through to today.
Given increasing difficulties in mounting such a show (think, for example, of rising obligations for insurance against possible acts of terrorism), this may well be the only major Thai exhibition for another thirty years.
May all beings thrive.
FOR FURTHER REFERENCE
DANSLIP, Tanistha and FREEMAN, Elizabeth. Things Thai
LEKSUKHUM, Santi & MERMET, Gilles. Temples of Gold: Seven Centuries of Thai Buddhist Painting
McGILL, Forrest. "The Art of Central Thailand, 1350-1800." Arts of Asia XXXV:1.
WAY, Elizabeth, et al. Ten Lives of the Buddha: Siamese Temple Painting and Jakata Tales
WOODWARD, Jr., Hiram W. The Sacred Sculpture of Thailand
WYATT, David K. A Short History of Thailand