About contemporary Art in Thailand
Evoking contemporary art in Thailand or in other countries of Southeast Asia, poses the big question: what is contemporary art? Although hesitant to give an answer given how complex the issue is, a Westerner will always envision a work located at the Moma, at the Centre Pompidou or at the Guggenheim. From the abstract to figurative, we conceive of contemporary art by being spontaneous, multifaceted, often provocative, in short: indefinable, as artists question our definition of forms of art that art can take.
In countries where tradition remains an important social value, contemporary artists are perpetuating an ancient art where patterns are sometimes ancient. On the other hand, there are artists who, from our point of view, are doing contemporary art, that is to say an art which is similar to Fine Arts. This type of art was established in Thailand less than a century ago. In 1923, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Palace requested the Italian sculptor, Corrado Feroci (1892-1962), to teach Western sculpture in the Department of Fine Arts. Feroci decided to settle permanently in Thailand and took the Thai name Silpa Bhirasri. Twenty years later, in 1943, he founded the Silpakorn University, which is now the largest university in Thailand in the education of Fine Arts and Archeology. He was a great teacher and noticed many talents including the famous artist Thawan Duchanee. Born in 1939 in Chiang Rai, he is one of the few Thai artists who have acquired an international reputation and who exhibited many times internationally in Tokro, Amsterdam, London and it amounts to many other countries. A famous anecdote told by the artist tells us that one day; the master had severely criticized his work which was yet promising, telling him: “Your fish are odorless, your bird cannot fly, and your horse cannot gallop. You’re just a copyist, and this is not art.” Thawan Duchanee then totally questioned his work and he kept this remark in his mind whenever he painted. Nowadays, Silpa Bhirasri is considered the father of Western art in Thailand. His memory and his work are still honored by Thai artists.
However, the path of Thawan Duchanee remains an exception, for the professionals consider contemporary Thai art as still young and unfinished. A walk in the private museum of contemporary art in Bangkok (Bangkok MOCA) enlightens us as to the state of contemporary art in Thailand. It is clear that Thai artists draw their inspiration from traditional Buddhist culture or literature and that their aesthetic research is very similar to that of contemporary artists of the early twentieth century. In fact they reuse certain techniques such as pointillism and shortcuts or styles such as surrealism, futurism and abstraction. By observing their works, sometimes we have the impression of being in front of a picture of a disciple of Seurat, Gauguin or Dali and one cannot help but ask the question of identity and originality of Thai art.
This question of originality seems legitimate, just as it is understandable that these artists are still in search of their own style. In light of the history of art, it is quickly realized that European art cannot be exported so easily, because it is equivalent to applying uprooted techniques from their context of appearance. Modern art is born from a rupture with classical art which became sclerotic because of European social context of the time. Too rigid apprenticeship system was a bottleneck for the artists of that time and eliminatory for any artist with an original approach. In fact, artists wishing to exhibit in official salons had to have completed their studies at the Academy of Painting and for the best, go to Rome to copy ancient models. However, rapid economic growth and industrialization in the nineteenth century marked the beginning of an aspiration to modernity among many artists who are not recognized in academic art. Then gap is widening between the determined artist who wants to portray the modern world where they perceive change and nostalgic for a bygone era that remain faithful to the academic rules.
Starting from the second half of the nineteenth century, some artists, including the French artist leader Edouard Manet, decided to put an end to a prudish and hypocritical art. Hypocritical because Le déjeuner sur l’herbe or l’Olympia of Manet are for example regarded as indecent as they represent the contemporary character in their simplest device, whereas during the same period the naked mythological figures are used in the rich houses of his contemporaries. Considering these ancient models far away from them, now modern artists draw their inspiration from the world around them, daring to sacrifice beauty in favor of their truth. This change of subjects is the first modern rupture. The second relates to the techniques of representation. When Claude Monet exhibited his first works, they were a shock to his contemporaries. They judged the shadows projected on models as greenish and extremely ugly shadows. The words of Monet were to highlight the variations in the light, to seize a passing view, while the compositions had to until then only address the mind to convey an idea. Thereafter, it is the Fauves and then the Cubists who completely deconstructed the traditional image and challenged our eyes on it.
Thus we see that these plastic evolutions are part of a historical process of modernization and evolution of morals. But what can it be of Thai artists who receive these techniques without having lived these moments of frustration, challenge, inspiration that have shaped the history of modern and contemporary art?