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 Home > About Thailand > The Arts > Modern Art in Thailand

MODERN ART IN THAILAND

By PROFESSOR SILPA BIRASRI


The purpose of this pamphlet is to state the principal factors which determined the decline of the classic Thai art and the recent revival of art with modern characteristics.

We have tried to be as objective as possible but, of course, in dealing with an alive manifestation of our actual culture we touch sentimental feelings which easily endanger a proper judgment of real facts. Nevertheless, we hope that this brief writing will be of some use to people from abroad interested in Thai intellectual expressions.

Each time the general conditions of people change according to cultural, social or economic reasons, art undergoes first a period of transition and later it follows completely the spirit of the new social development . The departure from traditional art to new expressions is the moment for hot discussions and friction arising between those who are anxious to preserve tradition and those who wish to do what they feel towards the new trend. This friction disturbs the tranquility of the Temple of Art but it is unavoidable. Therefore, to judge objectively about this dualism of ideas we have to trace the causes for which young Thai artists prefer to express themselves in a modern way rather than repeat conventional forms. Many Thai in these days are so anxious to preserve their traditional style that they tend to be strongly prejudiced against any new form of art. This prejudice makes them altogether passive to the efforts and remarkable achievements obtained by the young Thai artists in this last decade. On the other hand, many foreigners, visitors of Bangkok, are rightly so impressed by the beauty of old Thai art that they inquire why we do not encourage traditional art instead of siding with those young artists who strive to create something new and individual, Under this aspect we cannot help to say that such idea is rather partial- in all western countries classic art has been abandoned because it fails to correspond to the modern intellectual necessities-in those countries nobody seems to be alarmed about this fact because it is natural development of modern life. Thus, we would like to know the reasons why an eastern artist should not express himself in art with sincerity as others do.

People who for a long period of study appreciate old Thai art in its great value and beauty know too well that, since many decades, traditional Thai art had reached that point of exhaustion from which creative production is no more possible-at such a point only the repetition of stereotyped figures are permitted by the limited boundary of conventionalism.

Let us study the principal reasons why art has deviated from its traditional character. We may state at large that what art has experienced in Thailand during the last twenty years, Europe experienced eighty or ninety years ago, when modern art started to replace classicism. There, like here, science and machinery engendered a new system of life - the sequence was a radical change in economy and hence the subsequent change of habits of the people. Speed and communications brought people of the world closer, effected reciprocity and mergence of their cultures.

So it was in Europe, so it was in Thailand, so in all countries which adopted a universal understanding. There are people who attempt to modernize national forms, making any sort of acrobatics to appear new in accordance with our age, but in general this production has not the power to stimulate anything lofty, because it is not a true emotive creation

Let us resume our study on Thailand. Like all classic arts we may divide Thai art into major and minor arts. Major Art: Religious structures, Buddha statues, mural paintings.

The construction of Wats and the casting of Buddha-images, more than anything else, were the greatest ambition of every Thai king, members of royalty and other noble men. The Wat, besides to enshrine statues of Buddha made either in bronze or in stucco, had to be decorated with mural paintings as well as wood cavings and lacquer works. Accordingly the Wat was the highest expression of the Thai for about eight hundred years. Minor Art: Objects of minor art for general use such as jewelry, niello, embossed silver, textile, lacquer works and pottery, were in the past in great demand by the Thai people.

About sixty years ago Thailand started to adopt the modern western organisation which implied also a new economic system. Consequently the funds of the revenue which in the past were largely used for religious artistic purposes, under the new system had to be distributed for public buildings, roads, railways, irrigation, etc. Besides the economic factor , in that time the majority of the buildings were planned in western style by foreign architects. Imported European objects of minor art were preferred for their novelty to those made in Thai style. This meant an almost abrupt end of Wat building and of the activity in making works of minor art. In respect to the latter, once the appeal for novelty of European objects was over, the economic matter came to interfere with the resumption of doing again objects of art in Thai style as fine as those done in the past.

Any connoiseur of Thai art knows that the execution of an object of art in old style requires a considerable time-finesse of drawing and perfect accuracy of execution are indispensable to approach the fine standard of the old specimens. Unfortunately nowadays time means money, that is to say, the cost of very finely executed objects of art would be so high that the demand would be extremely limited. This limitation would handicap the rebirth and possible existence of a school of talented artisans. Thus in our days the financial factor renders impossible a standard of execution of objects of minor art as high as in the past.

The art of Buddha casting which in the past was a glory of the Thai art became also a matter of mere commerce with the most disappointing artistic result. The beautiful old Thai painting was badly affecedt by the influence of western painting losing its fine and beautiful peculiarities.

This sketch of the regrettable art-situation which lasted for about five decades, and just when the artistic activity in Thailand was mostly in the hands of foreign artists, should impress upon the reader, the importance of the revival of art realized by the talent of the generation born during or after the first World War. War is terrific and horrible but in the instance of the first World War, it stirred the people far away from Europe and America to progress. Principally it was education which opened the mind and widened the purpose of life this modern generation.

A wide gap divides the elder from the younger Thai generation and this not for lack of veneration on the side of the young people towards their elders but in consequence of the evolution of life.

The elder Thai lived in that contemplative life which a wonderful dreaming nature had formed during so many centuries. The appearing words of Lord Buddha were their spiritual support. Hence that spiritual and so delicate art of the past.

Any person who compares the existence of those old folk with the dynamic life of modern Thai cannot sincerely expect from an artist of our age to get inspiration form a world which does not exist any more. Any honest artist would refuse to do so.

Only for commercial purposes old forms can be repeated in all countries, because foreigners are reciprocally attracted by exotic art. In fact a Thai visiting Florence will certainly buy some leather work decorated with ornaments in Renaissance style, or buy jewelry in old Florentine style, While a Florentine passing through Bangkok will buy some Thai nielloware or some painting reproducing Thai dancers. But although this kind of art is very nice looking and also necessary for our daily aesthetic pleasure, it must not be confused with what is referred to as creative art, that is to say the free expression of the artists' soul.

We should not misunderstand traditional art for traditional spirit. To do traditional artmeans to repeat a certain style of the past, while traditional spirit means to transmit in a work something individually proper to a race. Accordingly, although the young Thai artists live a universal life, their production is essentially Thai- Thai, of course, in representation of human figures, Thai in traditional spirit. Indeed the art of each people is imbued with a proper character due to atavism and due to that complexity of factors which determine the peculiarities of the people.

To explain our idea more practically we illustrate with fig. 1, a particular of an old mural painting and with fig. 2, a modern statuette made by Khien Yimsiri. By comparing the outline of the old and modern figures we note their strict relationship. This relationship was not looked for by the Thai sculptor, it came by itself through that atavistic feeling already mentioned.

Certainly, one cannot expect to find in all the works of the Thai modern artists the same relationship with old specimens as quoted above. When for instance, a Thai painter is touched by the beauty of a landscape and paints it according to the sensation he receives from nature, his work has no relationship with sceneries painted in the old time because the were merely conventional.

With reference to landscapes, remarks have been made that the Thai painters are influenced by the western impressionism. In such respect we would like to say that the Thai painters have a natural style, they do what they see and what they feel. If they succeed in rendering every part related to others and the whole to space, and succeed in conveying the atmosphere and light of Thailand, then they have succeeded in their artistic aspiration. If not, the work is considered a failure, for lack of artistic value and not because the painter imitated any foreign school.

Again, a sculptor modelling a portrait has no chance to link the character of his work with that of the past for the simple reason the in old time Thai statuary was limited to modelling Buddha images. Besides, we have also to realise that real art is an individual expression and as such it corresponds to the personal style of each artist. This style may be realistic, impressionistic, may be that of cubism, conventionalism or anything else. It is not the style with which we express our feeling that counts in art, it is that abstract quality conveying the essence of the Spirit a work of art is pregnated and which humanises Humanity.

 

** ART TRAINING IN THAILAND**

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