The old informs the new

In Victory over Mara, Panya Vijinthanasarn fills the torso of a bodhisattva with an image of the World Trade Centre and other symbols of difficult times.

In Victory over Mara, Panya Vijinthanasarn fills the torso of a bodhisattva with an image of the World Trade Centre and other symbols of difficult times.

Khetsirin Pholdhampalit
The Sunday Nation
February 15, 2015 1:00 am

The triumph of Thai neo-traditional art lies in reviving classical themes with modern context

“THAI NEOTRADITIONAL ART” is the new group exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, but, with his booming voice, feisty personality and irrepressible humour, Chalermchai Kositpipat couldn’t help being the centre of attention at the opening last week. His fellow artists readily forgive his brashness, though, because he’s done so much to bring art to a wider public, and particularly Buddhist art.

His works are on view along with pieces by Panya Vijinthanasarn, Sompop Budtarad, Rearngsak Boonyavanishkul, Thongchai Srisukprasert and Alongkorn Lauwatthana. Panya and Sompop are the guiding lights behind this Thai “neo-traditional” movement that emerged in the late 1970s, making aesthetic practices of the past relevant to the present.

Most of the 50 paintings and sculptures in the exhibition are from the collection of the museum’s founder, Boonchai Bencharongkul, who just-published third book on the museum’s art covers these six artists. They were among the 30-odd Thai artists who created the murals at Wat Buddhapadipa in London in the mid-1980s.

“Obviously the Wat Buddhapadipa mural project was pivotal, but the real milestone for the movement was the founding of the Department of Thai Art in 1976 as part of the Faculty of Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Arts at Silpakorn University,” says Chalermchai, one of its first two graduates.

“Ajarn Chalood Nimsamer wanted to pass on the traditionally employed techniques, but he allowed the range of motifs and styles to be expanded, with broader media and materials, beyond the confines of traditional temple art.”

The murals at the temple in London’s Wimbledon neighbourhood illustrate the usual religious scenes not with tempera but with acrylic and spray-paint. Artistic licence extends to depictions of Britain’s then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the Eiffel Tower in Chalermchai’s rendering of Three Worlds. Panya found room for America’s Ronald Reagan and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi – the latter sporting two heads.

There was a fear of “breaking away from convention” and the “rules or styles of the old craftsmen”, says Chalermchai. “The best way for me to experiment was to work outside the country. It stirred up a storm when it was revealed and I got complaints that what I was doing wasn’t Thai art.”

But gradually the murals – astonishing in their technical prowess and heady with spiritual aesthetics – helped bring Thai art international recognition.

“It’s not necessary to combine correctly all the elements,” Chalermchai says. “We can interweave just the essences of line and form, for example, into the realm of the imagination to reflect Thainess.” Anyone who’s visited the spectacularly ornate Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai, the “White Temple” that Chalermchai erected (helping earn him National Artist status in 2011), knows the extent of his imagination, and his skill.

Panya meanwhile seeks to soothe anyone who’s enduring difficulties in the modern world by illustrating the Lord Buddha’s teachings. He often depicts the Buddha’s countenance in close-up, drawing viewers with his eyes, even when closed.

In his paintings, mixed media and sculptures dating back 20 years, the message is about Buddhism’s “loving kindness”. His fibreglass and ceramic busts of bodhisattvas in calm states of mind resonate with a sense of the true bliss possible from overcoming hardships. In the torso of a bodhisattva entitled “Victory over Mara”, we see images of the World Trade Centre amid Buddhist images of the sort dynamited by the Afghan Taleban.

“I compare the fight between Mara and bodhisattvas to the suffering and distress we see today,” says Panya, named a National Artist last year. “We have to find the cause of our suffering – only then can we find happiness.”

The large-format book that shares the title of the exhibition has informative text in Thai and English by Australian art critic Andrew West, who’s lived in Bangkok for more than

a decade. He also wrote “Destiny to Imagination: Prateep Kochabua”, the museum’s second art book, and then spent a year and a half researching the neo-traditional movement for this one. That included studying the Ramayana and many analytical treatises.

“I also had to study traditional mural painting and other aspects of Thai art and culture, as well as the broad sweep of Thailand’s heritage, which is not just Buddhistic – it’s also Brahmanic, Hinduistic and animistic. In fact, most of the spiritual entities depicted in neo-traditional art are actually derived from Hinduism,” he says, noting the demonic yaksha, angelic thewada and the water-borne naga. “It’s a journey into Thai culture that I continue to enjoy.”

The six artists profiled in the book were interviewed in 2013 through early 2014. Chalermchai tells West about the classical motifs rich in metaphor he uses in his lavish, decorative art full of vibrant colours. Panya remains steadfastly focused on the problems facing society today, illustrated in a Buddhist context with a blending of elements old and new.

West comments that Sompop first garnered attention with his highly realistic “Nang Songkran” series of portraits, “but he has also experimented with installation work with metaphysical themes, such as the cycle of existence”.

Rearngsak, he points out, sometimes “blends surrealistic techniques with Buddhist mythology and local animistic subject matter. On the other hand he is best known for his hyper-realistic depictions of female Balinese and Thai dancers.”

Thongchai too employs surrealism in his portrayals of Buddhist subject matter, “such as swirling abstractions of battling naga and krut”. His innovations take the form of hybrid mystical beings.

“Alongkorn,” says West, “draws deeply and insightfully from Thai culture and his religious faith to interpret the metaphorical language of traditional symbols and motifs with an unorthodox and individual style, merging ultramodern materials with ancient techniques.”

MATURING TO YOUTH

The exhibition “Thai Neotraditional Art” continues until April 26 at the Museum of Contemporary Art on Vibhavadi-Rangsit Road, next to the Benchachinda Building.

The museum is open weekdays except Mondays from 10 to 5 and weekends from 11 to 6.

Admission is Bt180 (Bt80 for students, free for children under 15, seniors, the disabled, monks and novices.

The book costs Bt2,000. A limited-edition box set including a print from the artist of your own choice is Bt11,000.

Find out more at (02) 953 1005-7 and www.MoCABangkok.com.

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