Monday, October 26, 2009

Commentary on Manit Sriwanichpoom. ‘Between the Lord Buddha, Gauguin and Chatchai.’

[Manit Sriwanichpoom. ‘Between the Lord Buddha, Gauguin and Chatchai.’ In หน้าศิลปวัฒนธรรม [the Silpa Wattanatham column] of Siam Rath Weekly News Magazine, Yr 46, Vol. 24, 14 – 20 Nov. 2542 / 1999]

The last article in this set of critiques from หน้าศิลปวัฒนธรรม [the Silpa Wattanatham column] is a relatively rare account by Manit Sriwanichpoom of an exhibition by Chatchai Puipia which took place toward the end of 1999. As in the writings of Parinya, Manit’s essay shows high regard for Chatchai’s work. Like Parinya, too, Manit regards his artist friend as a master and a benchmark.

Discussing at length a painting by Chatchai that alludes to a famous portrait by Velasquez, Manit recalls his profound delight in the aesthetic qualities of the masterful original paintings he has seen in museums and galleries abroad. The critic relishes the beauty of those great paintings and rejoices that Chatchai is equally capable of creating such a masterpiece. Manit, like Parinya, seems to cherish the dream that his readers will also some day be able to enjoy standing in the presence of such original art objects. Precious and exotic artifacts such as these, however, in all likelihood will never have any connection to the life and culture of the masses of ordinary citizens.

This review by Manit of Chatchai’s show at Chulalongkorn University’s Wityanitat Gallery comes two years after Parinya’s 1997 article on the ‘Almost to Heaven’ show at Bangkok University. While Parinya warmly concluded that this artist was ‘going to be around for a long time,’ Manit, in his essay’s first breath, calls Chatchai the greatest of all Thai painters. ‘I count it as my good luck,’ he says, ‘to have a chance to know a master during my lifetime.’

Manit’s essay has three picture references to paintings from Chatchai’s new exhibition, ‘On the Journey to find the Lord Buddha, I met Gauguin Slowly Coming Back’. Two of them, he notes, record highly poetic states of the artist’s emotion in which viewers are ushered into a mysterious twilight land. In the work,ข้าฯยังรู้สึกว่ามีบางอย่างขาดหายไปอยู่ [I Still Feel There is Something Missing] several Chatchai heads are piled on one side, with a crowd of nonchalant legs and torsos spread out on the other. In การเริ่มต้น [Beginning] Chatchai envisions his own enormous head lying half immersed in a lotus pond, eyes staring intently at a ghostly little horse-drawn coach rushing inexplicably by.

The critic expresses impatience with those who jibe at Chatchai for, as they say, narcissistically using his own face as the subject of many paintings. Manit instead compares Chatchai’s explorations with the work of Freida Kahlo, accounting both artists as courageous for daring to study and reveal their own conflicted feelings.

Manit focuses on Chatchai’s Dedicated to the One I Love, inspired by Velasquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X. Chatchai has alluded to the 17th century portrait on his own stunning terms and in his own distinctive voice. Who could have believed, Manit explains to his readers, that any artist could use the Spanish court painter’s famous portrait as effectively as Francis Bacon did with his own horrifying melted and screaming pontiff, tortured by his corrupted kingdom or perhaps by his own lust. The Thai artist has depicted himself as ‘weird Pope Chatchai’ – a huge head seated on a golden chair – withdrawn and silent -- peering out from under a mantle of red velvet. Manit, like Parinya, is awed by the expressive richness of red color in Chatchai’s work. Of the painting’s stunning scarlet, Manit recalls:

It is the same red which Caravaggio, the Italian artist (1571 – 1610) and John Singer Sargent, the American artist, use in their pictures. It is red full of the power of flesh and blood, of lust and trembling.
( [Chatchai] attests with his member - a hard shadowy stalk under the cloth at his chin.)

The gloomy and grotesque pontiff has demonic blue hands which extend from his ears and are covered in seductive black lace. In ironic mimicry of the original portrait, His Eminence wears a large ring on his right hand which here takes the form of buttocks which he will proffer to the lips of the faithful. The left hand likewise pinches an envelope – is it a love letter, or a confession of sin? The critic muses:

"Why does this picture look so very sad and so very real? It held me spellbound, stunned, for a moment…It is the same feeling I had when I saw an original work (not a reproduction in a book) by Caravaggio, which made me think very sincerely about what a real painting actually is. It has power. And when I had a chance to stand before a great painting, it made my heart and the chemicals in my body turn over in a way I can’t describe. These images retain the living power and soul of the artist and communicate to the viewer across the centuries. When I think of going back to that time when I saw the original work, I feel so very happy. I wait for that time to come again, like a youth waiting for a lost love. Then, my heart withers, hopeless of a sudden, when I think of the reality that this is Thailand, where there are artists in name only. No one really understands what real art is."

Like Parinya but expressing himself with more passion, Manit is utterly besotted with the beauty and vitality of a great original painting. He describes the disturbing and delicious physical turmoil, the disruptive chemistry that goes on inside him as he gazes, helpless and awestruck, upon a master’s work. While very few indeed of his readers would have seen original artworks in the great museums of Europe or be moved by Manit’s references to the history of Western painting, virtually all can understand corrupted power.

Although the historical power hierarchies in Siam contrast in many ways with those of the Vatican or the royal houses of Europe, the misshapen, dwarf pope pictured in the little photo of Dedicated to the One I Love surely gets the message across to Thai readers. In closing, Manit cannot resist congratulating Chatchai on the choice implied by his exhibition’s title, ระหว่างพระพุทธ โกแกง และชาติชาย. [On the Journey to find the Lord Buddha, I met Gauguin Slowly Coming Back]. The critic is very glad indeed that Chatchai consciously avoids the vapid and pretentious religious themes so popular in some contemporary Thai high art circles.

Says Manit:
"I am very happy that Chatchai hesitated when he met Gauguin. Otherwise, his works might be like all those other Thai artists who make pictures without feeling and without emotion about the still..still..peaceful..peaceful..empty..empty..
empty.. Such artists understand Dhamma like primary school children who memorize everything the teacher tells them during their Buddhism classes."

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