Friday, June 4, 2010

Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘Pictures of Father - Aug 2009

Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘Pictures of Father,’ in Silpa Wattanatham column of Siam Rath Weekly News, 28 Aug. – 3 Sept. 2009.

Because of ongoing problems with managing the Bangkok Metropolitan Art Gallery, the exhibition of portraits of H.M. King Bhumibol Adulydej, entitled Pictures of Father:Grandeur of the Land, and scheduled for the official opening of the gallery had to be shifted from December last year (the month of the royal birthday anniversary) to August (Aug.10 – Nov.15, 2009).

In any case, with content, information and working method firmly based in study, investigation and research, the exhibition can be set up at any time. Where portraits of the Thai king are concerned, the work is like studying Thai art history. Speaking directly to the point, these works are portrait studies of the present king through the eyes of artists.

Receiving or presenting unauthorized images of the king by artists or citizens is something new that only began in the present reign. It has become a kind of fashion for some art exhibitions. The first king of Siam who allowed his portrait to be photographed and sculpted as they do in the West was the Fourth King, Phra Chom Klao Chao Yu Hua. But these portraits were used as gifts to leaders of Western nations or for mural paintings in palaces where the king’s picture appeared as evidence.

As for the reigns before that time, we have no royal portraits to refer to, for whatever reason, i.e. for fear of cutting ones life short; for fear of black magic, or out of respect for the Buddhist teaching that ‘flesh does not endure.’ Instead of royal portraits, they built pagodas and chedi in the name of the king as memorials. On this point there has not been much research. As for the monuments in the palace to the first three kings [of the Chakri dynasty], they were created after the fact, according to the accounts of persons who knew them. No one knows for sure if these sculptures actually resemble these kings or not.

In the reign of the Fifth King, the Thai monarch realized the power of royal portraits as tools which supported the strong foundations of the state. As the king led the country towards modernity, power was drawn to the center, to the absolute monarch. Foreign draftsmen and sculptors were brought in to create works of art that honored and celebrated the grandeur and honor of the king.

In those times past, ordinary people were not permitted to look upon the visage of the sovereign (power). They had to bow their faces down and every house had to close their doors and windows when a royal procession passed by. Today, of course, artists and people have more freedom. They can make pictures of the king (social discourse) to their heart’s content. In this respect, it seems that Thai society and politics have come quite far, even though people cannot always express ideas as they wish because they are blocked by the Thai constitution and laws on lèse majesté which protect the royal institution from criticism. But we are not blocked from seeing the ideas and hopes which are expressed in works of art about this highest institution.

Pictures of Father is an exhibition of more than 30 images selected by two women curators, Pichaya Supawanich and Manipa Chaiwan, showing the development of portraiture of His Majesty the King, according to the rhythm of conditions of political change in Thai society. One thing that changes along with the expressions of artists, or that influences the creation of such works is how the king is called. The expressions used to refer to the sovereign can be taken as a measure by which different eras of royal portraits can be divided.

The era of Phra Chao Yu Hua/ Realism. Those portraits of the king which are entitled with the respectful and discrete reference, Phra Chao Yu Hua, tend to be works which emphasize the realism of the royal visage and which celebrate His Majesty. Mostly these portraits look peacefully and directly ahead, gazing toward the viewer. These artists are not interested in emphasizing any particular emotion or story in their work. They emphasize principally the skill of the artist or sculptor, for example in the plaster bust by Sanan Silakorn (2462 – 2529), the bronze sculpture from 2516/ 1973 by Kaimook Xuto, the oil painting from 2549/ 2006 by Chakrapan Posyakrit, and the charcoal and chalk drawing from the same year by Sakwudt Wisetmani. But the half life-size, fired porcelain bust of King Bhumibol Adulyadej at age 25 by Jakapan Vilasineekul with a very white glaze is strikingly pure, clean and delicate.

The era of Nai Luang/ Hope. The pictures which name the king as ‘Nai Luang,’ mostly come from the decade of BE 2520 – 2530 / CE 1977 – 1987. That was a period in which His Majesty devoted a great deal of effort to development work in rural areas. Many royal projects were initiated throughout the country. The rural people especially were moved and impressed by the king’s heartfelt concern for them. They used the more familiar term, Nai Luang. In the North, the hill tribe people referred to the king as Poh Luang.

The royal portraits created in this period were entitled Nai Luang to suggest closeness, in preference to too official or formal a title. This suited the feeling of the people that the king was close to them, whether in the city or in the distant countryside. For example, in ‘Nai Luang kong Chao Bahn’ (ในลวงของชาวบ้าน) [the common people’s king], by Kiettisak Palitaporn, a painted wooden panel, the portrait presents the king and queen as they are seen in pictures typically found hanging in the wooden homes of common folk. ‘Nai Luang kong Noo’ (ในลวงของหนู) [the little child’s king], by Sompote Thongdaeng, is painted in a realistic style. The picture looks as if the artist has photographed the plastered wall of a building upon which a child has innocently drawn a picture of ‘the king.’ This may have been the first time that His Majesty was pictured in a childlike cartoon drawing made by a mature artist. This represents a change of identity from the serious and awesome to a soft, gentle, relaxed feeling. The painting ‘Long Live the King’(1987) by Praiwan Darklieng is a picture which creates an image of hope and closeness between the sovereign and the countryside in a scene where an old uncle walks along a country road toward the place where the king will arrive officially. The old man is followed by his niece. In the background are golden fields of rice.

The era of ‘Father’/ Idealism. During the 60 years of the reign of the present king, the relationship between His Majesty and his subjects has developed and unfolded. The gap between king and people has narrowed till it has become almost a family relationship between father and children, as they said in the era of King Ramkamhaeng, ‘as the father rules his children.’ That is an interesting phenomenon. In terms of politics, the king has a position and a distance which is preserved by the constitution. In terms of society, however, there is something new which has led some senior people to comment that it has never, ever been the case that we counted the king as a relative. That is, the king is held up so very high: no one should in any way attempt to bring him down.

It is very interesting that Thai people are not seeing the king as a symbol of government, as they do in the West and in Thailand’s neighboring states. The expectations of the people regarding this institution bring into relief the management failures of the nation’s bureaucracy and politicians. The people’s hope therefore turns to the institution of the king to address and dispel their sufferings. The people who speak of themselves as his ‘children’ now await help from the king, whom they regard like a father. This is a special character that is difficult to find in any other society.
Father (2550 / 2007), by Warawudt Chusaengthong, is a large portrait in oil color which expresses admiration for the king by the point of view of the picture. The viewer looks upward, into the face of the sovereign, admiring but without any excessive exuberance of praise. The strap of a camera is visible, though the clothing is not depicted in detail, and we realize that this image is taken from a photograph of the king at work. Father of the Land (2551 /2008), by Chamnan Sararaks is another picture in which the artist gazes up at the king as a hardworking father. In this one, His Majesty holds a map in hand. The background is a mountain forest and a river. Similarly, in Suwannaphum (2549 / 2006), by Metawi Jirapongse, a painting in four sections, the king is dressed informally, and holds a camera and a map. It is a portrait of a working king, an image which the people know well. Another large work by Wachara Prayoonkam is entitled ‘Pradoot Fah Nome Su Din’ [as if heaven had come down to earth] (2549/2006), which emphasizes the image of the working king.

In addition, the artist lets us see that His Majesty continues to do his royal duties, which may be interpreted as a reflection of the sovereign’s real virtue. But this is what is expected of him. In The Great King, Panya Wijintanasarn, paints the royal portrait in an adaptation of a traditional Thai style. His Majesty is seen sitting afar off, high above, in a seat of respect, revered by the people. Finally, 29,200 Days with the Image of Sustainability, (2549 / 2006) by Preecha Thaothong is a large depiction of the face of the king which shows the peace and stillness of one who has passed beyond the desires and attachments of this world.

It would not be far wrong to say, then, that the collection of Pictures of Father mirrors the state and the attitudes as well as the relationship of many Thai people toward the institution of the Thai monarchy today.

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