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New book probes beyond gilded facade of Thai art

New book probes beyond gilded facade of Thai artThai art historian and author Piriya Krairiksh . . . the connoisseur’s eye. Photo: Tamara Voninski

Michael Fitzgerald

Marilyn Darling is anxiously pacing her Melbourne apartment, peering out through heavy rain for a courier delivering her latest artwork – 30 years in the making.

“It was cleared from customs first thing this morning,” says the noted philanthropist and deputy chairman of the Gordon Darling Foundation, a private visual arts fund she has helped oversee with her husband since 1991, “so we’ve just been dwelling on it arriving.”

The artwork in question – the latest recipient of the foundation’s beneficence – is in fact a book. The Roots of Thai Art is an elegant and erudite account of the birth of Thai art, which belies the difficulty of its delivery. As Darling is first to admit: “It’s been a long saga.”

Originally published in Thai in 2009 following 30 years of research by its author, eminent historian Piriya Krairiksh, its translation into English was the brainchild of Darling Foundation trustees Philip Bacon, Alison Crook, James Mollison and Ron Radford to commemorate the foundation’s 20th anniversary in 2011.

The mighty task of transforming an otherwise obscure Thai text into a lavishly illustrated English-language art book was given to Narisa Chakrabongse, founder of River Books, a Bangkok publishing house on Chao Phraya River.

All was running smoothly to plan – Chakrabongse was well under way with the painstaking process of translation and a photographer had been booked to document hundreds of priceless and often fragile artefacts in far-flung collections – until the rains came. Following severe tropical storm Nock-ten last July, floods engulfed the Thai capital, bringing activity at the publishing house to a halt.

“We had to build a breeze-block wall and buy 6000 sandbags and sandbag-up the whole front of the property,” Chakrabongse says, “so it was very stressful for everyone.” Once the floodwaters receded, it was a battle to get the book back on track. “I’d say it was one of the more taxing projects that we’ve done,” she says.

While the book missed the deadline for the foundation’s 20th anniversary last year, it arrived just in time for this year’s 60th anniversary of Australian-Thai diplomatic relations.

Marked by the Australian visit of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in May, the anniversary has given both countries the chance to acknowledge their deepening relationship – including $16 billion in bilateral trade.

Yet cultural understanding between the two nations still has some way to go.

“It’s important to show that Thailand has a very different side to it because very often it’s associated with great food, beautiful women and beaches,” Chakrabongse says. “It has been portrayed in rather a clichéd way, and I think [The Roots of Thai Art] shows a greater depth to the whole country. That’s been one of my aims at River Books – to portray the multi-faceted nature of Thailand.”

The book peers behind the gilded facade of traditional Thai art – the so-called golden age of Sukhothai (or Dawn of Happiness), the ancient 13th-century kingdom that spawned much of the Thai iconography that we recognise today: the classic “walking” Buddha figures with their languid line, beatific oval faces and earlobes elongated by royal earrings. The book traces such imagery back to the 4th century, when the ancient Mon and Khmer peoples occupied what is now Thailand, intermingling their forms of Buddhist and Brahman faiths.

By revealing its foundations, Krairiksh hopes to change people’s perceptions about his country’s art in general. “Thai art as recently as 1930 was called ornamental, decorative – the crowned Buddhas all dressed up and that sort of thing,” Krairiksh says. “That I believe is not exactly fair, because it’s looking through the spectacles of Western art education. And so we have to lead people to appreciate the things that they’re not used to.”

There would seem to be no one better placed than Krairiksh to lead the charge. Trained in art history at Harvard University, he was the inaugural curator of Asian art at the National Gallery of Australia from 1976 to 1977.

“He is the reason why NGA have got the fantastic Thai collection that they’ve got,” Darling says. “He really has got the absolute connoisseur’s eye.”

After his stint in Canberra, Krairiksh returned to academic life in Bangkok, where he has proved adept at negotiating the cultural sensitivities of an art form inextricably linked to the monarchy, nationhood and faith. His most significant, and controversial, achievement has been redating sculpture from the Sukhothai period which, in some cases, he has brought forward some 300 years – controversial because it suggests the previous dating methodology by royal chroniclers was wrong.

Krairiksh is unapologetic about his role as iconoclast. “Well, I am a historian,” says the 70-year-old with a boyish laugh. “I also went to school at Harvard, where the motto is veritas, veritas and veritas. The truth and nothing but the truth.”

It’s a message that hasn’t fallen on deaf ears in his homeland. In its original Thai format, Krairiksh’s The Roots of Thai Art sold out within months of its 2009 release.

“I was surprised myself that there was a Thai market for it,” the author admits, “but now [Thai people] are better educated so they appreciate their past more than before – and treasure it.”

Heartened by the book’s reception, Krairiksh recently retired from academia to devote himself to writing. “I try not to teach,” he says, “because a book lasts longer.”

The Australian Financial Review