Thawan Duchanee, the bearded sage of Baan Dam, long ago prepared for death, but he knew his art will live on
The death yesterday morning of Thawan Duchanee, one of Thailand's most esteemed artists - and one of its best known overseas - set off ever-widening ripples of grief through the art world, along with fond recollections of a man as extraordinary in his creativity as he was in his appearance and speech.
Thawan, who called Chiang Rai home, was instantly recognisable for his bushy white beard and northern-style clothes - invariably black and adorned with animal bones and claws. His voice was loud and commanding, often given to satirical, absurdist humour.
He died of kidney failure following three months of treatment. He would have turned 75 on September 27.
Named a National Artist in 2001, the same year he won the Fukuoka Asian Culture prize, Thawan was renowned for the painstaking weeks-long efforts that went into his drawings and paintings, all elaborate lines and delicate patterns. In contrast, he could, with a flourish of brushwork, capture in seconds the swift motions of horses and eagles, tigers and lions.
"Although I paint neither the starvation nor the poverty of man, my painting is powerful," Thawan told The Nation in 2004 when his exhibition "Trinity" was at the Queen's Gallery in Bangkok.
"Many collectors say, when they see my bold brushstrokes, that they feel the power and the spiritual satisfaction. I believe a good artist should direct people to look at the sparkling light of the Milky Way rather than their waiting graves."
The astounding "Trinity" show drew the sort of spectators who rarely frequent art galleries. It was his first retrospective in Thailand - and turned out to be his last. Thawan earned his doctorate at Amsterdam's Rijks Academic Van Beeletende Kunster in 1968 and took a long time sharing his work with compatriots.
And yet "Trinity" was not a retrospective, he insisted. "If it were, the organisers would have had to travel around the world to borrow my work from all the museums, and the insurance alone would cost more than Bt1 billion."
As it was, the exhibition required five 10-wheel trucks to deliver 300 pieces from his sprawling home in Chiang Rai. Ten technicians toiled for four days to mount them on all three floors, and this was just work from the previous couple of years.
There were his sketches on white paper and red canvas - 20-second assaults in oil or black ink that uncannily caught the lunge of a jungle beast.
"It shouldn't take any longer or any less time," Thawan said. "I once painted an eagle in flight in six seconds, but it wasn't completely perfect. I got the power of its wings, but not the beak and claws."
These weren't whimsical impressions, either. "I went to a desert in Arizona to observe a snake that's capable of hopping short distances," he said. "I spent three months in the Philippines observing the behaviour of the eagle that eats monkey brains. Its movement is so fast that the monkey isn't even aware of its existence."
The animals of the real world took on supernatural form in his art. "If you're going to use the animal's anatomy symbolically, you need a room of anatomy in your mind," Thawan said. "For example, you should first be good at the form of a snake before trying to paint the naga. Otherwise your naga might look like pipe snake, or your lion might look like a dog."
As to the symbolism, however, Thawan bristled if anyone asked about meaning. "We never ask a star for whom it flickers, or ask a bird for whom it sings. I want people to feel something, not try to interpret its meaning. Feeling is what distinguishes humans from other animals."
Collectors both local and foreign have always been ready to pay generous prices for Thawan's art, among them prominent businessmen like Boonchai Bencharongkul and the Sophonpanich family. Boonchai has more than 100 of his paintings on view at his Museum of Contemporary Art on Vibhavadi-Rangsit Road.
"Thawan inspired me to become a patron of the arts 20 years ago, when he said I could be 'a drop of water for parched soil'," Boonchai recalled in 2012. "He's a great representative of the artists from the East."
Thawan's personal empire in Chiang Rai is called Baan Dam - the Black House - an acute though coincidental contrast to nearby Wat Rong Khun, the ornate white temple his artist-friend Chalermchai Kosipitpat is building.
Baan Dam has more than 30 structures scattered across hundreds of rai, varying in size and style. Some are associated with "the diabolical", perhaps thanks to their inky tones, but they do house his collection of animal skins, bones, horns and claws and the chairs and beds he fashioned from the bits of creatures. Some of the structures reflect the Lanna style while others resemble temple stupas.
About 10 years ago I cheekily asked Thawan how much he was worth. It wasn't the sort of question he was ever going to answer directly.
"I've never counted, but I don't know what poverty is!" he said. "Ever since I was 33 I've had enough money to live for 100 years. So I can devote the rest of my life to painting without worrying about expenses. But I'm like a candle that's lit at both ends. I might produce more light, but I burn out quicker.
"I've already prepared for death," he continued. "When I was 37 I built my own coffin, delicately crafted in wood, and I'm now planning my funeral. I've erected the buildings and a chapel to house my work and my collections. I might die - but my art has to remain."
TRIBUTES TO THE MASTER
Religious rites continue at Wat Thepsirinthawas through next Wednesday. The royally sponsored cremation takes place there next Thursday at 5pm.
The Museum of Contemporary Art has four rooms of Thawan's work. It's on Vibhavadi-Rangsit Road, next to the Benchachinda Building, and open daily except Monday from 10 to 6. Call (02) 953 1005-7 or visit www.MoCABangkok.com.
Duchanee's work is featured in the "Thai Charisma" exhibition at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre until November 16, open 9.30am to 9pm daily except Monday. Call (02) 214 6630-8 or visit www.BACC.or.th.
Baan Dam is in Chiang Rai's Nang Lae district and open daily from 9 to 5. Call (053) 776 333 or visit www.ThawanDuchanee.com.