Thailand loses a leading light in the arts

Thailand loses a leading light in the arts
Thawan Duchanee (left)

Thawan Duchanee, the larger-than-life National Artist, passed away early yesterday. He was 74.

His son Doytibet announced the death on his Facebook page, saying his father had left behind a heritage of immortal work created with his heart and soul. Thawan succumbed to kidney failure after undergoing three months of cancer treatment. His funeral will be held at Wat Thepsirinthawas until next Wednesday with the royally sponsored cremation taking place at 5pm the following day.

Considered one of Asia's foremost artists, Thawan was named National Artist in visual arts in 2001 and was awarded the Fukuoka Asian Cultural Prize in the same year - earning him the title "master of modern Asian art". His penchant for traditional Asian motifs and styles, and his flamboyant personality, earned him popularity as one of the leading lights of the international art scene.

He was born in Chiang Rai province in September 1939 and began his art education at the Poh Chang Arts and Crafts College, before studying under the late Italian painter Corrado Feroci (Silpa Bhilasri) - known as the father of modern Thai art - at Silpakorn University. Thawan furthered his education in Europe, gaining a deeper understanding of Western artistic traditions at the Royal Academy of Visual Arts in Amsterdam from 1964 to 1968.

On his return, Thawan developed a unique style, using black and red tones based on the styles of traditional Buddhist art to explore the darkness lurking within humanity. His pieces initially shocked many, who saw them as being blasphemous to the Buddhist religion, and some of his early exhibitions were attacked. However, he won backing from many leading Thai intellectuals. The late Kukrit Pramoj, for one, claimed "his art is to be understood as giving life to myth".

The fantastic figures, as well as images of Buddha, could be taken to symbolise Buddhist philosophy and spiritual satisfaction. A two-headed horse, for example, represents the desirable and undesirable states. His surrealist paintings with strong brushstrokes were considered wild.

Thawan's inspiration came from many sources - ancient Eastern and Western myths, religious philosophies, Nobel-prize-winning books, animal behaviour, poetry and nature itself. Quick of eye himself, he was fascinated by wildlife and observed animal behaviour firsthand during his travels around the world. He also loved to collect animal artefacts and fashion beds, chairs and knives from them.

The artist quickly gained prominence in Thailand and internationally. He exhibited extensively both locally and overseas and painted murals at several Thai embassies, public and commercial spaces, including the Bank of Thailand, Shell Building, Bangkok Bank, Doi Tung Palace and Siam Commercial Bank among others. In 1998, Thawan designed a golden banner marking the sixth-cycle birthday of His Majesty the King. He also represented Thailand at top art events around the world, showcasing Asian art. Thawan's last exhibition was held late last year at Siam Paragon to mark his 74th birthday.

The great artist leaves behind his own "empire", known as the Black House, which covers hundreds of rai in his Chiang Rai hometown. The Black House, which also serves as a museum and had the late artist's studio, consists of more than 30 buildings of different styles and sizes. Many of these buildings house Thawan's works and his many collections, including gold and silverware as well as animal bones, claws and horns.

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