A sophisticated and original artistic civilization: an introduction to Thai art by Francesco Morena, head of Bertolami Fine Art's Asian and Tribal Art department.

Thailand is a wonderful country located within Indochina, the vast peninsula wedged between the immense Indian sub-continent and the equally vast Chinese territory.
Despite its geographical proximity to these two giants, Thailand has managed to develop a sophisticated and original culture throughout its millenary history, in which influences from the outside have blended with indigenous traditions to create a refined blend of elegance and spirituality.


The influence of Buddhism on the art of Thailand

Buddhism, introduced from India in the 3rd century B.C. in the doctrinaire version of Therevada, permeated the philosophical thought of Thailand. Over time, Buddhist art has produced some extraordinary masterpieces in the field of architecture (for example, the archaeological sites of Ayutthaya and Sukhotai) and devotional statuary, both large and smaller. In Thai Buddhist sculptures the linear purity of physiognomic traits is enhanced, in a reference of soft curves, with the succession of which an image of full inner awareness is built, a reflection of absorbed meditation, the ideal detachment from all that is worldly, the absolute transcendence.
The Thai sculptors have tackled with wisdom the working of every kind of material, from bronze to wood, from ceramics to stone. In most cases, these works have come to us without further pictorial decoration, often vanished only because of the action of time. Therefore, pieces such as the Buddha's head put up for sale in Bertolami Fine Art's auction 64, which almost entirely preserved the original gilding, appear of great interest.

The refined Thai céladon

Among the artistic forms in which Thai civilization excelled in the past, ceramics occupy a crucial place, especially when one considers that its most refined production was concentrated in a relatively short period, between the 14th and 16th centuries. At that time, several kilns were active in the north of the country, dedicated to the production of ceramics for everyday use, of harnesses for architectural structures and of a statuary for devotional and decorative use.
Among the most refined productions there was a pottery covered with a greenish glaze of the céladon type, a type commonly known as Sawankhalok, named after a site where several kilns were active at the time. However, archaeological documentation has amply demonstrated that pottery of this type was also produced in other areas of that region.
The céladon pottery of the Sawankhalok ceramics shows formal and stylistic features close to the most renowned Chinese production of the Longquan kilns, which certainly served as a model for Thai ceramists. However, the delicate iridescence of the green showcase, the greater subtlety of the glassy blanket, the stylization of the motifs applied with light engraving, are qualities that make the Thai céladon production one of the best in all of East Asia.

The elephant theme in Thai artistic iconography

Among the sculptures made of ceramic between the 15th and 16th centuries, particularly fascinating are those depicting the elephant. The mighty pachyderm has in fact been an essential working tool for the Thai people since the dawn of their civilization, used for example for transporting heavy loads or as a fundamental equipment of the army.
It is therefore no coincidence that the elephant is the symbol of Thailand. According to an ancient tradition, it was a duty for anyone who found a white elephant to give it to the king. They were not albinos, but simply light-skinned animals, a grey with pink shades. This variant became the emblem of the royal family itself over time.

Francesco Morena

Learn more

For more information on this subject, please refer to the catalogue of the exhibition "Antico Siam. The splendor of the Thai kingdoms" hosted by the Museum of Civilizations in Rome from 18 May to 30 September 2019.
Organized to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Treaty of Friendship and Trade between Italy and Thailand, the exhibition brought to the public's attention an interesting selection of Thai art: from the precious archaeological finds discovered from excavations conducted by Italian and Thai specialists in collaboration, to the many artifacts preserved in what was the Museum of Oriental Art "Giuseppe Tucci", to which were added some loans that also had the merit of highlighting the intensity of diplomatic, cultural and artistic relations between Italy and Thailand.

Ancient Siam. The splendor of the Thai kingdoms. Exhibition celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Treaty of Friendship and Trade between Italy and Thailand.
Publisher: Science and Letters
Necklace: The newest Ramusio
Date of Publication: May 2019
Pages: 184

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