| exhibitions

Emerald Cities main exhibition | Introduction | The Doris Duke Collection


Asian Art Museum, San Francisco October 23, 2009 - January 10, 2010

Emerald Cities: Arts of Thailand and Burma, 1775 – 1950

Southeast Asian art is too seldom seen, much less appreciated. In 2005, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco presented us The Kingdom of Siam: The Art of Central Thailand, 1350 – 1800, to help rectify the lacuna. They now take us a giant step forward with Emerald Cities: Arts of Thailand and Burma, 1775 – 1950. This is the first significant survey in the West of these countries’ visual artifacts during the transitional period of the 19th century. Siam and Burma were long renowned for golden-roofed temples, lush gardens, and handsomely adorned palaces. During this period, they were also encountering and adapting to various Western influences, as reflected in this exhibit by changes in lifestyle (furniture) as well as visual aesthetics.

All works here are from the Museum’s own collection, two-thirds a premiere of acquisitions donated from Doris Duke’s personal collection. Even if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is the exclusive venue of the exhibition (October 23, 2009 January 10, 2010), the catalogue is indispensable for not only students of Asian art but also anyone seeking deeper awareness of world cultures.


As with the 2005 show, the co-curators are Forrest McGill, head of the Museum’s south and southeast Asian art, and curator emeritus M.L. Pattaratorn Chiraprivati, now teaching at CSU, Sacramento. For the catalogue, curator McGill limns the culture of 19th-century Burma and Siam, while “Pat” gives us a working sense of the interweaving of culture and religion in Siamese daily life of the period. (As a descendant of Siamese nobility, her insights are cogent and sharp). Peter Skilling rounds out the context by comparing and contrasting the Buddhism of the two neighboring nations. Over half the book then catalogues the exhibit’s rich and varied feast for the eyes, divided into three parts: Burma, Central Thailand, and the less often treated Northern Thai and Shan region. Works from each region are divided by function: religious art (e.g., Buddhist manuscripts, sculpture, shrines, and ritual objects); mythology (e.g., masks, costumes. and puppets from dramatizations of the Ramayana); and luxury goods (e.g., gold and silver vessels, furniture, and textiles).

From the highlands of northern Thailand, for example, comes a plush, miniature shrine (catalogue 34). Its lacquered and gilded wood, glistening with tiny mirrors, is a masterpiece of Thai design, capped by tapering roofs with spiky finials; sumptuous as Thai food, if for different ends. *

Exhibitions at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museums often come with fascinating back-story. Emerald Cities, is no exception. We invited Forrest McGill, to introduce a behind-the-scenes look, in his own words. He kindly responded, with self-effacing candor, thusly.

“In 1998, our then board chair Jack Bogart became aware of a collection of Southeast Asian art that had been put together by Doris Duke, who had died some years before. The collection was housed in several buildings at Duke's New Jersey estate. Since I was in charge of the Asian Art Museum's Southeast Asian collections, and was a specialist in Southeast Asian art, Jack asked me about the Duke collection.

“I made the horrible know-it-all curator's mistake of saying "I've never heard of it so it must not be very good." Jack said I should fly to New Jersey and have a look anyway.

“When I was taken into Doris Duke's coach barn — which looked to me not like a barn but like a New England train station -- I was completely blown away by the enormous number of glamorous art works and artifacts. As I looked I realized that while some of them were not particularly fine or rare, some--in fact many--were of very high quality, and some were masterpieces of their type. Then I was taken to two more large spaces filled with stored artworks, an indoor shooting gallery and an indoor tennis court. More treasures!

“That's the last time I'll ever think of using the ‘never heard of it, must not be good’ line.”

Further back-story would introduce Doris Duke. Labeled “the richest girl in the world” by the media, she’d inherited her father’s tobacco and hydropower wealth. Still, she remained a deliberately private person throughout her lifetime (one reason her collection wasn’t common knowledge), and not given to quite the same interests as her social peers. Her love of Thailand began in her twenties, sparked during her year-long round-the-world honeymoon in 1935. Returning two years later, she set out on restoring and furnishing a Thai village, on her own property in Hawai’i, complete with a replica of a pavilion from a temple compound of the Royal Palace in Bangkok.** This Honolulu residence, Shangri La, still houses her vast, unique collection of Islamic art today, yet it didn’t prove a suitable locale for her large and far-ranging Southeast Asian collection, comprising both fine and vernacular works.

Upon her death in 1993, responsibility fell to the trustees of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Ms. Duke wanted her collection to be shared with the public, that they may learn of the lives and cultures of its creators. To that end, in 2002, the Asian Art Museum and the Walters Art Museum were chosen to be preferred recipients of the Southeast Asian art collection. Prof. McGill likened the selection process to “picking members of your kickball team in school.” Following a coin toss between the Asian Art Museum and the Walters Art Museum, the Asian Art Museum went first. The Asian chose to focus on works all within a specific timeframe. The British Museum also received paintings, ceramics and sculpture; the Victoria & Albert Museum received sculpture, paintings, and decorative arts objects; and the British Library received manuscripts and manuscript-related items.

Further back-story to Emerald Cities is the invisible labor of conservators (“CSI: Special Museums Unit,” as arts critic Karen Rosenberg recently suggests). Specialists in restoring paintings, textiles, and other objects invested app. 7,500 hours, during a five-year span of concentration. Though the works here are only about a century old, a generally tropical climate can be unforgiving. Plus, many works were intended for short-term use. And some bore untold tales of hand-to-hand conveyance under difficult circumstances.

Paintings on cloth were often unstable, needing backing, adhesion of flaking paint, and removal of active mold. Other treatments by the conservators included: removing tidelines from furniture following Hurricane Floyd; refitting faux gems missing from court robes, offering vessels, and elaborately carved shrines; hand-carving and replacing small curlicues and flourishes for ornate furniture; and polishing thousands of small, glass ornaments and mirrors, used to embellish Burmese and Siamese art objects.

The net result is intensively evident. A subtly vibrant aura of colors is almost palpable upon entering the gallery of central Thai paintings, and has been reported to make some people’s eyes tear up at the revitalized splendor displayed there. And for good cause: Thai-Burmese religious thought of the day emphasized the luxurious, gorgeous, fantastic, flowery and bejeweled, heavenly realms of the gods. Thus, tales of collecting, curating, and conservation are of relative interest, while ultimately the works themselves speak to us from a timeless dimension, without need of pretext, subtext, or subordinate text of any kind.

Mythical bird-man

Mythical bird-man

Yet the breathtaking pair of sculpted bird-people on view are of but a few known to have survived, made for one-time royal use. As previously noted, a Thai ceremony might call for new images to be commissioned (generating merit). Other artifacts might be designed for a one-time recitation. Another stand-out example is the complete set of thirteen paintings from the next-to-last Jataka story cycle (recollections by the Buddha of previous lives) (catalogue 71-83.) Thus some of the elaborate works displayed here are among the last of their kind, superceding previous ones, discarded, forgotten. This nongrasping ethic is in keeping with the Buddhist affirmation of the impermanence of all things (annica) and the provisional nature of art’s expediency (upaya). Truly unforgettable, however, Emerald Cities, will be long in being outclassed, if ever.


* For a splendid excursus on Thai style: McGill, Forrest. Spires, goose tails, and …

** For further study, see Tingley, Nancy. Doris Duke : The Southeast Asian Art Collection (The Foundation for Southeast Asian Art and Culture / University of Hawai’I Press. 2003)

Gary Gach is author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism, editor of What Book!? ~ Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop, co-translator from Korean of three books of poetry by Ko Un, and host of Haiku Corner, for Tricycle. Homepage: interbeing

all text & images © Asian Art Museum, San Francisco


Emerald Cities main exhibition | Introduction | The Doris Duke Collection | exhibitions