Main Exhibition | Review


Asian Art Museum, San Francisco Presents First Exhibition Ever Exploring Thailand's Lost Kingdom of Ayutthaya. February 18 - May 8, 2005


Southeast Asia

In 1686 King Louis XIV of France had the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles specially prepared to receive, with exceptional pomp and ceremony, a group of foreign envoys. The envoys brought with them two shiploads of gifts. In fact, they delivered so many objects of gold, silver, and lacquer that the French complained that their list would be as long as a book. The envoys had been sent from the kingdom of Ayutthaya, or “Siam” as it was known in the West. Though little remembered today, Ayutthaya was one of the largest and most important kingdoms in Southeast Asia. Founded in 1351, the kingdom flourished for more than four hundred years—longer than China’s Ming dynasty. It was a major trading center with diplomatic ties with China, Japan, Persia, the Ryukyu kingdom (Okinawa), and with Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Portugal. The envoys’ gifts reflected this trade—more than fifteen hundred pieces of porcelain (mostly Chinese), Persian and Indian carpets, and many other objects from Japan and China were given to the French king and his relatives.

Despite the kingdom’s power, prosperity, and influence, it was destroyed by an invasion from neighboring Burma in 1767. As a result, many Ayutthayan artifacts, especially those made of fragile materials, were lost, and the kingdom’s splendor faded from memory. Beginning February 18, 2005, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco will present The Kingdom of Siam: The Art of Central Thailand, 1350–1800—the world’s first major exhibition of art from Thailand’s lost kingdom of Ayutthaya, and the first exhibition of classical art from Thailand shown in the United States in more than thirty years. The exhibition showcases eighty-nine of the finest surviving works from Ayutthaya, drawn from collections in Thailand, Europe, and the United States; many of these are being displayed for the first time in the West. They include stone and bronze Buddha images, sculptures of Hindu deities, figural and decorative wood carvings, temple furnishings, illuminated manuscripts, jewelry, and textiles. Among the highlights are gold royal regalia and ceremonial objects; a full-sized temple pediment; and sections of royally commissioned temple doors with inlaid mother of pearl. The exhibition will be on view at the Asian Art Museum through May 8, 2005, before traveling to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., where it will be on view July 16 to October 16, 2005.

While most aspects of the art and culture of China, Japan, and India have been extensively studied, less research exists on the cultural contributions of Southeast Asia. The Kingdom of Siam, organized by the Asian Art Museum in conjunction with the National Museums of Thailand, sheds light on a one of the region’s greatest, but least known, cultures. The exhibition is curated by classical Thai art authority Dr. Forrest McGill, the Asian Art Museum’s Chief Curator and Wattis Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art; and co-curated by M. L. Pattaratorn Chirapravati, Assistant Professor of Asian Art, California State University, Sacramento. The Kingdom of Siam and its accompanying fully illustrated 200-page catalogue (featuring essays on the history, art, and culture of Ayutthaya by leading scholars) will make an important contribution to Southeast Asian cultural history.

More than neighboring kingdoms, including perpetual rival Burma, Ayutthaya was cosmopolitan and outward–looking. The 1600s and early 1700s were a period of great prosperity and cultural accomplishment, but in 1767 Burmese armies destroyed the capital. The human suffering was great, and the loss of artworks and records incalculable. Today, only a few artworks and buildings (in ruins or heavily restored) survive, pointing to the challenges that have faced scholars in trying to piece together the story of the Ayutthaya period (1351–1767, an era equivalent to the period from the Black Death almost to the French Revolution in Europe). The Kingdom of Siam will provide American audiences with the unique opportunity to see some of the finest surviving artworks of this enigmatic culture.

Among the most intriguing objects in the exhibition are the eight artworks culled from an important cache of Buddha images, votive tablets, ritual objects, and royal jewelry found in the crypt of Wat Ratchaburana, one of Ayutthaya’s temples. In 1957 thieves broke into the previously unknown crypt deep within its main tower. They found a rich hoard of Buddhist artworks, ceremonial objects, and royal regalia of gold studded with gems. Word of the finds soon reached officials in Bangkok, who set out to recover as much as possible of what had been stolen, and to investigate the crypt and its riches properly.

Eventually, more than six hundred Buddha images and a thousand Buddhist votive tablets were found. Scholars believe that the crypt at Wat Ratchaburana was sealed in 1424. Thus the crypt and its contents constitute a sort of time capsule of early Siamese art and culture. The significance of this is enormous. Few records survive from Ayutthaya’s first century, and those that do are often of limited usefulness. Artworks firmly dated by inscription or historical documents are rare. The discovery of hundreds of artifacts and artworks known to have been made in 1424 or earlier has revolutionized understanding of the development of Siamese art.

At the Asian Art Museum The Kingdom of Siam is on view in Hambrecht and Osher Galleries on the first floor. The works are presented in generally chronological order, and three major themes are explored: the development of a distinct national culture; cosmopolitanism and the importance of trade; and art as an instrument of royal power.

The people of Siam were of varied ethnicities (Thai, Mon, Cambodian, Chinese, Malay), and several languages were spoken in the kingdom. Its artistic heritage was equally mixed. The exhibition examines how this diversity influenced the development of a characteristic “Ayutthayan style” over the course of a century or more. The most impressive early works in a distinctly Ayutthayan style in the exhibition are two enormous stone faces of Buddha images dating from around or before 1374. It is striking that even in its early days the kingdom could mobilize the resources to create and enshrine stone Buddha images of such size (when intact approximately twenty-three feet high).

During preparations for the exhibition, an extraordinary find was uncovered that illuminates the early development of Ayutthayan culture. A large stone walking Buddha carved in high relief had long been fixed against a wall in a storeroom of one of Thailand’s national museums. Because of the rarity of Ayutthaya stone sculptures of this type, it was requested for the exhibition. When it was moved away from the wall an extensive inscription was discovered carved onto the back. Inscriptions from the Ayutthaya period are rare, and for one to come to light is cause for celebration. According to a forthcoming article, this inscription contains a date equivalent to 1375. If the walking Buddha can be linked to the 1375 date (as seems likely), it will stand as the only securely dated Buddha image of early Ayutthaya.

The exhibition includes a number of other dated or dateable works, which constitute the anchor points for constructing an Ayutthayan chronology. Among these are bronze heads of figures of the Buddha-to-be in previous lives, thought to have been cast in the 1450s; Buddha images that may have been deposited inside a colossal Buddha image in 1538; a large crowned Buddha inscribed with a date equivalent to 1541; and a miniature ivory stupa complex with a date equivalent to 1711. These dateable artworks, fascinating and beautiful in their own right, provide a historical framework within which the exhibition’s other striking objects—for example an elaborate cast iron temple finial, several miniature palatial buildings, a set of bronze serpent heads from a temple balustrade, a Thai sword with a dated Dutch blade, a gilded cabinet bearing a depiction of Louis XIV, and first editions of some of the French envoys’ accounts of their sojourns in Siam—may be better appreciated.

Throughout its history, Ayutthaya exported its goods and was a major trade center, and the activities of foreign merchants there have been studied in some detail. Foreign objects, however, and their impact in Siam, have sometimes been overlooked. The exhibition will explore how trade, and the presence of foreign luxury goods, affected the development of Siam’s arts.

In Ayutthaya, as elsewhere, kings sponsored monuments and artworks to reinforce specific political or social ideas. Only recently have scholars studied this phenomenon in detail, and The Kingdom of Siam reflects this recent scholarship. For example, a large wooden sculpture of a princely figure kneeling with his hand extended before him as if making an offering suggests the richness of meanings and associations of the works in the exhibition. Who is represented, and what was the purpose of the sculpture? Several of the type are known, and they were used by in Buddhist ceremonies in which robes and other necessities were given to monks. The offerings of an ordinary person could be presented in an ordinary way, but a king’s offerings were placed on the hands of such a figure. The figure’s garments are those of a royal person such as are worn by celestials depicted in countless paintings and other artworks. But the crown, when looked at carefully, is seen to have an unusual upper part characteristic only of the headdresses of hermits and ascetics. Thus, the figure almost certainly is meant to be Prince Vessantara, the Buddha in his next-tolast life before achieving Buddhahood. Vessantara was sent into exile and lived as a hermit after giving away his kingdom’s magical elephant. In fact, he gave away everything, including his children, as he perfected the virtue of charity, of which he was the exemplar. A king making donations to the monkhood was emulating Vessantara, in a sort of solemn and resonant role-play.

Such are the revelations provided by this unprecedented exhibition, which reveals the splendor of a majestic culture that until now has been almost completely lost in the mists of time.


all text & images © Asian Art Museum

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