Thawan Duchanee: Thailand’s ‘scary’ national artist
| Peter Janssen |
CHIANG RAI, Thailand (dpa) – His flowing white beard might remind one of Santa Claus, but Thawan Duchanee, 73, certainly doesn’t talk like a saint. “I don’t give a s*** about others,” Thawan said.
Thawan, honoured as one of Thailand’s National Artists a decade ago, hasn’t always been appreciated in his native land.
In 1971, a gang of young Buddhist students attacked his one-man show in a Bangkok gallery, slashing 10 of his paintings – one of which depicted a nude woman next to a monk hiding behind a fan with a giant eyeball on it (fans are used by monks to shield their eyes from profanity.)
Thai national artist Thawan Duchanee at his Black House museum in Chiang Rai, Thailand. PHOTOS: DPA
The attack made Thawan an instant celebrity in Thailand’s avant garde art scene of the 1960s and 1970s, when local artists moved away from western influences and sought inspiration in Thai cultural themes such as Buddhism, rural life and nature.
“In Thailand, most people suffer from artistic blindness. They don’t understand anything, so I don’t try to make them understand anything,” Thawan said, sitting on a throne of dead-animal skins at his Black House museum in Chiang Rai, 600 kilometres north of Bangkok.
The so-called museum is a collection of 40 dark structures designed by Thawan and built up over the past four decades. Thawan is well-known for waxing poetic.
“It’s just a leaf boat moving in time, rippling in the water of time and space,” he said of his Black House complex. Less seriously, Thawan described his collection of buildings as a place to keep his “junk”. Entrance is free.
“I never ask anyone to come. I never ask anyone to pay anything,” he said of the complex. “I never put myself on radio or television. I never talk to foreigners,” he told dpa’s non-Thai reporter. Making outrageous statements is part of Thawan’s persona. “He is controversial because of his work but also because of his character,” said Sutee Kunavichayanont, head of the art theory department at Silpakorn University, Thailand’s best known fine arts university, where Thawan studied in his youth.
Oil paintings, mostly oil and gold leaf on canvas, in the Thawan Duchanee collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Bangkok, Thailand
“He is outspoken, humorous and poetic. He used to wear animal bones and tiger-teeth necklaces,” Sutee said. “He became a stereotype for Thai artists. So in Thai TV soap operas, the artists always dressed and spoke like Thawan.”
Although Thawan has nowadays shed the tiger teeth necklace, his Black House museum is filled with animal bones, stuffed deer and buffalo heads. The furniture and floors are draped with skins of leopards, bears, lizards and snakes.
“I like the touch of it,” Thawan said of the dead-animal collection. “The smell of it inspires me to draw, to paint animals.”
Thawan, who was born in Chiang Rai, was introduced to animal anatomy by his father, who often took him hunting in his youth, according to Apinan Poshyananda, author of Modern Art in Thailand. Thawan spent four years studying in Amsterdam at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, a Dutch residency programme for visual artists. On his return to Thailand in 1968, he began experimenting with Buddhist themes, leading to his notorious run-in with the knife-wielding protectors of the faith.
“His paintings became the most controversial work ever seen in Thailand, and not surprisingly, some people saw this artist as a radical figure,” Apinan wrote of Thawan. Thawan’s radical reputation did not stop him from becoming a commercial success.
He is known to be one of the best paid artists in Thailand, reportedly fetching one million dollars for one mural he did for the Bangkok Bank (although there was a long dispute about the baht exchange rate.)
Boonchai Bencharongkul, a Thai telecommunications millionaire and founder of the Museum of Contempory Art (MOCA) which opened last year in Bangkok, has devoted an entire floor of the museum to more than 100 paintings by Thawan, part of Boonchai’s private collection.
“Thawan is very sensitive but very intelligent,” Boonchai said. “A lot of Thai people still don’t like his paintings. They find them scary.”