Thai Lanna Farmhouse

Thai Lanna Farmhouse
signed 'Thawan' (lower right)
oil on board
81.5 x 124.5 cm. (32 1/8 x 49in.)
Acquired directly from the artist by the previous owner
Private Collection, Asia
Anon. Sale, Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 4 April 2015, Lot 1027
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner
Private Collection, Asia
Bangkok, Tourist Organisation of Thailand, 1962.

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Lot Essay

Known for his striking and powerful displays of modern Buddhist themes through surrealist, modernist and expressionist movements, Thawan Duchanee is one of Thailand’s most celebrated contemporary artists and one of the foremost representatives of Thai and Asian art. A radical artist of his time, Thawan revolutionised traditional styles of painting associated with Buddhist and Hindu cosmological conceptions, and is often associated with controversial expressions of Buddhism in his art.

The present lot is an early piece from the artist’s oeuvre, painted in 1962 during his studies at Silpakorn University’s Faculty of Fine Arts under the famous Italian artist Corrado Feroci (Silpa Bhirasri)—a figure who changed the country’s artistic landscape and is widely acknowledged and known as the ‘Father of Modern Thai Art’. Bhirasi encouraged his pupils to utilise Western styles and local subjects, a quality that Duchanee exhibited in his paintings from the 1960s such as The Harvesters (Fig. 1) and Thai Lanna Farmhouse (Lot 12), which are rendered in vibrant hues capturing pastoral scenes of nature and rural life.

In the present painting, Duchanee details a provincial farmhouse basking under the light of a midday sun, surrounded by clear skies and softly swaying tree branches and rattan carefully executed in an impressionistic style of short and sweeping brushstrokes in earthy tones of yellow ochre and umber. There are no human figures, yet there is evidence of life in the neatly gathered bales of hay in the left foreground; farming tools placed on the ground; a basket lying idly at the bottom right, chopped wood for fire and cooking, and a striking red blanket draped over a window, a focal point of colour for the viewer. The life of the farmer and his family takes centre stage as Duchanee paints each detail of the farmhouse and its environs with great rigour, picking out gentle shadows caressing the roof and the land below as the sun shines favourably upon the scene, down to highlighting the traditional woven patterns adorning the walls.

In beholding this landscape, the viewer is transported to a peaceful rural world, a scene harking back to the painter’s origins in Thailand’s northern Chiang Rai province, his personal rapport with the northern ‘Lanna’ tradition and its hill-tribe people in the late 1950s, as well as the influence of Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin’s boldy coloured figurative paintings fusing European culture with a primitive ideal (Fig. 2 & 3). ‘When I was eighteen, I was very much impressed by Gauguin’s painting that he drew in Tahiti. I spent almost five years painting nothing but those mountain tribe people. They sacrifice all the things for their lives to live with the pride and dignity of the mountain tribe. I am capable of speaking six languages, so I made friends with them’, he said.

Indeed, the synthesis of western style and technique, blending modern movement with a traditional Thai spirit, is what makes Thai Lanna Farmhouse so unique in the history of contemporary art in the country. The late 1950s and 1960s marked a period of intense artistic development where the notion of art as an expression of originality and nationality took precedence in the work of Thai artists. They began appropriating principles and doctrines of old masters to suit their own style and endeavours, and more importantly, looked back to tradition for a revitalisation of contemporary culture. Paintings like The Harvesters by Duchanee and Three Thai Women Weaving Fronds into Baskets by Damrong Wong-Uparaj, illustrated the romanticisation of tradition—the former bearing a composition reminiscent of a rolling Matisse-like movement, and the latter executed in modernist style. Art sought inspiration in the tranquillity of the countryside, which offered opportunities of escapism away from the chaos of city life. Depictions of daily activities in villages—serene images of men and women at work, children playing and traditional houses on stilts as in Thai Lanna Farmhouse, were favoured themes and displayed evidence of a search for Utopia, Arcadia and nostalgic yearning.

This sense of pastoral influence is clearly seen in the present lot, which was originally part of a series of oil paintings by Duchanee, depicting a northern village. The painting was exhibited at the Tourist Organisation of Thailand (TOT)’s first painting contest in October 1962 and clinched a yellow ribbon—or first prize equivalent—for its artistic achievement (Fig. 5), a feat extending great significance and status to the work as proof of Duchanee’s artistic skill and expression. The success of his career as a painter only grew thenceforth, with a much-publicised one-man exhibition in September 1963 at the Bangkapi Gallery in Bangkok, followed by a two-person show at the then newly-opened Fine Arts Gallery in 1964. Duchanee also held a one-man show at the Goethe Institute (previously known as the German Culture Institute) in Bangkok in 1971, and also participated in a group exhibition of modern Thai artists at the British Council.

Though his later works focused more on Buddhist-centric beasts and demons rendered in an almost primitive quality—the painter’s own reflection on religious fulfilment and exploration of the darkness of humanity, Duchanee’s earlier works carry a sense of narration and reflection upon nationalist sentiments. His paintings can be regarded as a transition between European genre scenes, the painter’s own modernist aesthetic, and his meditation on the traditional Thai way of life.

Thai Lanna Farmhouse is certainly a different, but no less superlative example of the early origins of Duchanee’s breadth of work. There is an irrefutable element of strength and energy in his painting, marked in his composition by a sense of movement present through the fusion of linear and painterly expression, and complemented with a lifting of one’s spirits. A gentle breeze, shifting sky and a landscape of pastoral beauty is distilled in the nostalgic representation of provincial utopia, reflecting a creative beginning in the artist’s philosophical growth towards deciphering the meaning of human existence. As Duchanee reflects, “Art is not a superficial feeling of happiness, sadness or mood counter, but rather the evidence of the conclusion of human intellect. Art is hard to penetrate into and men usually shun thought, but with art we feed our soul and intellect”.

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