Having emerged onto the Thai artworld in the later half of the1950s, Damrong Wong-Uparaj embodies the archetypal image of the Thai modern painter conscious of tradition, one who upholds the values of traditional Thai everyday life while competently working with western imported methods of painting. The single question - what is constitutive of the essential character of modern Thai art? - preoccupied many artists working in the decade of the mid-1950s to the 1960s. Damrong's answer to this question lies in the idealised depiction of the Thai rural deployed through a modern palette.
Seizing upon pictorial content that is distinctly Thai, and incorporating imageries evocative of a certain Thai-ness, Damrong sought to incorporate elements of the idealised folk and the tranquil and pristine rural in his work. Traditional houses on stilts is a fine example of the painter's desire. According to the art historian Apinan Poshyanda, his works 'brought back provincial values and local pride ... his art did not simply extol the rural and denigrate the city, or promote provincial art and reject international art (Posyanda, pg 92.)
Damrong was not a mere observer interested in the precise and accurate depiction of rural life. Instead, his pictures build and reinforce the ideal of the idyllic rural. His compositions combine observation and the creative freedom that imagination allows. Huts, foliage, and other signs of rural life are consciously planted in compositions that do not attempt to reflect a certain observed reality completely. In many of his canvases, Damrong consciously eliminated elements of modernisation that was creeping into Thai rural life back in the 1950s.
While a student in the Arts and Crafts School from 1954 to 1956 and later at Silpakorn University where he began studying from 1957, Damrong had been influenced by his study of the mature impressionist works of Sawasdi Tantisuk and Prayura Uruchadha and painted everyday scene with an impressionistic brush. Even from that period, he had already expressed an interest in the combination of observation and imagination to render visible a landscape. Encounter the paintings of Tawee Nandakwang at Silpakorn University, he grew an interest as well as competency in landscape painting, but in a distinctly personal style away from the impressionistic style he had been exposed to.
The works of Damrong in the last couple of years in the 1950s are characterised by an elegant tranquillity and a romantic idealisation of village life. Traditional houses on stilts demonstrate the key qualities of works dated to this period, including the conspicuous absence of painted human figures which accentuates the sense of stillness and tranquillity. Damrong's brushwork is refined and detailed; the creation of imageries composed of the application of decisively small and short stokes.
A comparison of Traditional houses on stilts to Fisherman Village (Fig. 1) which won a gold medal at the 1960 National Exhibition of Art yields us a useful observation of key aspects of Damrong's work. Silpa Bhirasri provides the following commentary, "Huts, boats, trees, earth or water are elements related perfectly to each other and all of them related to space. In beholding these landscapes we feel our spirit restored and have the illusion to live in the very heart of Thailand and among Thai people".