Living in Bangkok over the past four years, we gained an interest in regional arts through museum visits and exhibitions. However, it was in late 2019 that Thai sculpture piqued my curiosity, and it seems to be yet a well-studied topic internationally. Influences from European art emerged in artistic works during the early twentieth century, and prominently those created by students of Silpa Bhirasri, the Italian artist who co-founded Silpakorn University.
While realistic portraits remained popular, a few sculptors also welcomed abstraction into their works, and not just to depict elite figures. Artists who fused styles also expanded representation to include the wider society, from children to dancers.
One sculptor worth knowing is Khien Yimsiri (1922-1971), whose iconic works express ordinary people with elegant contours. The critically acclaimed artist was born in Bangkok, and in 1941 graduated from what is now Silpakorn University (previously named Rongrian Praneetsilapaham, or School of Fine Arts). Among the sculptor’s most famous works, Musical Rhythm (1949) depicts a flutist with an easy flow in her motion. I got a chance to see an edition of the piece on display in a massive collection of Southeast Asian art at the National Gallery of Singapore in September 2019. It reflects the Sukhothai period, and Yimsiri has simplified human form to generate his unique style. It blends influence from his education in Europe, while exploring Thai cultural heritage.
Sompot Upa-in (1934-2014) is another notable figure in the Thai modernist age. The sculptor studied under the guidance of Silpa Bhirasei from 1957 to 1959, and Florentine influences can be observed in his practise of human anatomy. Seeing his work Mother at The National Gallery of Singapore, one can think that it elegantly portrays the critical relationship that is universal to human beings.
Chit Rienprachar (1908-1994) is also worth remarking, as he turned commoners into beautiful art pieces. His works are primarily in wood and bronze, bringing a spotlight on everyday activities that are central to Thai culture, which younger generations are becoming inspired by. Rammana and Peenai are two of his most famous works. Both portray musicians playing their instruments with delicate sensibilities, remarked by Bangkok Sculpture Center as important historical records.
Until very recently, women in Thai society were often discouraged to pursue artistic studies, particularly sculpture. Pinaree Sanpitak (born 1961) is a conceptual mixed-media artist who provokes audiences with the female body as a primary source of inspiration. During the 1990s, she gained recognition for works such as Womanly Bodies (1998), a series of 25 pieces made with saa fibre, rattan rings, and jute twine. They loom over the viewer, inviting us to imagine female bodies as religious structures. It is a reference to the self as a vessel, but one that is difficult to pin down to one single definition. Santipak continues to be inspired by ideas of womanhood, self, and sensory perceptions, becoming a force of ideas for younger artists today.
Last, but not least, Skowman Hastanan is a contemporary artist living in New York City whose work addresses feminist issues. Her creative influences stem from childhood on the Thai-Vietnam border, where her parents had stationed as medical physicians during the Vietnam War. Early works include the Homesick series from 1985-1992, which Hastanan (2015) describes as ‘a nostalgia reminder of tropical home in Thailand’. Various objects include Don’t Forget to Remember is a rattan chair modified with an abstract print and clay, while Waterfall May 1, 1991 is a block of melted candles, and ‘mosquito net’ fashioned from cheesecloth. Later works are concerned with hospitality and wholesomeness as a commodity in the West, and how Thailand is seen through outsider’s eyes.
Morgan (2010) writes that Hastanan and Santipak are two such women pushing these boundaries in a male-dominated scene. The fact that both are approaching ideas beyond female identity through three-dimensional form are a positive step to a more inclusive arts scene.
This article has explored how five artists imagined their personal and cultural identity during the twentieth century. From the influx of European styles during the 1940s to 1950s, and later influences from feminist movements,sculpture can send powerful messages about human experiences. What’s more, diverse voices are emerging as more women join the local scene. It is exciting to see more direct challenges towards the social constructs in place.
“360° Model Viewer ขลุ่ยทิพย์.” Virtual Museum, National Gallery, 2015, www.virtualmuseum.finearts.go.th/nationalgallery/360/model/zz04ok/.
“APT3 / Pinaree Sanpitak: Womanly Bodies.” YouTube, QAGOMA, 18 Oct. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=STFBLen-ybY.
“Artists - Pinaree Sanpitak.” Tyler Rollins Fine Art, 7 Apr. 2020, www.trfineart.com/artist/pinaree-sanpitak/.
Bangkok Sculpture Center, 2010, bangkoksculpturecenter.org/.
“Between Declarations and Dreams: Art of Southeast Asia since the 19th Century.” National Gallery Singapore, 2019, www.nationalgallery.sg/see-do/programme-detail/28893849/between-declarations-and-dreams-art-of-southeast-asia-since-the-19th-century.
“Chit Rienprachar.” 129 Art Museum, 2016, 129artmuseum.com/national-artists/chit-rienprachar/.
Chotpradit, Thanavi. “Published.” Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism, 2016, www.rem.routledge.com/articles/yimsiri-khien-1922-1971.
Hastanan, Skowmon. Skowmon Hastanan, Artist, 2015, skowmon.com/.
Hays, Jeffrey. “ART IN THAILAND: PAINTING, SCULPTURE, CRAFTS, HISTORY AND REGIONAL ART AND CRAFTS.” Facts and Details, 2008, factsanddetails.com/southeast-asia/Thailand/sub5_8e/entry-3254.html.
Lenzi, Iola. “Pinaree Sanpitak.” AWARE Women Artists / Femmes Artistes, Pinaree Sanpitak, awarewomenartists.com/en/artiste/pinaree-sanpitak/.
Morgan, Sue. “Skydancers: Thai Women Artists Who Dance Across Cultural Borders.” Skowmon Hastanan, 2010, www.skowmon.com/biblio/7_Morgan_Sue_Skydancers.pdf.