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Kingdom of Siam exhibition, Salem, Mass.


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An Exquisite Path to an Elusive Past


The New York Times, August 18, 2005



SALEM, Mass. -Yul Brynner. Pad thai. That's what you know about the culture of Thailand? Never mind. Historians are in the dark about it too. This is one reason that "The Kingdom of Siam: The Art of Central Thailand, 1350-1800" at the Peabody Essex Museum here is the thrill it is. Completely gorgeous, with its comely Buddhas and paintings in light-struck gold, it is also a reconnaissance mission-in-progress to the past, with scholars clearing the path just a few steps ahead of you all the way.


Starting out, you should pack some basic information, like the fact that Thailand is sandwiched into Southeast Asia between Myanmar (formerly Burma) to the west and Cambodia to the east. At different times over the centuries each controlled it, and both did much to shape its predominantly Buddhist art.


In the mid-14th century, political balances shifted. Burma had long since run out of steam; Cambodia's fabled Angkor empire was on the slide. A powerful Thai kingdom was in ascendance. Foreigners called it Siam; the kingdom called itself Ayutthaya (pronounced ah-YOOT-tah-yah) and built a capital city of the same name.


The city must have been quite a place. With ambitious rulers and a sociable, multi-ethnic population in residence, and merchants from China, Japan, India, Persia and Europe pouring in, it became a major entrepôt for trade in Asian luxury goods.


When, in 1686, a royal embassy from Ayutthaya visited the court of Louis XIV in France, it brought an embarrassment of riches: shiploads of jewelry, silk, Chinese ceramics and crates of birds' nests for soup. The ordinarily unflappable staff at Versailles was nonplussed. No one knew where to put all the stuff, let alone what to make of it.


Still, Ayutthaya must have impressed them as a kingdom grand in every way, which it probably was. Gilded sculptures of the Buddha more than 60 feet tall were not uncommon in its temples. Those temples, like the Wat Mahathat and the Wat Ratchaburana, were awesome sights, their steep, tiered bases topped by towers shaped like NASA shuttles. Hidden inside were treasures fit for deities, donated by kings.


"Probably" is an important word here; most of the hard evidence is gone. In 1569, armies from a resurgent Burma leveled Ayutthaya. It was quickly rebuilt; indeed, the city reached its zenith of global celebrity in the 17th century. Then, in 1767, the Burmese slammed it again, leaving just a few structures intact. The site was then abandoned and a new capital was established near modern Bangkok.


It would be too much to say that Ayutthaya has been resurrected in the exhibition, organized by Forrest McGill, chief curator of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, and M. L. Pattaratorn Chirapravati, assistant professor of Asian art at California State University, Sacramento. But certainly the foundations for an imaginative reconstruction are now well in place.


The show opens with a single image, an immense metal head of a Buddha, which instantly pulls us back to a world that was. Its placement high on a modern pedestal gives a sense of the original figure's staggering size. And a jagged gash at the top of the head speaks of the violence that brought it down.


The gallery behind it has traces of another monument, in a group of objects associated with the main temple tower of the Wat Ratchaburana. In 1957, looters broke into the tower and made off with hundreds of valuables. But archaeologists assessing the loss discovered something new: a sealed room, the temple's relic chamber, sunk deep in its base.


The vaultlike space was crammed with treasures: royal crowns, votive sculptures, a gold-covered miniature of the tower itself, all donated as pious gifts. Those gifts are now yielding information. The chamber would have been sealed the year the temple was finished; A.D. 1424 is the generally accepted date. And because everything in it would have been made before then, the contents stand as a body of comparative material by which other Thai art could be evaluated.


As vague as this method may be for establishing chronology, it is what we have. Almost nothing from Ayutthaya was dated by its makers. And because most of what survives is dynastic in nature, meant to perpetuate a royal style as well as convey an illusion of continuity and stability, artists were encouraged to create replicas of antique forms - replicas so exact as so to be indistinguishable from originals.


As scholars ruefully acknowledge in the show's catalog, those artists did their jobs extremely well, creating a time-baffling art suspended between past, present and future. And this fact, once fully grasped, lends the show a frisson of mystery that further burnishes the beauty of its 80 objects, many on loan from Thai museums for the first time.


A congregation of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, some with egg-shaped Sri Lankan heads or squared-off Khmer chins, fills the first two rooms. And certain types of figures, like one of the Buddha walking, are distinctively Thai. You see him bopping along, en pointe, in a carved stone relief panel, a piece that provided one of those revelations scholars live for. When the hefty panel was pulled away from a wall in a Thai museum storeroom in preparation for shipping, a date was found incised on its back: the equivalent, in Buddhist years, of A.D. 1375.


For me, the show's high point is its small selection of illuminated manuscripts and paintings. That such objects escaped the ravages of war and the country's damp, bug-friendly climate, is astounding. One of the finest of all Thai books is here, the Buddhist cosmology called "The Three Worlds," on loan from the Museum für Indische Kunst in Berlin.


And from the Asian Art Museum comes the first Thai paintings on cloth to be dated to the Ayutthaya period. A swatch from a processional banner shows a scene from one of the Buddha's past lives. Here he appears as a young sage named Vidhura, who is being pulled through the sky by a ferocious but not-too-swift demon. Technically, Vidhura is a prisoner, but this alert, amused face instantly let you know who's in charge.


People can get terribly sniffy about the art of the Ayutthaya's 18th-century golden years, especially its ornate black and gilt lacquerware painting. But the painting looks fabulous here, shimmering inexhaustibly over the surface of manuscript cabinets. And while most of the designs are of ceaselessly burgeoning flowers and mythical beasts, one set of cabinet doors carried two human figures.


One is a European dressed in a peculiarly puffy version of European armor, the other wears a turban. Traditionally, they've been identified as Louis XIV and the Indian Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. Ayutthaya's court had contacts with both. They also suggest sly depictions of exotic ethnic types as seen through Siamese eyes. Maybe they're both: the exalted Sun King and the Indian monarch as the equivalent of slightly over-the-top characters in a musical comedy. Nobody knows the answer, or at least we don't know it yet. Like so much else in this beguiling, expeditionary show, these images are elusive fantasies in a real history: mysteries materialized.


"The Kingdom of Siam: The Art of Central Thailand, 1350-1800" remains on view at the Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, Salem, Mass. (866) 745-1876, through Oct. 16.

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