EMERALD CITIES – Arts of Siam & Burma, 1775-1950

Many stunning artworks acquired by the Asian Art Museum from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation on display for the first time.

By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

Now through January 10th, 2010, the Asian Art Museum showcases EMERALD CITIES: Arts of Siam and Burma, 1775–1950, the first exhibition of its kind to use a systematic approach to present artworks from this region and period. The exhibition features more than 140 artworks drawn exclusively from the museum’s collection, which is one of the largest and most important collections of nineteenth-century Siamese and Burmese art outside of Southeast Asia. On view are ornately carved furniture, lavishly decorated miniature shrines, gilded statues, elaborately illustrated manuscripts, colorfully detailed paintings, and mirrored and bejeweled ritual objects. The Asian Art Museum organized Emerald Cities and serves as the exhibition’s exclusive venue.


The museum’s holdings in Southeast Asian art increased dramatically in 2002 from a generous donation of artworks – including many rare sculptures, paintings, and decorative arts – from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection. Before being distributed to organizations such as the Asian Art Museum, Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection included more than 400 museum-quality objects and 1,800 other items. Together, these objects have represented one of the most important collections of later Southeast Asian art outside Asia. The collection was housed at Duke Farms – Doris Duke’s principal residence in Hillsborough, New Jersey – where for many years it remained largely unknown both to the public and specialists. Over two-thirds of the artworks on view in Emerald Cities are from this collection. The museum spent more than five years to complete an extensive conservation project to preserve and stabilize these very fragile artworks. Emerald Cities provides the opportunity for their public debut.


“All of the artworks on view in Emerald Cities originate from the museum’s extensive collection, demonstrating the quality and depth of the museum’s holdings from Thailand and Burma,” says Jay Xu, Director of the Asian Art Museum. “Through the efforts of Forrest McGill, the museum’s Chief Curator, and M.L. Pattaratorn Chirapravati, co-curator of the exhibition, Emerald Cities and its accompanying catalogue contribute both to scholarship and public appreciation of the rich and varied artistic traditions of Southeast Asia.”

“A feast for the eyes awaits visitors to Emerald Cities,” says Forrest McGill. “The writings and religious thought at the time emphasized the gorgeous, flowering, bejeweled, heavenly city of the gods. This view of a luxurious and fantastical Eden is evident through the artworks on view in the galleries which originate from the three great cities of the time—Bangkok, Mandalay and Rangoon.”


The artworks in Emerald Cities are presented by region, divided into three distinctive geographical areas: Burma; the highlands of Northern Thailand and Shan State, Burma; and Central Thailand. Within each geographical region, artworks are further categorized by their functions: Religious Art – including Buddhist manuscripts, sculpture, and objects for ritual use such as offering containers and ceremonial begging bowls; Mythology – including theatrical masks, costumes and puppets used for the dramatic productions of the epic of Rama; and Luxury Goods – including gold and silver vessels, furniture, and textiles.


The exhibition opens in Lee Gallery with three videos introducing important facets of the exhibition: Doris Duke and her Southeast Asian art collection; the conservation efforts undertaken in preparation for the exhibition; and a general introduction to Siam and Burma.
Artworks are presented in Hambrecht Gallery with the focus on Burmese art. One of the highlights is a lacquered and gilded Buddhist manuscript depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha (catalogue #3). This type of manuscript was often given to a monastery at the time when a family relation was preparing to enter the monkhood. Even up to the present day, it is customary for young men to become monks for as little as three months in order to bestow merit on their families. The manuscript on view depicts the scene of Prince Siddhartha (the Buddha-to-be) leaving his family to embark on his spiritual pursuit, a seemingly appropriate subject for the circumstances. The scene is placed in what would have been a contemporary Burmese royal court, with added embellishments that give it a fantastical quality.


Another highlight in the Burmese section is a rare, sequined, nearly-six-meter-long hanging that portrays the scenes of the legend of Rama (catalogue #19). Although its purpose is unknown, one explanation is that this narrative textile may have served as a backdrop for puppet performances. The royal costumes portrayed in this artwork are echoed throughout the exhibition, through actual costumes and those that appear on puppets and in other paintings. Hambrecht Gallery also features artworks from Northern Thailand and Shan State, Burma. One of the first of these is a lavishly decorated miniature shrine almost two meters high from the highlands of Northern Thailand (catalogue #34). Made of lacquered and gilded wood, the shrine is adorned with mirrored glass and topped by several tiers of tapering roofs with prickly finials and a tiered parasol finial. Its structure is based on architectural forms of the time and demonstrates the tendency towards the elaborate and ornate.


The exhibition continues in Osher Gallery with a section devoted to artworks solely from Central Thailand, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the artworks on view in the exhibition. On the wall to the left of the gallery is a head of a Buddha image in stucco (catalogue #45) displayed alongside other Buddha images. In the 1790s the first monarch of the new kingdom of Siam had hundreds of Buddha images from other parts of his realm brought to Wat Phra Chettuphon, a new temple built in Bangkok under his reign. To make the styles of the images uniform, he had them covered with layers of stucco coated in gilded lacquer. In the 1950s when this style had gone out of fashion, the stucco was removed from these temple images and most fragments were presumably discarded. The stucco Buddha image on view is only one of two that was known to survive.

On an opposite wall in the gallery, a complete set of thirteen paintings – each reflecting one of the thirteen chapters that recount the next-to-last story of the previous lives of the Buddha (catalogue #71-83) – is on display. This sacred story is often recited at religious festivals. In each painting a chapter of the sacred story is depicted in the middle of the composition with other narratives depicted along the edges.  The stories often add soap operatic visual elements depicting everyday dramas that perhaps kept the story interesting and relevant to the audience. A complete set of thirteen paintings telling this story is extremely rare. Having served its purpose, a set of such paintings after a recitation at a festival may have been put away with no provisions in place for their preservation, or dispersed individually or in smaller sets.


A popular wedding gift from the royal Thai family was a gold bowl (catalogue #121). The ornate example on view in Emerald Cities was presented to the daughter of Hamilton King, a U.S. diplomat in Siam, by Rama VI on the occasion of her wedding in 1921. It was personally delivered by a Siamese envoy to the King family in the U.S. It is decorated with three alternating motifs: a mythical eagle with human attributes, stylized foliage, and a celestial being with the hand gesture of adoration. The presentation of a traditional Siamese gift to a westerner indicates a strong sense of national identity and pride.

Emerald Cities closes by showcasing shadow puppets used for the enactment of the Rama epic, head dresses worn by dancers portraying Rama and Sita in classical Siamese dance, and wooden statues of mythical creatures that are half-bird, half human and inhabited an Eden-like forest in Buddha legend. Of these, the opulent and bejeweled head dresses particularly reinforce the sumptuous aesthetic found in artworks from Siam and Burma around the 19th century. This aesthetic in different variations is echoed throughout most of the artworks on view in Emerald Cities.
Click here for ticket information: EMERALD CITIES


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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.


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