"Kwam Pen Thai" or "Thainess", is a term that signifies the trueness of the culture of Thai people in both indigenous and contemporary periods. This term also helps us to understand why Thai contemporary artworks are relatively similar to Thai traditional ones, although certainly the country has evolved over the past 700 years. In general, art, culture, religion and society have always been developing in parallel, and it could be said that art is a reflection of the state of a nation. The character of Thai contemporary art is supposed to be different from traditional styles, because if Thai art remained the same, it would suggest a lack of development as a nation.
To begin a discussion of the evolution of Thai art throughout the ages, it would be necessary to open with a brief history of the Kingdom of Thailand. In 1238, Siameses (the former name of Thais) were first united together under the Kingdom of Sukhothai. Artworks and culture of this era were widely understood to contain the authentic character of indigenous Thai art. The distinctive character of Thai art is found in its delicate details. This delicate touch comes from Thais’ personality, ‘Theravada Buddhism’ - the main religion of Siameses, and the magnificence of natural resources of Siam. In order to clarify the character of ancient Thai art, it is important to introduce ‘Lai Thai’, or Thai pattern, which is the cement of Thai decorative culture, initially and mainly used by Thai artists for design purposes upon various materials, e.g. temples walls, doors and folding doors, pottery, textile, etc. Lai Thai has since become known as a distinctive identity of Thai art, which in turn has led to tendency for the art style to be used solely for craftworks or decorations for the wider public - rather than one-off artworks that reflect individuality, personal concepts and the autonomy of the artist.
Due to wars with neighbouring kingdoms, and the inappropriate topography of Sukhothai, the centre of the Siam Kingdom was moved to the Kingdom of Ayutthaya (1351 to 1767). The wars waged on unrelentingly throughout the Ayutthaya period. As a result, the atmosphere was gloomy, the Thai people feeling resentful and insecure. This had a knock-on effect towards the development of art and culture. Although there were a number of great artworks and crafts that came from this period, they looked different to the arts produced in Sukhothai. It can be seen that the Buddhist sculptures were produced roughly and they looked relatively indelicate. The Ayutthaya Kingdom was also originally a home to the Mon and Khmer people, and their influence began to seep into the art created at the time. In addition to war, Ayutthaya was one of the most important trading centres in Southeast Asia, and this condition allowed the kingdom to constantly be in touch with other kingdoms. Thus, Siamese art was developed in this way and it all contributes to the sense that Ayutthaya art has a look that’s considered sharp and tense, as opposed to the delicate Sukhothai form. When considering the interventions and wars in a positive light, there were a variety of arts and cultural movements that influenced Thai art at the time. Take the religion and art from India for example, the Ramayana in particular, the epic of Rama, one of the 7th avatars of the god ‘Vishnu’ in Hinduism.
In the 14th century, ‘Ramakien’, the Thai version of the Sanskrit ‘Ramayana’, had a major influence on Thai culture and the society of the Ayutthaya Kingdom. Inspired by Hinduism and ‘Ramakien’, the capital of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya – Ayutthaya - was named after the Hindu holy city, ‘Ayodhya’, signifying their belief that the Kingdom was blessed and was a residence of god. Confirming this notion is the Thai belief that Thai Kings are an avatar of the god Vishnu, who lives in ‘Ayodhya’ city - just like ‘Rama’ in Ramakien. Looking at the first name of the first king of Ayutthaya Kingdom Somdet Phra Ramathibodi 1 (1314-1369), we can see it contains the word ‘Rama’, probably used as a reference to Vishnu’s avatar. Unfortunately, numerous versions of the Ramakien epic were destroyed by the Burmese armies during the sack of Ayutthaya in 1767.
Later on, the centre of Siam temporarily resituated to Thonburi for fifteen years (1768-1782). During that time, the nation was focused on developing standard of living and the economy chiefly. This was not significant era for arts at all. However, there were a few Ayutthaya-inspired architectures that were built in order to reform the town and facilities for the public.
Subsequently, during the Rattanakosin era (1782 - nowadays), the majority of Thais moved into Bangkok, the new capital of Thailand. To promote the new kingdom, the capital city itself, as well as the new “Chakri” dynasty, many strategies were applied to the Royals and the city. Firstly, the kings of the “Chakri” dynasty were called ‘Rama’ to signify the holy status of the king, as well as to signify the revival of Ramakien culture in the new kingdom. Secondly, the capital city, Bangkok, is known as “Krung Thep Maha Nakhorn” in Thai, which means the city of god - a reflection of the belief that the ruler of the city is a deity, with reference to the Ayutthaya capital city. Furthermore, a new version of ‘Ramakien’ was written by, and under the supervision of, King Rama I in order to promote his own dynasty. The inspirational Ramakien epic can be seen as the cement of Rattanakosin culture in terms of art, literature, and drama. Following the footsteps of his father, King Rama II rewrote some parts of Ramakien as an adaptation to be used in Khon drama. There are also some traditional Thai wall paintings in Wat Phra Kaew - one of the most important temples in Thailand, standing on the ground of the Grand Palace - featuring depictions of Ramakien.
In the early period of the Rattanakosin era, Thai artists were mainly occupied with creating and designing art and crafts for the royals and their wider circle; such as the palaces and temples around the kingdom. Later, in the middle of this era, Thai artists seemed to create artworks more autonomously so as to express their own individuality, due to the influence of the Western art and culture. Therefore, the craftsmanship pieces created at this time were progressively developed into real artworks. This alternative direction of development seemed to grow upon a trend that was rising across the art world, propelled by the occurrence of globalisation that made the world intensely connected. Importantly, the original character of each country and culture tends to fade away slightly. In the 1850s a Thai monk-artist, Krou Inkong, brought his style realistic painting to Thai art, which was a technique from the Western world. Later, in the 1900s, an Italian sculptor named Corrado Feroci, (who would later adopt the Thai name of Silpa Bhirasri) came to Thailand to work for the government. While doing so, he founded the Fine Arts Department of the Ministry of Palace Affairs (later known as Silpakorn University). He introduced Western artistic techniques, especially sculptures, to Thai artists and art students. He also produced historical statues and monuments; the Democracy Monument, Victory Monument, and the statue of King Rama I at Memorial Bridge all bear his name. The accomplishments of these two figures seemed to sound a turning point that saw Thai art adapting itself to the international art movement.
Since the ideals of a ‘civilized’ society, and so its art, are so often standardised to a western outlook and values, some Thai artists had wanted to develop their artworks in this style, so as to be internationally accepted. By contrast, when considering Thainess, maintaining Thai indigenous identity is the one vital issue that most Thais are concerned about. In other words, Thais were aware that they could lose aspects of their identity by integrating with other cultures, and there could be negative connotations for the country afterwards. This notion appears to be a factor in why many contemporary Thai artworks look out-dated or even in contrast to the international art trend.
This contradictory discourse about the direction that Thai art is developing can be ended in a compromise. There are a group of artists led by Chalermchai Kositpipat, Panya Vijinthanasarn, Sompop Budtarad, Rearngsak Boonyavanishkul, Thongchai Srisukprasert and Alongkorn Lauwattana, that are attempting to combine Thai traditional art and the global art trend together, with what can be termed “Thai Neo-traditional Art”. This art concept probably describes the overall picture of contemporary Thai art. Indeed, the majority of Thai artists (those based in Thailand) seem to create artworks in this particular style. The character of Thai Neo-traditional art is very similar to Sukhothai art, except for the updated artistic techniques and mediums.
In consideration, the contemporary way of life of Thais seems to remain similar to the lives of the people of the Sukhothai Era. Thais still believe in Theravada Buddhism in much the same way as the ancient people did. Thais are still producing art with the same passion, and care to respect and preserve the spirit of ancient traditions. Moreover, Thais have been always dedicating their love towards their nation, monarchy and religion, especially in the Rattanakosin era. This is the key reason why Thai artists continue producing artworks in a similar way as to the ancient era. These three core-values stand profoundly as pillars in Thais’ lives.
In conclusion, traditional Thai art and contemporary Thai art remain quite similar in many ways. One can say it is an unconscious choice made by Thais, including Thai artists, to promote a glorious history that has been lasting since the Sukhothai era.