Arts of Siam and Burma: Emerald City


This exhibition of the arts of Siam and Burma was held at the Asian Art Museum (AAM) in San Francisco and mainly featured the donation from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation of Southeast Asian art.

The Southeast Asian Art Collection of Doris Duke

Doris Duke (1912-1993) was the only child of James Buchanan Duke, a founder of the American Tobacco Company and Duke Energy Company, and a benefactor of Duke University in his native North Carolina. Throughout her life, Doris Duke enthusiastically pursued her varied interests – from the time of her honeymoon tour to India, Thailand, Indonesia, and other Asian countries in 1935, Doris Duke was fascinated with the region’s cultures. In later decades, she gathered countless antiques and artworks on her worldwide excursions and assembled a notable collection of Islamic and Southeast Asian Art.

After Doris Duke’s death in 1993, her Southeast Asian Art Collection became the responsibility of the trustees of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF). The AAM learned of the collection through its late board chair Jack Bogart and, through Mr Bogart’s efforts, the AAM was fortunate to be the recipient of a substantial part of this important collection after the trustees of the DDCF approved a plan to donate the collection to appropriate museums in 2002.

Asian Art Museum Gift of Arts of Siam and Burma

The AAM and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore received the largest donations from the collection – 167 and 150 objects, respectively. In total, the foundation donated more than 700 objects to approximately 20 museums across the US and abroad. To see Islamic works from the Duke Collection, The Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design is housed in a former home of Doris Duke near Diamond Head just outside Honolulu, Hawaii. It is now owned and operated as a public museum of the arts and cultures of the Islamic world by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.

By 2002, the museum’s holdings in Southeast Asian art had increased dramatically from a donation from the Duke collection, which included sculptures, paintings, and decorative arts. Before the Duke collections were distributed, the AAM Southeast Asian Art Collection already included more than 400 objects, as well as 1,800 other items in their holdings.

Southeast Collection Originally at Duke Farms

Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian collection was originally 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. In 2009, over two thirds of the artworks exhibited in Emerald Cities was from this donation. Previously, the museum had also spent more than five years completing an extensive conservation project to preserve and stabilise these artworks and the exhibition was the first opportunity for their public showing.

More Than 140 Works of Arts of Siam and Burma on Show

More than 140 artworks on show were drawn exclusively from the museum’s collection, which had become one of the largest and most important collections of 19th-century Siamese and Burmese art outside of Southeast Asia due to the addition of the Duke collection. Objects on view included ornately carved furniture, highly decorated miniature shrines, gilded statues, illustrated manuscripts, paintings, as well as mirrored and bejewelled ritual objects.

Divided into Three Geographical Areas

The arts of Siam and Burma were presented by region and 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 categorised 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 Ramayana; and Luxury Goods, including gold and silver vessels, furniture, and textiles.

Artworks in Hambrecht Gallery had a focus on Burmese art. One of the highlights was a lacquered and gilded Buddhist manuscript depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha. This type of manuscript was often given to a monastery at the time when a family relation was preparing to enter the monkhood. 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.

Northern Thailand and Shan State

The Hambrecht Gallery also featured artworks from Northern Thailand and Shan State, Burma. One of the first of these is a lavishly decorated miniature shrine almost two metres high from the highlands of Northern Thailand. 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 ornate.

Works from Central Thailand

The exhibition of arts from Siam and Burma continued with a section devoted to artworks solely from Central Thailand, which accounted for more than two thirds of the artworks on view in the exhibition, including a head of a Buddha image in stucco 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 in the exhibition is only one of two that is known to have survived.

Jataka Paintings

In the same gallery was a complete set of 13 paintings – each reflecting one of the 13 chapters that recount the next-to-last story of the previous lives of the Buddha from the Jataka stories. 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 all 13 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, dispersed individually, or given away in smaller sets.

Gold Wedding Bowl

One of the highlights of the exhibition of arts of Siam and Burma was a popular wedding gift that was often given by the royal Thai family – a gold bowl. The ornate example was presented to the daughter of Hamilton King, a US diplomat in Siam, by Rama V on the occasion of her wedding in 1921. The bowl was personally delivered by a Siamese envoy to the King to the family in the US. It is decorated with three alternating motifs: a mythical eagle with human attributes, stylised foliage, and a celestial being with the hand gesture of adoration.

Shadow Puppets Showing the Arts of Siam and Burma

The final section included a display of shadow puppets used for the re-enactment of the Ramayana epic, as well as headdresses worn by dancers portraying Rama and Sita in classical Siamese dance version. Other objects in the final display were 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 bejewelled head dresses particularly reinforce the sumptuous aesthetic found in artworks from Siam and Burma found in the 19th century. This aesthetic, in different variations, was echoed throughout most of the artworks on view in Emerald Cities.

This expansive exhibition is still one of the most comprehensive to date on the arts of Southeast Asia.

The exhibition ran from 23 October 2009 to 10 January 2010 at Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, A catalogue accompanied the exhibition.

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