Art is often an amalgamation of ideas, beliefs, and sentiments originating from different parts of the world. This is only too clear from Thailand’s art forms. While the country had its own indigenous ideas and traditions that were poured into its art, cultural contact with China and India helped mould Thai art into a multifarious entity.
So, while you have great imposing statues and understated, muted paintings, you also have spectacular golden figurines perched on the walls of temples and magnificent depictions of myths on canvas.
Religion has played a great role in influencing Thai art, as is evidenced by Thai sculptures which almost exclusively lend themselves to Buddhism. The renowned Emerald Buddha statue in the Wat Phra Kaew, or Temple of the Emerald Buddha, is a great example of this influence. In fact, Thai art is so heavily influenced by Buddha that it is also referred to as Buddhist Art.
History reinforces this long-held belief. Artworks from the 7th century were mostly molded in bronze and stone. But there was a gentle dilution of this influence with monasteries from several hundred years ago showing evidence of carved ivory, silver, and gold work, and the more unusual porcelain vessels made for Thai royalty in the kilns of China. While religious motifs predominated the early history of the Thai kingdom, sculptures, metal casting, and paintings were used to decorate temples.
Thai paintings primarily depicted the Jataka tales, which originated from India and illustrated the previous lives of Buddha, in human as well as animal form. They also showed, to a large extent, the different versions of Buddhist heaven and hell, Thai versions of the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, and also a few scenes of daily Thai life.
The paintings, which were brought to life after the 19th century, however, were largely influenced by Western art. Contemporary Thai art is highly reflective of the versatility of the modern artist in Southeast Asia. With an international, liberal outlook on the expression of artistic ideas, Thailand has merged easily into the world of contemporary art. With rich, varied artwork depicting nature, problems with bureaucracy, corruption, urban spaces and animals, Thai art has come a long way from sculptures, metal moulds, and 19th-century sculptures of Buddha.
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