B.W. from Montecito has a painting of colorful straw-hatted workers in a rice paddy, which she believes was purchased in Thailand. It is signed “Sujarit”: the artist is Sujarit Hirankul (1946-82). Most of this artist’s works were created in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s; Sujarit was a prolific painter of his day, selling such idyllic scenes to Western tourists.
This little painting is symptomatic of a global sea change in the art world, which is, briefly, the result of such romantic visions of a foreign, third world culture. Today the vision has changed to a newer, hipper brand of globalization. Which form of globalization suits a painting: consumer culture overlaid onto idealization, or conceptual culture, which teaches that art should be about a certain philosophy? This little painting tells the path into that story.
I come across many “genre” paintings like this, which sold to Western tourists coming to Southeast Asia in the mid 20th century. Artists such as Sujarit often painted delightful visions of Southeast Asian rural life, deceptively joyful and bright. However, life in Cambodia, Burma, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, the “Mekong” area, was not joyful and bright in the 1960’s-70’s. Images like B.W.’s romanticized what Westerners nostalgically wanted to imagine. Not all those straw hats in the hot sun bent to labor were as golden as they are here portrayed. Yet many tourists to Southeast Asian bought such ‘innocent’ images. Why?
The aesthetic sea change that has happened in Southeast Asia means that art like Sujarit’s may never be painted quite like this, for sale to foreigners, again. Art, and painting, is today thinking of itself as “global,” all over the contemporary art world, and so is the artistic idea of a “concept” behind a work of art. Today South Asian contemporary art is globally aware of itself and its philosophy. This is due in part to the generation of artists who entered overseas art schools just when Sujarit was ending his career as a painter in Thailand (early 1980’s).
Gone today are visions of happy peasants laboring in rice paddies, this singular, childlike vision in art that was purchased by American tourists after the memories of the Vietnam War. Sujarit was a fine painter, and his paintings sell in the range of $1,000-3,000; some canvases of ‘happy workers’ sell for much more. But the ‘kind’ of painting, a good craftsman painting politically romanticized Mekong visions, is a thing of the past.
That style is itself an inherited style, a hangover from late 19th century. European visions of the happy farmhand or fisherman, smithy, or seamstress. The late 19th century “genre," meaning peasants and common folk in romanticized portrayals, style of painting gave birth to Sujarit’s happy Asian peasants, painted in the 1960-70’s, the happy colors applied with expert brush strokes. These canvases sold wherever Western tourists with dollars were found.
Contrast that art scene with the Southeast Asian art scene today. Singapore today is the center of a renaissance in contemporary art. The National Heritage Board sponsors the Singapore Art Museum as well as the New National Gallery. Hong Kong, too, has a 100-acre West Kowloon Cultural District anchored by a new $642 million contemporary art museum, M+ Pavilion. Gwangju, South Korea, opened its own huge state-sponsored Asian Culture Complex in 2016.
Sujarit’s work, being Thai art, comes from the only Southeast Asian nation that was never colonized, and New Siam today has a privately owned $24.6 million dollar Museum of Contemporary Art. Moreover, Thai artists are well represented in the major festivals of the contemporary art world. The famous Venice Biennale honored a modern contemporary Thai artist, Kamol Tassananchalee. Thailand has been represented in the Venice Biennale since 2003.
The sea change, from art such as we see in BW’s painting by Sujarit, to the burgeoning contemporary art scene in southeast Asia today, shows proof how far Thai artists today are from Sujarit’s “happy peasant” subject matter: in 2009, a Venice Biennale installation, aptly titled “Gondola al Paradiso Co., Ltd”, satirized former Thai artists' visions (such as Sujarit’s) of “Tourist Art.” In other words, art is the conveyor (the gondola) of a so- called Paradise, which is, ironically, trademarked Paradise, Ltd.
That is exactly the kind of art we see in B.W.’s lovely idyllic little canvas, which tells a story of assimilated cultural values in such an appealing way that Sujarit’s canvases have been known to sell for $6,000 on a good day at auction.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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