There are several Buddhas in the show of Thai art that just opened at the Walters Art Gallery, and if you don't pay close attention, you might think they all look alike.
But they don't. They change in subtle and spellbinding ways, and together they tell a story of 17 centuries of Thai art. It's a story you cannot see anywhere else in the world, unless you spend thousands of dollars going to Thailand to seek out the art in its homeland. For the Walters owns the most comprehensive collection of Thai art outside of Thailand, thanks to Maryland collector Alexander B. Griswold.
Griswold, who died in 1991 at the age of 84, was an army officer in World War II who parachuted into Bangkok and fell in love with Thai art and culture. After the war, he devoted his life to collecting and studying Thai art, even though he was still a partner at Alex. Brown & Sons (founded by his ancestor and namesake Alexander Brown). He wrote books and articles on the subject, became a professor at Cornell University, maintained a residence in Bangkok, and amassed a collection at his Monkton home, called Breezewood, that eventually grew to more than 250 works.
During his lifetime, and through his will, he gave the collection to the Walters, which received it in stages between 1977 and 1993. Although some pieces have been on view, this is the first major exhibition of the collection. It includes more than 100 works dating from the second to the 19th century A.D. Particularly notable are works from the Sukhothai period of the 14th and 15th centuries, a period of what Griswold termed "unearthly elegance" in the depiction of the Buddha. And that's the phrase Hiram W. Woodward, the Walters curator of Asian art, has chosen as the title of this elegant show.
Among other things, it has been given a beautiful installation. Its bronze, stone and terra cotta sculptures are highlighted against rich backgrounds, and its texts and labels make accessible -- even enjoyable -- a subject that will be completely new to most visitors.
A quote from the collector introduces us to this art, which ascends to heights of "peculiar and unearthly elegance . . . [in which] the sculptor was shaping the human to conform to a certain conception of the divine."
Beginning with the collector, says curator Woodward, "is a way of acknowledging, thanking and commending him for making the art of Thailand better known and contributing to our knowledge."
The first objects we see in this sculpture show are not sculptures, but a pair of 19th-century Thai cabinets for Buddhist texts, their fronts and sides completely covered with scenes from the life of Buddha himself. A sage thought to have lived in sixth century B.C. India, he was born a prince and only became Buddha, or "Enlightened One," after leaving the palace and pursuing a search for truth. It culminated in a night of testing, after which he became enlightened and began a lifetime of teaching.
Here we're also introduced to the most frequent Thai depiction of the Buddha, seated with his right hand reaching over his leg to touch the ground. It represents him at the moment of victory over the forces of evil, when he achieves enlightenment.
The earliest works shown come not from Thailand, but from Gandhara, or modern Pakistan, since Buddhism spread through the Indian subcontinent in the early centuries A.D. The artists who fashioned these second- and third-century Buddhas were influenced by the art of the then far-flung Roman empire, and their figures have wavy, Roman-style hair and wear toga-like garments.
Spirituality and humanity
Among the show's most striking works are two early Thai sculptures, seventh- to eighth-century standing stone figures from the kingdom of Dvaravati. "They combine intense spirituality and strong human qualities," says curator Woodward, who also notes that while they were influenced by Indian art, they exhibit independent characteristics as well. "The sculptors were more concerned with graceful outlines and less with the rounded volumes characteristic of Indian art."
One of the major figures in the history of Thai art was not Thai, but Cambodian. During a period of Cambodian domination in the 12th and 13th centuries, King Jayavarman VII emphasized a form of belief based on compassion.
"It was embodied in the figure of the compassionate bodhissatva [or deity] Avalokitesvara," says Woodward, "and stylistically 0` characterized by softer modeling and a diminution of the linear tension of an earlier Cambodian style."
It was after this, during the 14th and 15th centuries, that Thai art produced at the flourishing center of Sukhothai took on the characteristics that Griswold particularly identified as "unearthly elegance." The style included a long nose, graceful eyebrows and fingers, and a flame rising from the protuberance on top of the Buddha's head.