Bangkok, Buddha sketching

March 16, 2013

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A4 Laloran 120g sketchbook, graphite pencil – 10min vignettes from Rooms 302 (Siam Prehistory), 303 (Dvaravati Art) and 304 (Java Art)

The National Museum in Bangkok is described in a prominent tourist guide as dry and dusty, and to a certain extent that’s true: very large rooms, high ceilings, tiled floors, no airconditioning, almost entirely empty of people except lone attendants and the odd tourist with an academic demeanour. For anyone interested in how Bangkok graduated from tropical rainforest to bustling metropolis, it provides a lot of insights.

Getting to the museum, from the Grand Palace or one of several river wharves, is both a horror and a delight. Na Phrathat Road outside is frankly hell on earth, but the nearby streets selling amulets on a quiet morning can be wonderful, as is some quick sitting meditation in nearby Wat Mahathat, one of those non-touristy Buddhist wats with no signs in English.

So the peace and quiet of the museums many buildings and rooms is something to be savoured. In each room there is a different aspect of Siamese history and cultural life, with a single attendant who sits at a schoolroom desk-cum-chair carefully noting the number of visitors who enter. Seats are rare.

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I was very impressed with Room 301 dubbed “Asian Art” which was a lengthy sequence of Buddha images from around the continent. The Art Gallery of NSW has the same thing, but this was a more intense experience, moving through Burma, Sri Lanka, Japan, China, India and Nepal.

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By the beginning of the second hour of sketching, I was getting into a routine of around 10mins per Buddha sculpture. I thought some in the Srivijaya Art (Room 305) at once familiar (having seen similar in Indonesia) and  impressive. At this point I was bailed up by a group of school students sporting clipboards and a video camera. They seemed relieved to have finally rounded up a lone museum visitor and pumped me with questions about where I was from and what I liked about the collection. I was filmed not only answering the questions with a toothy grin but they continued to film over my shoulder while sketching.

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Here I’ve included two from the 13th century – Lopburi (Province) and Bayon, about which I know nothing, except that Siamese culture and history obviously didn’t centre entirely on Ayutthaya or Bangkok, but that areas of rural Thailand (today) came into play and of course, Angkor Wat and Pagan (Burma) are incredibly close by. On a previous visit that week, I’d noticed some very large and beautiful temple guardian statues on the verandah outside this building, the Maha Surasinghanat Building and (bliss, oh bliss!) there was the opportunity to sit down and sketch. I haven’t conveyed their mass or volume. Sitting by myself, with birdsong accompanying my sketching, I was subsequently “bumped” by a museum attendant who had her lunch break; this was obviously “her” spot, which we shared in silence.

I could have spent days sketching in this particular Museum: the sheer number of interesting historical objects and cultural objects was overwhelming. The ability to just sketch without interruption was wonderful, even if it meant only short bouts of standing in the almost unbearable heat. By the time I got to the serene Sukhothai and Ayutthaya Art rooms, I was flagging as you can see from the (very dark) Sukkothai Buddha images:

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And lastly, I stopped to take a photograph of a potted lotus, thinking of my colleague back in Sydney who loves to paint lotus flowers in the Royal Botanic Gardens there. The rim of the bowl incorporated, rather oddly,  hand-sprayed drops of paint, which I’m sure she’d appreciate as a ‘painterly’ reference.

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