Sep 10 2014

Renowned Thai artist Thawan Duchanee dies at 74

by Joo Han

Thailand’s national artist Thawan Duchanee, who died on September 3, 2014, at age 74. Image from the artist’s Facebook page. 

On September 3, Thai artist Thawan Duchanee passed away at 74, as a result of complications from hepatitis.

Thawan is best known for his startling renditions of Buddha, as well as demons and beasts, with bold black swirls. His works are striking in both their visual energy and narratives of violence and insanity.

A Chiang Rai native, Thawan demonstrated his artistic talents from an early age. He received a scholarship from the Thai Ministry of Education to study at Poh Chang Arts and Crafts College, Bangkok. He then majored in painting at Silpakorn University, studying under the Italian-born sculptor Silpa Bhirasri. Upon graduation, he received a postgraduate fellowship from the Dutch Ministry of Education to study at the Royal Academy of Visual Arts in Amsterdam.

It was from this vantage point of having both an Asian and European education that Thawan realized a transition into his individual form of Thai art. He is regarded as a pioneering modern Thai artist who reinterpreted local motifs in his works—which ranged from paintings and sculptures to architectural designs and murals—that often drew from Buddhism and Burmese art.

At first Thawan’s works were harshly received from an indignant public. He and his works incurred accusations of blasphemy and vandalism until recognition came from Thai politician and scholar Kukrit Pramoj, who claimed Thawan’s art “to be understood as giving life to myth.”

From then on, the artist gained increasing fame. He became a recipient of numerous awards, including the Siam Architecture Association’s “Artist of the Year” Gold Medal (1984) and the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize (2001). Notably, he was commissioned to create murals for several Thai embassies across the world, as well as for other national institutions such as the Bank of Thailand.

Thawan is also remembered for his witty personality. The robust, bearded artist was known for his sense of sarcasm, mocking those who classified his work as “Buddhist,” or “20th-century Surrealist.” Nonetheless, the declaration of Thawan as a National Artist (a title awarded annually by the Office of the National Culture Commission of Thailand) in 2001 confirmed his popularity, as well as excellence, both locally and abroad.