Press

The Kingdom of Siam

Released July 05, 2005

SALEM, Mass--The Peabody Essex Museum is pleased to present The Kingdom of Siam: The Art of Central Thailand, 1350-1800, the world’s first major exhibition of art from Thailand’s kingdom of Ayutthaya, which outlived China’s Ming dynasty and shone with similar brilliance. The exhibition features 80 of the finest surviving works from Ayutthaya (pronounced ah-YOOT-tah-yah), drawn from collections in Thailand, Europe, and the United States--many on view for the first time in the West. They include stone and bronze Buddha images, sculptures of Hindu deities, figural and decorative wood carvings, temple furnishings, illustrated manuscripts, jewelry, and textiles. Among the highlights are gold royal regalia and ceremonial objects; a full-sized temple pediment; and sections of royally commissioned temple doors with inlaid mother of pearl. The Kingdom of Siam was organized by the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, and co-curated by Forrest McGill, chief curator at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, and M. L. Pattaratorn Chirapravati, assistant professor of Asian Art, California State University, Sacramento. The exhibition is accompanied by a 200-page catalogue, featuring essays on the history, art, and culture of Ayutthaya by leading scholars. The Peabody Essex Museum is the exclusive East Coast venue for this exhibition, which opens here July 16 and runs through Oct.16, 2005.

More than four centuries of splendor

Ayutthaya was founded in 1351 and flourished as one of Southeast Asia’s largest and most important kingdoms for more than four hundred years. During the 1600s and early 1700s, the kingdom enjoyed great prosperity and cultural accomplishment, distinguishing Ayutthaya as more cosmopolitan and outward-looking than neighboring kingdoms.

A major trade center, Ayutthaya had diplomatic ties with China, Japan, the Ryukyu kingdom (Okinawa), India, Persia, and with Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Portugal. In 1686, the French, under King Louis XIV, received envoys from the

Kingdom of Ayutthaya, or “Siam” as it was also known. The envoys brought with them two shiploads of gifts, the contents of which deeply impressed the French. The trove of gold, silver, and lacquer, more than fifteen hundred pieces of porcelain (mostly Chinese), Persian and Indian carpets, and many other splendid objects from Japan and China, suggested the worldliness and trading power of the Southeast Asian kingdom.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Ayutthaya fell when armies from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) destroyed the capital, including much of its art, architecture, and records, in 1767. Faced with a small percentage of surviving artworks and buildings, scholars have struggled to reconstruct and understand the Ayutthaya period (1351-1767), a challenge that distinguishes this exhibition as a groundbreaking event.

Visitors to the Peabody Essex Museum have a unique opportunity to see some of the finest surviving artworks that exemplify Siam’s cosmopolitan culture and the significant influences exerted by religion, royalty, and interaction with multiple cultures, including trade in luxury goods. Among the most intriguing objects in the exhibition are the works culled from a cache of Buddha images, votive tablets, ritual objects, and royal jewelry found in the sacred deposit chamber of Wat Ratchaburana, one of Ayutthaya’s temples. In 1957 thieves broke into the previously unknown chamber deep within the main temple tower. They found a rich array of Buddhist artworks, ceremonial objects, and gold royal regalia. Word of the find soon reached officials in Bangkok, who set out to recover what had been stolen, and to investigate the chamber and its contents scientifically. Eventually, more than six hundred Buddha images and a thousand Buddhist votive tablets were found. Eight of these key artworks will be on display in the exhibition.

Ayutthayan achievement

The people of Siam were of varied ethnicities (Thai, Mon, Cambodian, Chinese, Malay), and several languages were spoken in the kingdom, yielding a richly diverse artistic heritage that influenced the development of the Ayutthayan style. Two of the most impressive early works in the exhibition are monumental stone faces of Buddha images dating from circa 1374. Even in its early days the kingdom mobilized the resources to create and enshrine stone Buddha images of such size; when intact, they would have been about 23 feet high.

The exhibition includes a number of extraordinary finds that illuminate the early development of Ayutthayan art and culture. A large stone walking Buddha carved in high relief had long been fixed against a wall in a storeroom of one of Thailand’s national museums. Because of the rarity of stone sculptures of this type, it was requested for the exhibition. When the figure was moved away from the wall, an extensive inscription conveying the date 1375 was discovered on the back. Inscriptions from the Ayutthaya period are rare. Today this sculpture is the only securely dated Buddha image of early Ayutthaya.

Other dateable works in the exhibition help to develop the evolution of Ayutthayan art and culture. Among these are bronze heads of the Buddha in previous lives, thought to have been cast in the 1450s; Buddha images that may have been deposited inside a colossal Buddha image in 1538; a large crowned Buddha inscribed with a date equivalent to 1541; and a miniature ivory stupa complex with a date equivalent to 1711. These fascinating and beautiful artworks provide a historical framework within which the exhibition’s other striking objects--for example an elaborate cast iron temple finial, several miniature palatial buildings, a set of bronze serpent heads from a temple balustrade, a gilded cabinet bearing a depiction of Louis XIV--may be better appreciated.

Media preview

A media preview for The Kingdom of Siam, including a tour of the exhibition with curator Forrest McGill, will be held on Tuesday, July 12, 2005, from 12 to 2 p.m. Complimentary lunch will be served. Please RSVP to rehana_abbas@pem.org or call 978-745-9500 x3228.

Exhibition catalogue

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue. Included are essays on the history, art, and culture of Ayutthaya by Forrest McGill, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco; Dhiravat na Pombejra, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok; Hiram Woodward, the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore: Santi Leksukhum, Silpakorn University, Bangkok; M. L. Pattaratorn Chirapravati, California State University, Sacramento; and Henry Ginsburg, the British Library, London.

Sponsors

This exhibition is made possible by generous support from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, the Bernard Osher Foundation, The R. Gwin Follis Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, The Blakemore Foundation, the Columbia Foundation, and Flora Family Foundation. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The Peabody Essex Museum venue of The Kingdom of Siam is made possible through a presenting sponsorship by Grand Circle Corporation, the leading U.S. provider of international vacations for mature Americans. Additional support has been provided by the Hoch Charitable Trust. Media partnership is provided by Classical 102.5 WCRB.

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PR Contacts:

April Swieconek  -  Director of Public Relations  -  978-745-9500 X3109  -  april@pem.org

Whitney Van Dyke  -  Senior Press Officer  -  978-745-9500 X3228  -  whitney_vandyke@pem.org

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