Silpa Bhirasri, the Father of Modern Art in Thailand
The story really begins with Soemprungsuk’s teacher, Silpa Bhirasri (1892-1962).
Bhirasri was born in Florence, Italy as Corrado Feroci. He studied at the Royal Art Academy of Florence and went on to teach there, serving as an instructor from 1914 to 1923. By the end of his tenure, he was invited by the Fine Arts Department of the Ministry of Palace Affairs in Thailand to teach Western sculpture.
He stayed under contract and became deeply connected to the country, founding a University of Fine Arts in 1943 — later known as Silpakorn University.
Feroci changed his name to Silpa Bhirasri after Italy’s surrender during World War II, and he even became a Thai national to avoid issues with the Japanese who occupied Thailand at the time.
His career in his adopted country continued, and his mark can be felt across Bangkok, where many of it’s best-known sculptures were designed and sculpted by Bhirasri, including:
He also left a legacy through his education, which brings us to one of his greatest pupils — Chavalit Soemprungsuk.
Getting to Know Chavalit Soemprungsuk
Soemprungsuk (1939-2020) was a painter, sculptor, and printmaker. Born in Thailand and working for much of his career in Amsterdam, he left a lasting legacy on his native country and the art world as a whole.
He studied under Bhasriri at Silpakorn University before moving to Amsterdam where he received classes at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten (State Academy of Fine Arts). He soon became a government-sponsored artist in the Netherlands, the first and only Thai artist to have received this honour.
His work is stunning. Always evolving and introducing new perspectives, his oeuvre never stopped exploring. His realist work slowly changed into simple geometric experiments, colour fields, and other abstract styles.
But while much of his creative life took place in Amsterdam, he was never far from the hearts of the Thai people. In 2014, Thailand awarded him the position of National Artist (Fine Arts), its highest honour for an artist.
Near the end of his life, he donated more than 4,000 works of art to the Thai government. These works were displayed in Bangkok along with a full reconstruction of his Amsterdam studio. It was an intimate look into the life of an artist who’d given so much of himself to his work.
In 2019 and 2020, the 80+ Art Festival Thailand celebrated Soemprungsuk’s career, displaying his latest pieces across six locations. He visited the festival to a hero’s welcome, the capstone on a treasured career. But he soon fell ill with COVID-19, and he died on April 10th of that year in Amsterdam.
Throughout his career, Soemprungsuk’s work spanned a tremendous number of styles and mediums — from realist to abstract, from painting to digital printing. His command of visual language allows his work to speak to us with great force and sometimes with an intimate whisper.
Messages is a new exhibition showing the miraculous life’s work of master Chavalit Soemprungsuk who left an enduring impact on the landscape of Thai art.
Along with this incredible collection of art, he also left behind a great deal of written material that is invaluable for young artists and art lovers. Beginning in 2011, he began publishing his thoughts on art and life to his Facebook page.
In Messages, his work is displayed alongside this written material, providing a full view of Soemprungsuk as an artist and a human being, as a creator and a thinker.
Just as Silpa Bhisasri influenced the generation of artists after him, so does his student Soemprungsuk now influence ours.
This moving exhibition is a must-see event, allowing the visitor to walk through one of the greatest achievements in Thai art.
Curated by Nim Niyomsin, Messages focuses on Soemprungsuk's tireless pursuit of learning and developing. The combination of a full career retrospective with his personal writing gives us a profound lesson in the art of living as learning. It is fitting that it takes place at one of the great Thai art museums.
The exhibit appears at MOCA Bangkok. The exhibition will run from March 13th to April 27th 2021 (from Tuesday to Sunday 10:00 - 18:00). The opening was last Saturday, March 13th, 2021.
For information on location, visit here.
For information on how to reach the building, visit here.
I could not make it to the opening, so I attended on a weekday. The rooms were quiet, allowing me to take it all in silence. It was a transcendent experience. As a self-taught artist who has lived abroad for half my life, I sometimes feel disconnected from the Thai art scene, but witnessing the work of Soemprungsuk gave me insight into the art of Thailand as well as insight into one of the great artists of our time.
I was inspired to write a few words about the life and times of Soemprungsuk, accompanied by some of the images I took of the exhibition. And above all, I encourage anyone who can visit Messages.