By Khetsirin Pholdhampalit
FANTASY, some of it light-hearted, much of it dark, dominates the National Gallery these days, with four of its galleries devoted to the surrealistic paintings of Her Serene Highness the late Princess Marsi Sukhumbhand Paribatra that explore the dynamics of duality – beauty and ugliness, life and death.
“Beauty and Ugliness: Aesthetic of Marsi” greets the visitor with a large-sized photograph of the princess and her pets at her studio in the mountain-ringed village of Annot in the south of France, where she lived for more than 40 years. Alongside is her quote: “Art reflects life and death, I will use my talents to convey it.”
“Commedia della Morte” (“Comedy of Death”)
Her passion is clearly reflected in her 1980 painting “Commedia della Morte” (“Comedy of Death”) in which the skeleton of a puppeteer is controlling a female actor in a stage play as if to point out that life is like a play – it doesn’t last long and eventually, all players end up dying.
“Je Me Souviens” (“I Remember”, 1992) also depicts a skeletal figure gazing at the portrait of a beautifully dressed lady to pinpoint the ephemeral quality of life.
“Je Me Souviens” (“I Remember”)
Her fanciful and eccentric works merge Greek mythology and Renaissance architecture in oriental decorations. An assemblage of animals and animal-headed humanoids against natural background, as well as naked female figures, skeletons and skulls are always incorporated.
This is the third solo show in Bangkok organised by the Marsi Foundation and follows on from earlier exhibitions in 2010 and 2013. The princess, who was 82 when she passed away having suffered a stroke some years before, was the daughter of His Royal Highness Prince Chumbhot and MR Pantip Paribatra and spent most of her life in France. She was little known in her homeland, but was celebrated internationally and often exhibited in Paris and Provence.
A visitor takes a picture of Princess Marsi Paribatra’s “Donne Moi ta Main” ("Give Me Your Hand")
“From the more than 100 of works in the collection of the Marsi Foundation, I’ve selected about 40 paintings centred on the theme of beauty and ugliness. Many of them have never been shown here before. The Princess’ personal items such as paintbrushes, palettes, sketchbooks, records and books on music, art and anatomy that were her source of study and inspiration are also displayed to reflect the strong passion of the Princess to pursue her artistic career,” says the exhibition’s curator, Asst Prof Dr Supachai Areerungruang.
Princess Marsi’s personal collection of books on art history and anatomy as well as horror stories that inspired many of her works is on display.
Although the Princess showed artistic talent as a child, she did not take up serious studies in painting until the age of 30, when surrealism was in full bloom in France. Self-trained, she learned from the masterpieces in the museums and was also advised on proper methods and techniques by some of her artist friends.
The four galleries are arranged in such a way as to deliver four key messages – beauty, ugliness, chronology and art history, and truth.
The room themed around the concept of beauty displays Marsi’s paintings of animals, flowers and landscapes in contrasts of light and shade. “Her early works were small scale and focused on natural landscapes and rock textures in monotones inspired by traditional Chinese ink paintings. The figures of herself and mythical animals, which came about as a result of her passion for literature, began to show later and were composed in Renaissance style with intricate details,” says Supachai, who is also an art instructor at Srinakarinwirot University.
In addition to her doctorate degree in literature from the University of Paris and in art history from the University of Madrid, the Princess learned much from the Renaissance masters. Her series of different flowers combined to form images of parrots was inspired by the 16th-century artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, famed for his portraits of people with heads formed entirely of fruits, vegetables and flowers.
From Bosch, Titian, Botticello and Bellini, Marsi learned composition, poses and the delicate rendering of elaborate costumes. In Joseph Redoute’s work, she discovered botanical accuracy, right down to foreshortening the petals of a blossom.
“La Mort aux Dents”
The next room is full of glass cabinets displaying Marsi’s collection of vinyl, mostly classical music by Chopin, Mozart and Beethoven as well as art books on Hokusai and Botticello. Books on anatomy and horror stories were also among her favourites. The book “Horror Stories Selected by Herbert van Thal” whose cover shows half a skull and half a woman’s face was the source of inspiration for the princess’s 1985 painting “La Mort aux Dents” featuring a woman’s face partially covered with a skull, flowers and trees.
Marsi fell in love with the charms of Annot and set up her studio there in 1970, naming her residence Vellara. It was home to a menagerie of cats, dogs and chickens and other birds. She fed more than 100 birds in her studio and the birds flew around freely. While painting, she listened to classical music. On display in the exhibition are her piano, her painting tools and an shielded easel (to protect against bird droppings).
“Le Bal” (“The Ball”)
Her animals were her favourite models, as in the “Le Mariage Mystique du Prince Noui Noui a Vellara” (“The Mystical Marriage of Prince Noui Noui at Vellara”, 2003), which is considered her masterpiece. The painting depicts an extravagant wedding party, with herself and her beloved pet, a Saint Bernard named Noui Noui, among an assembly of animals, imaginary beasts and animal-headed humanoids. Her basset hounds, cats and parrots are also portrayed in “Le Bal” (“The Ball”, 1989) with the beasts in a masquerade.
Another room shows the chronology of Marsi from her birth in 1931 to the present day that is synchronised with the timeline of major events in Thailand and Southeast Asia.
“L’Arche de Noe” ("Noah’s Ark")
The Renaissance style influence with rendering of light and shadow to create an illusion of depth and the complexity of arrangements and the physical relationship between humans, animals and objects and the landscape around them appear in many of her works such as “L’Arche de Noe” (“Noah’s Ark”, 1992) with different beasts embarking on the ship to escape the flood and “Le Mur” (“The Wall”, 1985) – a long zigzag wall separating a dreamlike land from desperate space.
Her painting tools and an easel showing the painting “Le Mur” (“The Wall”).
Also on show are several of her sketches that have never been shown. Each of her paintings was extremely time consuming because she made her own canvas frame and prepared a sketch before applying different layers of oil. She wrote with her left land but always wielded a brush with her right, but a stroke in 2004 paralysed that side and she never painted again.
Flynow has launched a special collection of clothing and accessories bearing some patterns from Princess Marsi’s paintings.
Photographer and filmmaker Shane Bunnag has produced a short documentary for the exhibition, merging footage of Princess Marsi with interviews with her friends in Annot.
And fashion label Flynow has launched the Marsi x Flynow collection by translating some of the Princess’ paintings into clothing and accessories such as T-shirts, shirts, dresses, scarves and bags.
A file photo shows Princess Marsi with her beloved Saint Bernard, Noui Noui.
“Beauty and Ugliness: Aesthetic of Marsi” continues until December 23 at the National Gallery on Chao Fah Road of Bangkok.
The gallery is open Wednesday to Sunday, from 9am to 6.30pm.
Call (02) 281 2224 or keep updated at www.MarsiFoundation.org.