Teaching aristocracy

Lawan Upa-In at the exhibition held as a tribute to her career. PHOTOS: SAN SAENGNGAM


Last year, Lawan Upa-In became the first female National Artist in Visual Art. A stylish dresser, former model, actress and politically engaged artist who lived through one of the most tumultuous events in Thai history, and a woman in the male-dominated art scene, Lawan, 82, is a doyenne who has earned great respect and adulation over her half-a-century career, renowned especially for her mastery in portrait painting.

But her proudest achievement, she said, was to be the first female art teacher at Silpakorn University in the 1950s.

To honour their mentor, Lawan’s former students have put together over 200 paintings to pay tribute to the artist. The “Luk Mai Tai Ton” exhibition (meaning “Fruits Don’t Fall Far From The Tree”) runs from now until March 12 at Queen’s Gallery, Ratchadamnoen Road.

The highlights include portraits and paintings in remembrance of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, portraits of Lawan, and paintings by her students. Apart from the show, the exhibition also includes a nine-day workshop taught by her pupils and by Lawan herself.

The exhibition consists of paintings by Lawan Upa-In as well as her students.

During her long teaching career, she has taught literally hundreds, if not thousands, of students, and many of them have gone on to become well-known artists, fashion designers and advertising creatives. The 11 pupils who participated in the show were Pornchai Sinonpat, Kawee Luksasnasakulchai, Nitikorn Kraivixian, Tiwwat Patarakulvanich, Jirawat Bramh, Panjakorn Chantawong, Praipoj Julwong, Rapee Leelasiri, Silawit Poolsawat, Sompong Saeng-Aramrungroj and Anan Prapaso. There are also three guest artists: Krirkbura Yomnage, Praiwan Dakliang, Pradubchai Wongprasert.

“I want to see enthusiasm in the art world and to do so we need space for artists to show their works, to allow people to access the beauty of the art and the value of art,” said Lawan.

“The art scene has changed these days. A few decades ago, there was only one gallery at Asok. But now you see them everywhere.”

Born in 1935, Lawan Daorai, later Upa-In, was the first female student to graduate from Silpakorn University. She studied at the Faculty of Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Arts, and her teacher was Silpa Bhirasri (Corrado Feroci), the Italian maestro who became the father of Thai modern art and founder of Silpakorn University. Silpa offered Lawan a teaching position at the university even before her graduation.

Silpakorn University in those days had a handful of female students each year, and Lawan was the first to survive the long years of education and training. Photos of her in the 1950s show a beautiful, chic woman — a modern picture at mid-century when Siam was on the verge of entering a new era.

“When I was young, I was really rad, which was not approved of in those days,” said Lawan, with a grin.

“Whatever most women wouldn’t want to do, I would do it. I just wanted to try something new, so when they offered me a chance to be a leading actress on a TV series, I took it. When they wanted a model on the catwalk, I agreed to do it. It was a once in a lifetime experience as after I did those I knew that I only wanted to paint.”

Known for her photo-realism style, Lawan, whose family tree traces back to King Rama III, has over the decades received commissions from the royal family as well as aristocrats and politicians to paint their likeness.

Her oil paintings have decorated several palaces and throne halls, and her portraiture of political figures such as Pridi Banomyong, Puey Ungpakorn and Sulak Sivaraksa are known for their astonishing similitude and the subtle aura of power.

In the 1970s, she found herself embroiled in the political mess of Thailand. In 1973, she was commissioned to paint the portrait of Field Marshall Thanom Kittikachorn, the military dictator who was later overthrown by a student-led uprising. Lawan, in her 40s then, was questioned for taking the job, though she said she was actually on the students’ side since she was helping them paint protest posters. On Oct 6, 1976, before the massacre at Thammasat University, she was accused, groundlessly, of being the person who did make-up for the actors in a student play that provoked the militia’s bloody storming of the campus.

She weathered all of those heady episodes in her stride.

When she was named National Artist in Visual Art last year, the whole art scene and especially her students rejoiced. At the same time, it was such a long-overdue honour for someone who has proved her excellence for decades.

Pornchai Sinonpat, one of Lawan’s pupils and a successful advertising talent, graduated from Silpakorn University 30 years ago. He helped found three companies and five years ago felt an urge to return to painting. His 29 pieces at the exhibition are a testament to his respect for his faithful teacher.

“Among 29 pieces, one of them is a portrait of Lawan and my inspiration was back to the time when I was her student. She stunned me, and the only word in my head when I saw her was ‘elegance’. So I painted her sitting on a fauteuil chair. Looking at that painting you will see how elegant she is.

“We can’t avoid getting old. But at her age, she’s still very sharp. I wish I could be the same as her when I get to that age.”

A well-known cartoonist and caricaturist, Tiwwat “Mor” Patarakulvanich is another of Lawan’s former pupils who feels that his career has been shaped by the respected teacher.

Lawan is one of the founders of the Art of Caricature Study at Silpakorn University; she invited the best-known cartoonists at that time, including Chai Ratchawat, Prayoon Chanyawong and Arun Watcharasawasdi, to be the school’s special instructors.

“I can recall how Lawan taught me to find an optimum degree for my work, when I overdid something or when I underdid something. Finding that right level is the key.

“I initially did study ceramics, though I’m not that interested in it. With the new subject, I found my path. I have always liked to keep up to date with current affairs since I was young and then drawing is one thing I am good at so it was perfect for me, and it never disappointed me.”

Tiwwat pointed out that Lawan might be a media darling, but for her pupils and even herself, Lawan is a genuine teacher in her soul. Her life is about teaching.

“Ajarn Lawan did not teach us how to paint, but she taught what a painting is, what art is,” said Tiwwat.

Lawan taught at Silpakorn until she was 76, retiring just six years ago.

“It is a mission we want to accomplish, paving ways for others to enjoy art, providing access to potential artists to be able to expose their talents. Through this exhibition and workshops, we could help open up more art spaces in Thai society,” added Tiwwat.


Origin: https://www.bangkokpost.com/lifestyle/social-and-lifestyle/1410759/teaching-aristocracy

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