THAI ART buffs got a preview of Natee Utarit’s new painting series “The Altarpieces” last Thursday at the launch of the English-language book “Natee Utarit: Optimism is Ridiculous” by Italian curator and art critic Demetrio Paparoni.
Through Singapore gallery Richard Koh Fine Art, which represents him internationally, Natee was able to show at the venue, Lhong 1919, three of the paintings from the series.
These came from private collections, but the rest of the reunited series is currently on display at the National Gallery of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur and will be coming to Thailand for the Bangkok Biennale beginning in July.
Tanachira Retail Corp, an importer of lifestyle and fashion brands, arranged for a stock of the 255-page book to be brought to Thailand for sale. It’s published in Italy by Skira Editore.
All proceeds from sales through July (or until the supply runs out) will go to the Project Love Asia Foundation to help underprivileged children around Asia.
“The Altarpieces” – 12 paintings in all, completed between 2012 and 2017 – follow the tradition of classical religious works, with multiple panels forming diptychs, triptychs and polyptychs in elaborate frames.
Natee is continuing another venerable tradition – the memento mori, meaning an artwork or object intended to remind people of their mortality. He interprets Western-led modernism in an examination of death, injustice and human suffering, as filtered through his Buddhist beliefs.
“The series takes its inspiration from paintings that adorned the altars of Christian churches from the 15th to the 19th century,” Natee explained. “In Thailand, this type of religious art gained repute during the reign of King Rama IV. Khrua In Khong, who painted the spectacular murals in the chapel at Wat Bowornniwet, was the leading practitioner of the form, which showed Western influences.”
The 48-year-old Bangkok-based artist said altarpieces traditionally depicted Christian legends and myths and served as “foregrounds for the sanctity of Christian rituals”.
“They’re filled with meaning and have always played an important role in giving tangible form to the key tenets of the Christian faith.”
One of his oil paintings from 2015, occupying a 250x450cm canvas, is entitled “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (“Hell is other people”) and features symbolic representations of Hell, Heaven and other subjects. The title is borrowed from the French existentialist playwright Jean Paul Sartre, a quote from his stage play “No Exit”.
“Hell is ‘others’ because it’s the parameter against which each individual assesses himself or herself,” Natee said.
“In the past, people believed Heaven was up there and Hell was below and they were in the middle. But all these places actually blend together. Happiness and suffering are dependent on each person. There are some similar perceptions about life and death in this complex world.
“In Western classical visual art there were genres like ‘Dance of Death’, which reflected the idea of the memento mori,” he said, referring to the allegorical Danse Macabre paintings of the Middle Ages. “But paintings with complex symbolism can communicate the same messages in the contemporary world just as well.”
The other two paintings on view last week are in private collection and had never before been exhibited in public. “Fallen Devil”, an oil on linen, measures 90x80cm, and “Death Contemplation/Red Velvet”, an oil on canvas, is 69.5 x 132cm.
Natee is quoted in Paparoni’s book talking about the former, saying he frequently used anatomical models in his work – models normally used for medical studies – and they gave him “a strange feeling that was hard to explain”.
“I felt nervous in the silence and sensed horror in the beauty. I totally enjoyed creating my works under the ‘ambiguous conflict’ concept. The state of nervousness or doubt was a conceptual one. I therefore searched for something that could represent those abstract concepts. Anatomical models were perfect for me to create those conceptual artworks.”
Art students will derive great benefit from Paparoni’s profile of the artist. He explains the works with references to well-known pieces by many Western artists of classical times, leading to greater understanding of what Natee is striving to accomplish.
He points out, for example, that “Death Contemplation/Suffering” from 2016 could be likened to German artist Hans Holbein the Younger’s “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb”, painted in 1521.
“One can only imagine,” Paparoni writes, “the crises experienced by an artist capable of painting a work like the one conserved in Basel, who never stopped inspiring subsequent generations of artists, as demonstrated by Utarit’s ‘Contemplation of Death’ cycle.”
On the book’s cover is a detail from Natee’s 2014 212x510cm oil on canvas “Passage to the Song of Truth and Absolute Equality”, a polyptych in five panels. It owes a debt to “Danse Macabre” from circa 1464, by the Baltic genius Bernt Notke.
Paparoni praises Natee’s revival of the recurrent motifs seen in European art of the late Middle Ages.
“Art of this kind originally spread a message of equality among men by illustrating their shared relationship with death,” said Natee.
“This notion [the inevitability of death for all creatures] is found through the ages in every culture, including in both Christian and Buddhist culture.
“Europeans can easily perceive the message because of the universal meanings in the symbols, such as water or a river, which is the passageway to death.”
Natee looks to his future as a step-by-step process, in harmony with the different phases of life. He’s pleased with the book, which he called a mainstream international publication suitable for academic study. It completes a cycle that began when he first picked up a brush in his studio and continued at the gallery and on to the collectors.
Natee plans to next do a series of landscapes, the fruit of a year spent in a French forest.
He completed his studies at the College of Fine Art in 1987 and earned a degree in graphic arts from Silpakorn University in 1991.
His work features in the collections of Bangkok University, the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art in Australia, the Singapore Art Museum and private patrons in Europe and Asia.
The appeal is in his exploration of the medium of painting itself, and the way he draws connections with photography and classical Western art with a gifted use of light and perspective.
FOR YOUR ART LIBRARY
– “Natee Utarit: Optimism is Ridiculous” can be purchased at Facebook.com/tanachiracard for Bt2,000 or call (02) 264 5080.