Thai art refers to a diverse range of art forms created in Thailand from prehistoric times to the present day, including architecture, sculpture, painting, textiles, decorative arts, crafts, ceramics, and more. While Buddhism has played a significant role in Thai art, with many sculptures and paintings depicting Buddha images and religious themes, nature, including flora and fauna, as well as mythical creatures, has been a major inspiration for Thai art, with colorful motifs appearing in various types of art forms. In contemporary Thai art, traditional works remain significant and continue to influence artists' concepts.
One of the earliest examples of artistic expression in Thailand can be found in over 410 documented rock art sites across the country, featuring both prehistoric and historic art. The majority of these sites showcase monochrome red pictograms that depict animals, humans, geometric shapes, and handprints. While the dating of many sites remains unknown, some rock art sites have been reported to date back 3,000–5,000 years ago.
Nong Ratchawat, situated in Suphanburi province, is an important prehistoric site that provides valuable insights into the lifestyles of the people who settled in the area around 2000–500 BCE. Excavations have unearthed evidence of rice cultivation, animal husbandry, hunting, fishing, building construction, the creation of polished stone axes and pottery using locally available materials. The inhabitants were skilled in weaving textiles from plants possessing strong fibers, such as flax, hemp, and ramie. During the Iron Age, Nong Ratchawat became a prominent trading hub in the Mae Klong River Basin and the Tha Chin River Basin, attracting merchants from different parts of the world and leading to cultural and ethnic diversity. The river watersheds surrounding the site have yielded a plethora of artifacts, including pottery, bronze and iron tools, glass beads, ivory dice, Roman coins, and Lingling-o earrings. Ban Chiang is another important archaeological site in Thailand, located in Udon Thani province. It showcases the artistic achievements of a prehistoric culture that existed from about 2000 BCE to 300 CE. The people of Ban Chiang were skilled metalworkers, and evidence of early metallurgy, including copper and bronze artifacts, has been found at the site. The site also features diverse ceramics, some of which are decorated with distinctive red-on-buff swirl designs painted by hand.
See also: Dvaravati art
The Dvaravati period, lasting from the 6th to the 12th centuries CE, witnessed the spread of Theravada Buddhism throughout central, northern, northeastern, and southern Thailand. While Theravada Buddhism was the dominant religion during this time, there is also evidence of other religious influences, including Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism. Dvaravati art, which employed hard blue limestone or quartzite to produce intricate sculptures, stucco, and terracotta decorations, featured symmetrical Buddha images standing or seated on thrones and the Wheel of the Law. The art style of Dvaravati owed its influence to the art of the Gupta and Post-Gupta periods in northern India, as well as the Buddhist art of Amaravati in southern India. People of Dvaravati were likely the Mons, as evidenced by various inscriptions during this period. The Dvaravati period played a significant role in the dissemination of Buddhism across the region, with noteworthy examples of Dvaravati towns including Nakhon Pathom ancient city in Nakhon Pathom province, U-Thong in Suphanburi province, Chan Sen in Nakhon Sawan province, Si Thep in Phetchabun province, Hariphunchai in Lamphun province, Mueang Fa Daet Song Yang in Kalasin province, Champasi in Maha Sarakham province, Sema in Nakhon Ratchasima province, Baan Dong Lakorn in Nakhon Nayok province, Ku Bua in Ratchaburi province, and Yarang in Pattani province.
During the 8th-13th centuries CE, Southern Thailand may have been influenced by the Srivijaya Kingdom, which encompassed Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. This resulted in similarities between Srivijaya art in Southern Thailand and Central Java art in Indonesia, specifically in bronze sculptures and votive tablets. The ancient sites in Chaiya, Southern Thailand, also bear resemblances to Central Java art, with Wat Phra Borommathat Chaiya being the most similar. The majority of sculptures discovered in Southern Thailand are of religious significance, depicting figures such as the Avalokitesvara, Buddha protected by a Nāga, and clay votive tablets with Buddhist iconography. Srivijaya art in Southern Thailand, from Surat Thani to Songkhla, displays the influence of Indian art styles such as Gupta, post-Gupta, and Pala–sena, indicating a strong connection to Mahayana Buddhism.
Between the 11th and 13th centuries CE, central and northeastern Thailand was ruled by the Khmers of Cambodia and as a result, Brahmin–Hinduism emerged. It led to the development of artistic styles, sculptures, and architecture similar to the Khmer also known as Khom in Thai language. This artistic expression is known as the Lopburi style, named after the ancient city of Lopburi or Lavo and refers to both the Khmer-influenced and genuinely Khmer artistic movement in Thailand.
Lopburi artists were primarily associated with Brahmin-Hinduism, and later, Mahayana Buddhism. Surviving examples of their art are mainly stone and bronze carvings. The Lopburi architectural style used bricks and stones, with the Prang style being the most common, influenced by the Khmer Angkor style. In the 13th century AD, the Sukhothai Kingdom was established, and the Lopburi Kingdom came under its influence. During this time, artistic works aimed to establish a Thai identity.
U-Thong art, also known as Suphannaphum-Ayothaya art, emerged in central Thailand between the 12th and 15th centuries CE, contemporaneously with Chiang Saen and Sukhothai art. This style received its name from the U-Thong Kingdom, which was centered in the U Thong District, although this kingdom's existence is ambiguous. It is characterized by a Buddha image style influenced by Dvaravati, Lopburi, and Sukhothai arts, with the Dvaravati influence being the most prominent. The resulting architecture and fine arts are collectively referred to as U-Thong and can be found in various provinces, including Suphanburi, Nakhon Pathom, Chai Nat, Lopburi, and Ayutthaya.
U-Thong architecture is closely related to Theravada Buddhism and features low-roofed ubosot, vihāra, and chedis constructed with wood. A unique style of U-Thong chedi has an octagonal base, eight-sided structure, lotus crystal-adorned roof, and bell. These chedis are commonly found at various temples, such as Sankhaburi in Chai Nat province or some temples in Suphanburi. Another type of U-Thong chedi is found at Wat Phra Borommathat in Chai Nat province and shows similarities to Srivijaya art.
Bronze sculptures from the U-Thong period exemplify elaborate casting, inheriting from the earlier Dvaravati art. Sukhothai art mixed with U-Thong art, resulting in lighter Buddha statues with flame auras, eventually becoming characteristic of early Ayutthaya art. The U-Thong or Ayothaya Kingdom was dissolved with the establishment of the Ayutthaya Kingdom.
Sukhothai art emerged in the 13th to 15th centuries CE, coincided with the establishment of the Sukhothai Kingdom. This art form was influenced by Theravada Buddhism, which was propagated from Lanka through Nakhon Si Thammarat. One of the most notable characteristics of Sukhothai art is the authentic Sukhothai-style chedi, also referred to as Phum khao bin, which has a distinct lotus-shaped design.
Another defining feature of Sukhothai art is the Buddha images' graceful and elegant form, which exhibits refined proportions, a distinctive flame-like halo around the head, and a serene expression. These Buddha images are typically seated in the half-lotus posture with the right hand performing the earth-touching gesture or walking with one foot forward and the right hand raised to the chest. The walking Buddha, in particular, is a unique style closely associated with Sukhothai.
The Sukhothai Kingdom was also renowned for its exceptional glazed ceramics, which were produced in the Sangkhalok style. These ceramics featured delicate blue-green or grayish-green tints and intricate designs painted in black or a darker hue of the glaze. They were fired at high temperatures, resulting in a durable and robust body. Despite its short-lived existence, the Sukhothai Kingdom's artistic legacy remains influential to this day. The kingdom's artistry and craftsmanship were absorbed into the Ayutthaya Kingdom, which succeeded it.
Lanna art, also known as Chiang Saen art, denotes an artistic tradition that emerged in northern Thailand, spanning the period from the 14th to the 19th century AD. Its inception was in Chiang Saen; however, the establishment of the Lanna Kingdom with Chiang Mai as its capital caused a shift in artistic production. Lanna art is deeply entrenched in Theravada Buddhism, which was the dominant religion in the region. While initially, it drew inspiration from Hariphunchai art, it gradually evolved its distinct style.
Lanna chedis are typically bell-shaped, evolving from a round plan to a polygonal plan as seen in the pagoda at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Some chedis, for example, the one containing King Tilokaraj's ashes at Wat Chet Yot, were influenced by Sukhothai architecture. The Buddha images of Lanna are frequently depicted with specific attributes like a round face, a smiling expression, and curled-up hair or an egg-shaped face with a halo of flames.
Ayutthaya art thrived between the 14th and 18th centuries CE, during the rise and dominance of the Ayutthaya Kingdom across much of mainland Southeast Asia. It inherited the artistic traditions of late U-Thong art and developed a distinctive style that blended various cultural influences from Sukhothai, Lopburi, India, Persia, China, Japan, and Europe. Ayutthaya also exerted its artistic influence over its vassal states of Angkor and Lanna.
The art of Ayutthaya was characterized by a diverse array of techniques and styles, including the grand palaces and monasteries decorated with chedis, prangs, and Buddha images. Religious icons were often adorned with regal attire and crowns, emphasizing the close relationship between the king and the Buddha. Artisans showcased their expertise in the creation of lacquerware and mother-of-pearl inlay, producing functional and decorative objects with intricate designs and vivid paintings. These techniques were frequently used to decorate religious objects such as Buddha images.
Chang Sip Mu, which means Ten Essential Traditional Craftsmanship, played a crucial role in both civilian and military fief houses during the Ayutthaya period. This is evidenced by its recognition under the Three Seals Law implemented by King Borommatrailokkanat. Despite the name suggesting only ten groups of highly skilled craftsmen, the group actually comprised more than ten groups who were experts in various fields. However, after the Burmese army burned down the city in 1767 CE, various branches of fine arts that had thrived during the late Ayutthaya period had to disperse because craftsmen were taken away. Despite this unfortunate event, the city's artistic heritage can still be appreciated today at the archaeological site of the historic city and in various museums.
Rattanakosin art is a style of art that emerged in 1780, when the Rattanakosin Kingdom was founded by King Rama I. The king wanted to revive the artistic traditions that had been lost during the destruction of the Ayutthaya Kingdom by the Burmese. He re-established Chang Sip Mu, a group of ten craftsmen who were responsible for creating fine art in Bangkok. Later, this group became part of the Fine Arts Department.
The early Rattanakosin art was influenced by the late Ayutthaya art, which was characterized by the use of bright colors, gold leaf, and solid backgrounds in paintings. The artists also restored some of the art forms that had been damaged or lost, such as lacquerware and mother-of-pearl inlay.
During the reign of King Rama III, Rattanakosin art began to incorporate elements from other cultures, such as European and Chinese. This was especially evident in architectural art, which blended Thai and Chinese styles. For example, the Grand Palace and Wat Pho were built with Chinese-style roofs and decorations.
King Rama IV introduced more changes to Rattanakosin art, as he was interested in Western science and culture. He adopted European architectural styles and techniques, such as Gothic and neoclassical, and also learned about linear perspective from Western paintings. He hired Khrua In Khong, a talented painter who applied linear perspective to Thai paintings and created realistic scenes of nature and society.
King Rama V continued the modernization and westernization of Rattanakosin art, as he traveled to Europe and brought back new ideas and materials. He commissioned many buildings that combined Thai and European styles, such as the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall and the Vimanmek Mansion and mixed-style such as Chakri Maha Prasat Throne Hall. He also supported the production of Benjarong, a type of porcelain with colorful patterns that had previously been imported from China with Thai patterns but later began to be produced locally.
Contemporary Thai art emerged in the 1990s, blending old and new Thai cultural features with a diverse color palette and patterns to create modern and appealing art. However, its roots can be traced back to Khrua In Khong, the first Thai artist to adopt the Western realist style in his paintings, which added more depth and realism to his works.
Silpa Bhirasri, an Italian sculptor who came to Thailand in 1923 and founded the School of Fine Arts, which later became Silpakorn University, played a pivotal role in introducing modern art concepts and techniques to Thai artists and students. He taught them perspective, anatomy, composition, and color theory, and established the National Art Exhibition in 1949, providing a platform to showcase and promote Thai art. Silpa Bhirasri's famous sculptures and paintings reflected his artistic vision and appreciation of Thai culture and history, making him widely regarded as the father of Thai contemporary art.
Silpa Bhirasri's influence can be seen in the works of Fua Haripitak and Sawasdi Tantisuk, who were Thailand's avant-gardes in the 1950s and 1960s. These artists challenged the conventional norms and expectations of Thai art by creating abstract and expressive works that explored their personal feelings and experiences. They used bold colors, shapes, and textures to convey their emotions and ideas, incorporating elements of Thai culture and spirituality, such as Buddhist symbols, folk motifs, and astrological signs, into their works. Their trailblazing efforts paved the way for many more artists of later generations, such as Damrong Wong-Upraj, Manit Poo-Aree, Pichai Nirand, and Anant Panin, to experiment with new forms and styles of expression.
In the mid-1990s, a group of artists created the Chiang Mai Social Installation, which brought art and performance out of the traditional gallery setting and into the streets of Chiang Mai.
The Bangkok Art Biennale, launched in 2018, provides a platform for artists to showcase their work on an international stage. These developments reflect a growing interest in Thai contemporary art and the increasing willingness of artists to experiment with new forms of expression
The style was comparable with those styles of Khmer sculptures and architectures in Cambodia, therefore, the 'Ancient Khmer Style of Thailand' is used as an alternative term for 'Lopburi Style'.
This crowned Buddha image was cast in Lopburi, the Khmer provincial capital located in central (modern day) Thailand in the early centuries of the second millennium.
La ville de Lopburi (à 130 km au nord de Bangkok), qui a donné son nom à l'école khmérisante, et authentiquement khmère, de Thaïlande, est située à la bordure nord-est du Delta
The Thai word refers on the one hand on the Angkorian tower structures, on the other hand on towers that build on this heritage style.
The Prang Sam Yod ("Three-Spired Sanctuary"), the symbol of the Lop Buri region, was built by the Khmers.