Published on November 24, 2007
It's been almost 20 years since Uab Sanasen last exhibited his paintings in a solo show. Now, at the age of 72, the dynamic artist is making his return with a grand one-man retrospective that showcases his creations of the last 30 years.
By all accounts, he is one of the last surviving painters in the grand tradition of the great master Silp Bhirasri.
Uab was always determined to become an artist/painter but knew he could only do justice to his art once he had reached a certain level of maturity, in his case not until he was over the age of 40. He went through a long period of apprenticeship, experimenting with the skills that interested him, and working as a nielloware artisan, an artist-illustrator, a graphic designer, the art director of a publishing company and a studio photographer. In between, he managed to find time to play the violin, his favourite musical instrument and still today a consuming passion.
Uab's career as a painter has followed a course not unlike that of the late MR Kukrit Pramoj who only turned to writing when he was in his 40s and went on to publish first-rate newspaper articles and novels.
At his Lat Phrao home in Bangkok, Uab's children are busy helping him with the organisation of the exhibition. Hundreds of his masterpieces that now belong to private individuals, institutions and his own family, are already catalogued, packed and stacked up in his studio.
On Monday, they will go on show in "Uab Sanasen 72 years - A Retrospective Art Exhibition", which runs at the Queen's Gallery on Ratchadamnoen Klang Road until January 31.
In his studio, a huge painting of His Majesty the King and Her Majesty the Queen in formal attire still awaits a final touch before it too is crated for the exhibition. Everywhere you look there are brushes, colours, canvases, easels and piles of paintings stacked up in rows. On the wall, there's a striking painting of his wife, Wisuta.
Passionate about art since early childhood, Uab recalls drawing lines and pictures on the wall as a three-year-old. After high school, he attended Silapakorn University where he received formal training in both traditional Thai painting and the European academic tradition. Professor Silpa Bhirasri, a towering figure in Thailand's art education, was one of his teachers and played a very influential role during his formative years.
Silpa recognised Uab's talent, and during his young protege's fourth year at the university, appointed him first as an art tutor at Silpa Suksa School (Chang Silp College) and then at the Silpakorn's newly formed Interior Decoration Department.
Uab was awarded a bronze medal in the National Art Competition at a surprisingly young age.
The veteran artist is adept in many different techniques and styles but prefers oils. Popular among art collectors are his exquisite roses, landscapes and nudes painted in almost transparent layers of colours. Other sought-after works are his bencharong (hand-painted porcelain products).
Uab uses his expertise in decorative arts involving both bencharong and traditional Thai cloth to give minute and technically accurate representations of both in his paintings.
One of his paintings has a teapot and a Chinese-style bowl with a cover painted in bencharong colours. Underneath is a traditional Thai woven cloth with an exquisite pattern. The flat planes of colour are simple yet very elegant, adding up to a delicate sense of Thainess for the viewer.
Violins are another favourite subject for Uab and this charming instrument, painted from all angles, is a recurring theme in his work.
His nude paintings are also legendary. One of the best known shows a naked girl in repose with a mythical snake curling around her soft body. The backdrop is dark blue symbolising deep sleep. According to Thai folklore, when a girl dreams about an encounter with a snake, it mean s she's about to meet a boyfriend. This painting is very powerful, yet the erotic theme is sensitively rendered so that it never becomes crude or obvious.
Then there are his landscapes. Uab's travels around the country, particularly between Bangkok and Chanthaburi, have provided him with plenty for his landscapes, which he executes with quick, neat brushstrokes.
His tones are classic and always in good taste and he uses colour generously no matter the style, be it traditional Thai, cubism, impressionism or realism. He is also known as an excellent portraitist.
In 1978, Uab and wife Wisuta, under the patronage of the Princess Jumphot Pantip Foundation, opened Nuan Nang Art Centre in Soi Attakarnprasit on Sathorn Road.
As well as collaborations with the nearby Bhirasri Institute of Modern Art, Nuan Nang Art Centre was also a centre for artists and art lovers. Visitors could get information, study, chat, exchange ideas and join in activities that encouraged interest in art and culture. The centre no longer exists, but Uab and Wisuta subsequently opened Bahn Kum Une in Chiang Mai's Mae Rim district, and still welcome visitors.
Uab refuses to be precious or pretentious in his career as an artist. He paints what can be sold. But he's a consummate professional, turning out fine works that satisfy both his creativity and his audience.
In the past Thai artists tended to believe that selling works of art was somehow shameful, if not outright wrong. Uab has always presented a different view. He points out that the motivation for painting is money. As with any other profession, artists too have to survive in the real world.
Statements like these from Uab have sent a shockwave through the local art community. But he believes strongly in a symbiotic relationship between art and society.
"We should make art more accessible to the general public," he says.
"Artists who claim that works put up for sale have to be commercial by nature probably don't understand what art is all about. These artists treat their work as commodities for the marketplace and often produce bad-quality stuff. I may offer my paintings for sale, but only the best ones."
Uab always recalls his former professor with much love and respect.
"Without him, I wouldn't have accomplished so much. He taught me to understand art, not just painting but also sculpture, music, theatre ... even religion and philosophy."
Looking back over Uab's works, the strong influence of Bhirasri's teaching of classical and Renaissance art shines through.
Using his knowledge of Western traditions, together with his personal interest in classical Thai art, Uab was able to fuse the techniques, principles and aesthetics of both cultures, resulting in his own beautiful and unique style.
"Art is not easy. You have to study, learn and be mindful of the details around you. You have to spend a lifetime learning it," he says.