• The tiger signifies a father who rules the kingdom with kindness and compassion.
  • Emeritus Professor Pishnu Supanimit
  • Princess Chulabhorn Mahidol’s painting series was in part a way of dealing with grief over the loss of her father. With her on the left is art instructor Panya Vijinthanasarn.
  • The "Butterflies" Series

The Princess and the Tiger

Art April 03, 2018 01:00


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Kings of the jungle rule benevolently in the "Naive Art" of Her Royal Highness Princess Chulabhorn

HER ROYAL Highness Princess Chulabhorn Mahidol, long associated with scientific endeavours and affectionately known as “the Princess Researcher”, shared another of her talents last week with the opening of the art exhibition “Various Patterns: Diversity of Life” at the Queen’s Gallery in Bangkok.

The 239 paintings on view until May 15 represent her output while pursuing a doctorate in visual arts at Silpakorn University’s Faculty of Painting Sculpture and Graphic Arts. 

Also on display are pieces entailing embroidery, sculpture, printing and digital techniques. 

Central to the Princess’ doctoral thesis is the nature of the big cats of the wild, and she cleverly links these “kings of jungle” to the King of Thailand, specifically to her beloved late father, His Majesty King Bhumibol. 

It was the loss of her father that led her to delve more deeply into art as a way of working through her grief – in a pastime that he’d also loved and at which he excelled.

While the lion “king of the jungle” appears in several pieces, it’s the tiger and the leopard that predominate, and it’s the tiger specifically that Princess Chulabhorn identifies most with the human monarch on the throne.

These camouflaged cats lend themselves well to her use of symbolism, their stripes and spots sometimes augmented with musical and scientific nomenclature. The animals’ markings stem from their DNA, a subject of her biology studies, she also notes. 

The Princess said she’d been keen on art as a child, but royal duties and an overriding interest in science prevailed. 

“My mother once said, ‘I only have four children, so it would be helpful if each of my children studied a different field to make their combined knowledge advantageous to the country.’ 

“For 40 years I have devoted myself to scientific studies and research in chemistry, aquaculture, medicine and veterinary science to develop our country and improve the lives of the people. My duties are quite serious but also very stressful because of the way other people’s lives depend on them. 

“As time passed, though, I reconsidered my life and found there was one thing I loved to do, which was art. Whenever I have time after work, I’m delighted to be alone and dreaming without boundaries. That feeling makes me understand true happiness. And that’s why I chose art as a form of therapy.”

Emeritus Professor Pishnu Supani- mit, who chairs the doctorate programme in which the Princess is enrolled, said there was concern initially because her background was in science and medicine and doctorate art students require basic drawing skills. 

“However, to the surprise of the art instructors, when we first saw her paintings presented to the committee, our fears were allayed,” he said. “The Princess already had creative concepts in mind and her painting shows a unique style, including in the composition. It was obvious that she absorbed a sense of art through her parents.”

Her characterised her work as “naive art” since the Princess has had no formal training. “It derives from her instinct and intelligence,” Pishnu said.

There are also butterflies, flora and landscapes in the exhibition, but the tiger truly is king, a symbol of her close relationship to the family and of King Bhumibol’s function as a role model for leadership. 

The Princess draws her subjects on paper with a watercolour marker, a pen whose pigment can then be diffused with a wet brush. It’s the same approach she’s used in designing jewellery. Her colours are generally bright and she overlays them to make the hues more intense and then uses a pencil or fountain pen to draw outlines and other details.

The six categories in the series begin with “Tiger and Lines (Black and White)”, with several interesting turns of imagination beyond form.

“Identity of a Tiger” underscores one of the more intriguing aspects of the Princess’ approach. The big cats are never shown stalking or attacking. Instead, as if she were depicting a king who rules with care and compassion, they’ve been shorn of any ferocity and are seen as beautiful and kind. 

“Tiger and Nature” looks at the reality of nature through a pure lens. “Tiger, Nature and Composition” contains hidden messages about profound emotions. “Tiger and Scientific Symbols” associates one cat with a space rocket and pierces another’s ears with a chain of earrings. 

Finally there’s “Tiger and Imaginative Creation”, as well as the “Butterflies” series. 

Art instructor Panya Vijinthanasarn said Princess Chulabhorn succeeds at “learning from doing”. She might be riding a helicopter to a function upcountry, he notes, but she has her pad and watercolours in her lap.

“And she constantly showed progress in class. Her art is unique, a mix of the surreal and the imaginative. All of her tigers have their own distinctive patterns, lines, colours, volumes and shapes. You find musical symbols, eyeglasses, flowers, hearts and the Thai character for the number nine. 

“I think Princess Chulabhorn uses both hemispheres of her brain when she’s doing art, so there’s both logical and creative thinking. A lot of her art suggests a scientific approach and is very detail-oriented. Overall, the composition, creativity and imagination are quite apparent and outstanding. Only a few artists can do that, such as da Vinci and the late King Bhumibol.”



- The exhibition “Various Pattern: Diversity of Life” continues at the Queen’s Gallery through May 15. 

- Reproductions of the paintings as prints, postcards, T-shirts and scarves are on sale (the T-shirts cost Bt350 and Bt450) at Silpakorn University. Call the Nakhon Pathom campus at (034) 271 379 or the Bangkok campus at (02) 849 7564. Or order by mail through Siam Glitters 1957, phone (02) 598 6599. 

- All proceeds after expenses will be donated to the Chulabhorn Foundation.