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Art of a Princess

An exhibition at the Queen's Gallery attests to the mastery of Marsi

Her Serene Highness Princess Marsi Sukhumbhand Paribatra's art studio in the mountain-ringed village of Annot in the south of France - where she has lived for more than 40 years - is very bit as eccentric as her intricate paintings of surrealistic fantasy. It doubles as an aviary and has birdcages and nests in every corner. The birds fly freely from corner to corner and cats and dogs are allowed to roam too. Unsurprisingly, the assemblage of animals is the key figures in her fanciful works.

Stepping inside the Queen's Gallery where her solo show "L'art de Marsi" is currently on display, visitors see a large picture of her studio together with her paintbrushes and her last painting, which remains unfinished. Princess Marsi writes with her left hand but has always wielded a brush with her right. A stroke in 2004 paralysed that side of her body and she hasn't painted since.

"Her home is a menagerie of cats, dogs, chickens and other birds - her animal models. She feeds more than 100 birds in her studio and has a shield over the easel to keep off the bird droppings. While painting, Princess Marsi plays classical music and when the sound hits a high pitch, these birds will flap their wings and fly around just like in a fantasy movie," says Atidtaya Kulmony, adviser to the Marsi Foundation.

The 82-year-old daughter of His Royal Highness Prince Chumbhot of Nagor Svarga and MR Pantip Paribatra has spent most of her life abroad and is little known in her homeland, but is internationally celebrated and has often exhibited in Paris and Provence.

Princess Marsi was educated at Bangkok's Mater Dei School and in Switzerland, France and Spain, earning PhDs in literature at the University of Paris and in art history from the University of Madrid. She lectured on Far Eastern civilisation at her alma mater in Madrid and on art history at Chulalongkorn University until she fell in love with the charms of Annot. She built her studio in 1970 and named her home Vellara.

Before falling ill, the princess made clear her wishes to establish a charitable foundation, but French law made this difficult. Her cousin MR Jisnuson Svasti came to the rescue and helped to set up the Marsi Foundation in Thailand in 2009 to take care of her paintings and arrange exhibitions in Thailand with the aim of raising funds for students and artists as well as to help animals in need. The foundation is searching for a plot of land to establish a permanent public gallery that will house her collection of 107 paintings.

Forty-nine years after her last exhibition in Bangkok, the first show organised by the foundation was held in 2010, though the princess was unable to make the trip home with her works. Her current exhibition showcases 45 paintings out of the 107 from the foundation's collection as well as six works from the private collection of Her Majesty the Queen.

The gallery' second floor displays the chronological development of Princess Marsi's artwork through four main themes: rocks and flowers, real and fantastic animals, architecture, and ornaments. They date back to her early works in the 1960s to the last unfinished work in 2004 and merge Greek mythology, Renaissance architecture and oriental decorations with her surreal landscapes.

"Although the Princess showed her artistic talent as a child, she did not take up serious studies in painting until the age of 30. She was a self-trained artist and learned from the masterpieces in the museums and was also advised on proper methods and techniques by some of her artist friends.

"She started to paint in the era when surrealism was in a full bloom in France. But she is not like many surrealists whose works are anti-high society; instead they reflect her philosophy. Princess Marsi once said 'Art is a reflection of life and death and I try to interpret this in my way," says Atidtaya.

This philosophy is demonstrated in "Commedia della Morte", where a skeleton puppeteer is controlling a female player in a stage play as if to point out that life is like a play - it doesn't last long and eventually, all players end up dying.

Princess Marsi learned much from the Renaissance masters, and she began by focusing on rock textures in monotone.

"The Princess did a thesis on traditional Chinese paintings and this influenced her first small-scale works. The size of the oil paintings grew in contrasts of light and shade. The figures of herself and mythical animals began to show later, as a result of her passion for literature. Each painting was time consuming because she made her own canvas frame and made a sketch before applying different layers of oil," Atidtaya explains.

A later series, in which different flowers combine to form images of parrots, was inspired by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, famed for his portraits of humans composed of fruit. From Bosch, Titian, Botticello and Bellini, Princess Marsi learned composition, poses and the delicate rendering of elaborate costumes. In Joseph Redoute's work, she discovered botanical accuracy, right down to foreshortening the petals of a blossom.

"The Princess once said the most difficult subject was the flower," Atidtaya says.

The assemblage of animals, the natural background and the surrounding architecture play vital roles in her later works. "L’Arche de Noe", for instance, features an army of animals but "Le Mariage mystique de Noui-Noui" is considered her masterpiece - the scene of an extravagant wedding party for her beloved pet, a Saint Bernard named Noui Noui.

Atidtaya, who studied preserving and restoring paintings in Annot with the Princess' support, had the tough job of scraping off bird splatter and bits of their food from the canvases.







"I contacted some specialists in conservation and restoration in Versailles and they admitted this was a rare case. The works were not ruined by time, darkened or dirty from dust or smoke, but from bird excretion, which contains acid.

"After considerable research, the specialists advised me to use a particular chemical substance to make the pH become neutral so that it wouldn't affect the oils. To cleanse the dirt, onion slices were ideal," says Atidtaya.

The gallery's first floor displays six works commissioned by HM the Queen in a more realistic style. For "Siriyalay Fantasy", Princess Marsi painted the grandeur of Wat Chaiwattanaram together with the portrait of HM the Queen while "Dream of the Grand Palace" is an imaginative mix of old-fashioned grandeur and colourful art. These two works are now housed in Bang Pa-in Palace in Ayutthaya.

"Princess Marsi said she was not capable of painting Thai architecture and realistic portraits but HM the Queen allowed her complete freedom of expression," says Atidtaya.

There is also a series of four paintings created between 1998 and 2001 depicting each of the four seasons. Princess Marsi took a year to complete each piece. This series is on loan from the Vimanmek Palace.

SEE IT, HEAR IT

>> "L'art de Marsi" continues until February 26 at the Queen's Gallery on Rajadamnoen Klang Road off Phan Fah Bridge. It's open daily, except Wednesday, from 10am to 7pm. Call (02) 281 5360-1 or visit www.QueenGallery.com.

>> A seminar on "L'art de Marsi: Fascination, Symbolism and Imagination" will be held on Saturday. A workshop focusing on painting restoration will be conducted on February 9. Both sessions begin at 11am and are free of charge. Book a seat by calling (02) 688 2300.

>> Learn more about life and work of Princess Marsi at www.MarsiFoundation.org.

>> Discover more with The Nation's video at www.NationMultimedia.com/video and on the "Sunday Leisure The Nation" Facebook page.


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