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Silpa Bhirasri: The Big Bang of the Thai Art Sphere

🇹🇭 ภาษาไทย

I wasn’t born in Italy in my former life, nor does my life in the present day attend Silpakorn University. However, I love dwelling in Prof. Silpa Bhirasri’s office which is currently open as a museum without paying an entrance fee. My office is pretty close to this place in the Tha-Pra-Chan area. When I don’t feel hungry or feel like skipping my job during the day, I usually cross the road and visit the place. His office is easy to find and there is a sign at the entrance next to the car park of the Fine Art Department. There is no need to climb up the stairs or the building. It could be said that his yellow mustard office is very spacious. Nonetheless, if it is claimed to be a museum, it could be among the tiniest museums in the world. Despite its size, a number of his belongings have been kept well including his working desk, stationery, typewriter, glasses, textbooks, and his model sculptures scattering around in the glass cabinets. Not only are there his artworks available, but his first generation of students’ works are also presented here. Those artworks are filled up on every wall and shelf.

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Typewriters of Silpa Bhirasri on display in the National Museum

Each work is a masterpiece. One of the most distinctive pieces which I always dream about every night is the collection of nude and Italian scenery paintings by Fua Haripitak.  In addition to this, the pictures of a waterlily bunch, the Golden Mount in Wat Saket, and the portrait of Ms.Suwannee Sukhontha painted by Tawee Nandakwang are also impressive. Moreover, the national fine art award key works by Chamras Khietkong, Chalood Nimsamer, Manit Phu-Aree, Khien Yimsiri, and other fine artists are exhibited here. While you immerse yourself in the sphere of these master-works, a song ‘Santa Lucia’, Prof. Silpa Bhirasri’s favorite song, is played along softly to enrich your feeling of the old days. This creates a nostalgic moment of Prof. Silpa typing his text at the large wooden desk in the middle of the room. Not long after, his students come gathering around for his advice. His teenage students in the old-time have now turned out to be pivotal artists in the Thai Art circle. They have been teaching and handing on the valuable knowledge to the next generation endlessly. Therefore, this workplace is not just a normal place but it is the center of the art sphere where the big bang of the Thai Art circle originated from.

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Silpa Bhirasri in his youth while living in Italy (Photo from the 18th Silpa Bhirasri speech book, 2013)

Most Thai people, who are passionate about art, learn that Prof. Silpa Bhirasri has been glorified to be the father of Thai contemporary art, but some would get confused that how a European man came to be a hero in Thailand which is a long-distance away from his home. To answer this question, dated back to the 15th of September 1892 in San Giovanni, Florence, Italy, it was the day when Corrado Feroci was born. He was the son of Mr. Artudo and Ms. Santina. The city of Florence used to be the center of art and knowledge in the European continent hundreds of years ago. During the Renaissance era, various prodigious artists were contributing to art in the city, such as Michel Angelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Donatello, and more. Therefore, the city was overwhelmed by the feeling of art. It was a fortunate place for the young boy ‘Corrado’ who grew up in this breathtaking city. He had naturally absorbed and appreciated the beauty of art which could be found everywhere in the city. When he was grown up, he decided to apply for a job as a studio crew working for famous artists. Until 1908, he attended the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze, but his parents didn’t approve of his choice. They would want him to continue their family’s business rather than being an artist. After seven years in college, young ‘Corrado’, aged 23, finished his art degree with first-class honor. Not only did he specialize in sculpting, carving, and painting, but his knowledge of art history and appreciation, and philosophy was also excellent.

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Silpa Bhirasri, when he first came to serve in Thailand. (Pictures from the 100th Anniversary Exhibition of Silp Bhirasri)

As a result, he was appointed to be a professor in that college for his fellow juniors. His striking artwork after his graduation can be found in Italy, such as a memorial statue for fallen soldiers, Elba Island, Italy, which was a nationally awarded the winner. Meanwhile, in Thailand, it was the period of King Rama the 6th which was the time of western influence obviously wide-spreading in the kingdom of Siam. Consequently, the Siam authority needed to construct some buildings, palaces, monuments, and other decorations in the western style. This would cost a lot to hire several western artists and contractors to build up everything. The Siam government requested the Italian government to appoint the finest artist to work here, in Thailand, in the hope that this artist would be the role model and transfer his knowledge to the locals who could later be as capable as the western. The Italian government then, proposed the winner of the Siam Money Design Contest, Mr. Corrado Feroci. At the age of 32, Feroci and his family (his wife Fanni Vivianni and his daughter Isabella) left for Bangkok and arrived at the Bangkok Port on 14th January 1923. He first started his career as a sculptor at the Fine Arts Department, Ministry of Royal Office with a salary of THB 800 plus a rental fee THB 80. With this income, he could live his life with comfort. During the first phase of his life in Bangkok, Corrado didn’t have any chance to show off his gifted aesthetic skill, so he became a nobody.

Fortunately, Prince Narisranuvattiwongse recognized Corrado and gave him nice support by being a model for Corrado to employ his bust sculpture. The result was stunning, so Prince Naris proudly presented his sculpture to everyone. They were bedazzled by his work. That sculpture looked so lively that King Rama the 6th extended a particular chance for Corrada to produce a bust sculpture for him. From this point which was the great leap for him, everyone in the kingdom acclaimed that Corrado was the greatest sculptor ever. After a three year working contract with the Thai government, his contract was automatically continued with the new career path, a sculpture teacher at the Fine Arts Department, Office of Royal Society. In the meantime, everything seemed to be nice for the couple, Corrado and Vivianni, so they had another family member, a son, named Romano. When Corrado became famous, he was snowed under by loads of sculpting tasks for several places and monuments. Especially in 1928, the Thai government decided to have a monument of King Rama the 1st at the foot of Phra Phuttha Yodfa Memorial Bridge. Prince Naris designed the base for the monument while Corrado had to complete the gigantic sculpture of King Rama the 1st. At that time, no place in Thailand could cast a huge brass or bronze model. As a result, Corrado needed to place his order at the factory in Milan, Italy. It was supposed to be his home-coming trip for three months. At first, he decided to take this period as a holiday in his home town. Unfortunately, he had to supervise the molding process every single step. In fact, it was not a break; it was another period of working days in faraway place. After finishing this job, he decided to have a world-class standard foundry in Thailand owing to cost-save for the country. Hence, Corrado started his class for the public who were interested in fine arts without charging any tuition fee.

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His Majesty the King’s Prince Krom Phraya Rissaranuwattiwong, sculpted by Silpa Bhirasri

This first group of his students became his crews to help build copious monuments around Thailand, such as The Thao Suranaree (Ya Mo) Monument in Nakhon Ratchasima Province, The Monument of King Naresuan The Great in Suphan Buri Province, and The monument of Phra Si Sakkaya Thotsaphala Yan Prathan Phutthamonthon Suthat at Phutthamonthon Buddhist Park in Nakhon Pathom Province. Moreover, there are some monuments in Bangkok either such as The Monument of King Taksin the Great at Wongwian Yai, The monument of King Rama the 6th at Lumpini Park, The Victory Monument, and The Democracy Monument. This could be said that most monuments, which were frequently built, were created by Corrado and his students. Nonetheless, the priceless contribution from Corrada is not the monuments but the school of art. He has established a global standard syllabus developing from his home school lesson, but there was no certificate for those who graduated. Later on, the fine arts syllabus was officially established by Corrado at the School of Fine Arts, Fine Arts Department. The School of Fine Arts has been set up by Phra Sarot Rattananimman. This school was merged with the College of Dramatic Arts and was named as the College of Fine Arts. Until 1943, the Prime Minister, Plaek Phibunsongkhram, approved Phraya Anuman Rajadhon, the Director of Fine Arts Department, to promote the College of Fine Arts to be Silpakorn University. Of course, Prof. Corrado was appointed to be the dean of faculties of painting and sculpture which were the first two faculties of the university. Corrado devoted his life and time to the university’s laborious tasks both managing and teaching duties.

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Silpa Bhirasri and His Royal Highness Prince Maha Chakri Sirindhorn take a photo with His Majesty King Mongkut’s statue (Pictures from an exhibition honoring 100 years of Silp Bhirasri)

His simple routine started at 7.00 AM. He walked around the university to check the condition of the class before teaching. After that, he started his morning class until noon without stopping. His lunch was the combination of sandwiches and a banana at his office followed by a siesta, an afternoon nap. Then, it was his paperwork time until the evening, and he went back home around 7.00 PM. His life was filled with loads of work which he never put off like his motto “Tomorrow is Too Late”. Nevertheless, it was his pleasure to work for art the career he loved.  He was the beloved second father for his students. In 1944 in the time of World War 2, Italy surrendered to the Allies. Formerly, Italy used to get involved in the Axis countries: Germany and Japan, but Italy changed its side to join the Allies which threw the Japanese government into a rage. From this reason, Italians residing in Thailand were supposed to get captured as prisoners of war. Of course, there was no exception for Corrado, our Italian professor who was almost sent to be a labor for the Thai-Burma Railway (The Death Railway) and the River Kwai Bridge. It was a close call for him as the Thai Government rescued Corrado by transforming his nationality from an Italian to Thai. Otherwise, the university project, newly found, would collapse. Luang Wichitwathakan managed all official documents and named Corrado “Silpa Bhirasri” derived from Thai’s calling “C Feroci”. After that event, everyone called him Prof. Silpa. At the beginning of his life in Thailand, Prof. Silpa received a salary of THB 800 a month which was enough to live his life, but his salary had slightly increased within 20 years later. This was not sufficient for living in the situation of an economic downturn at that time. Life became unpleasant so he needed to sell his car and house. He had to bike to work, but this did not help. As time went by, inflation became more severe; the cost of living became higher and higher; the crisis became greater and greater. This situation triggered a change in his life. He decided to resign his job in Thailand and headed to his motherland, Italy, with his family in 1946. Despite the great distance, he still missed his life in Thailand as can be seen in his letters to his students.

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Silpa Bhirasri while modeling King Taksin the Great Monument (Photo from the book of Silp Bhirasri’s 18th speech, 2013

He bewailed his unfortunate life in the letter that even though his look was foreign, his mind and heart still remained in Thailand. He could not call Italy his home but Thailand was. Everyone in Thailand regretted not adjusting his income properly, so they tried to increase the payment to be more attractive and suitable for the cost of living. They, then, approached Prof. Silpa to return to Thailand in 1949. At that time, he had to make his trip alone as his family decided to stay in Italy. He dedicated his life to improve Thai’s modern arts. He administered Silpakorn University and developed to the fullest with various faculties covering diverse subjects. Since then, Silpakorn University has become the leading art college in Thailand. This university has educated many students who contributed to the art society. Countless art articles and critiques have been distributed domestically and internationally. This has influenced an arrangement of the national contest of fine arts annually until now. Through an art contest, the artworks from Thai artists can be publicly renowned both in domestic and foreign circles. He committed his energy and half of his life to the Thai art sphere. Despite the fact that he had introduced the western art and value to Thai society, he always reminded everyone not to lose themselves in western styles and forgot about the Thai heritage. This led to the proper combination between Thai and modern arts which prevailed in his students’ artworks. Some of his students were nominated to be national artists. Prof. Silpa got impressed by Thai traditional art at the first moment. He felt deeply fascinated by the ancient features of temples, buildings, palaces, Buddha images, and paintings that were inherited for thousands of years. Thus, he had conducted his research about Thai arts and produced plenty of textbooks about it in the hope that Thai people will protect and preserve the invaluable Thai legacy. Furthermore, he encouraged his talented students to inspect the ancient architecture and to duplicate the ruined paintings before they are gone. These can be stored as a database for further restoration if the budget is sufficient.

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Silpa Bhirasri poses for a photo with a portrait of Malinee Kenny painted by Chamras Kiatkong (photo from the 18th Silp Bhirasri speech book 2013)

During his older age, he fell in love again with Miss Malinee Kenny and got married in 1959. After 38 years of his service to the Thai Arts circle, he passed away from the cancer operation on his stomach at the age of 69 on 14th May 1962 at Siriraj Hospital. His cremation was held under the royal patronage on 17th January 1963. His ashes were separated and shipped to Italy, his hometown. This was buried with his family in the cemetery in Florence while the others were well kept in Silpa Bhirasri Memorial Museum which is his office and inside his monument in Silpakorn University Wang Thapra Campus.  He is the only one foreigner who has his monuments situated in Thailand and a large number of people have come to worship his statues. We can see this similar phenomenon in Ai-Khai Temple where it is believed that his spirit remains there. People gather at the temple to pray for lucks while Prof. Silpa statues cannot grant any wishes. Additionally, his motto ‘Ars longa vita brevis ‘ (Art is long; life is short) has been remarked as the university’s motto. As well as this, Santa Lucia Song is included as the university’s anthem because it is Prof. Silpa’s favorite song which he usually played during his free time. His birthday, 15th September, is the university memorial day as for Silpakorners he always remains there in their hearts. That’s why they do not take the day of his death to be the Memorial Day. Every memory of his moments has been well inculcated in everyone’s mind and this will be passed onto the next generation. There used to be an old saying “everyone dies two times”. The first one is when we are out of breath and the last one is when nobody recalls. Once when we think like this, there is no need for us to search for the magic potion to live forever. Everyone can be immortal as he wishes if he studies the life of Prof. Silpa Bhirasri. Regardless of his short life, his work lives on.

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