Geneva Anderson digs into art

“Emerald Cities”at the Asian Art Museum– the dazzling Burmese and Siamese Treasures of Heiress and Philathropist Doris Duke find a new home

Mythical bird-man. Approx. 1775–1850. Central Thailand. Wood with remnants of lacquer, gilding, and mirrored-glass inlay. Gift from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Southeast Asian Art Collection, 2006.27.24

The Asian Art Musuem’s marvelous show “Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam and Burma, 1775-1950,” is now in its final three weeks—it ends January 10, 2010– and if you haven’t seen it yet, it is well worth a special visit.   The show includes a dazzling array of some 140 remarkable artworks—rare sculptures, illustrated manuscripts, ornately carved 19th century furniture, gilded offering vessels, silk costumes, shadow puppets, and the finest collection of 19th century Thai paintings outside of Asia—most of which were collected by the legendary heiress Doris Duke and acquired by the Asian Art Museum in 2002 in one lucky swoop.   It has taken the museum five years and a whopping 6,000 hours in conservation and restoration efforts to ready these objects for display.

A billion dollar fortune built on tobacco and energy

The story behind the Doris Duke collection is as fascinating as the art itself and points to a bygone era— when outrageous industrial wealth enabled travel to exotic lands where artifacts could be had for a song.  The story began in 1925, when 12 year old Doris Duke inherited an $80 million dollar estate (about $860 million in 2005 dollars) from her father James Buchanan Duke, the tobacco and hydropower magnate.  Buchanan made the bulk of his great fortune by acquiring a license in 1885 to use the first automated cigarette making machine and by 1890, he supplied 40% of the American cigarette market (then known as pre-rolled tobacco). He consolidated control of his four major competitors under one corporate entity, the American Tobacco Company, and monopolized the American cigarette market.  In the 1890’s, he made a separate fortune in hydropower by supplying electricity to more than 300 cotton mills and establishing a power grid to supply power to parts of North and South Carolina.

Doris Duke: the richest girl in the world

Upon his death in 1925, $40 million of his estate (over $430 million in 2005 dollars)  went to The Duke Endowment, a permanent trust fund that endowed several universities including Trinity University (later renamed Duke University), and hospitals and churches in North Carolina.  The remainder went to his only child, Doris, in the form of an immediate bequest of $80 million and lump sum payments totalling another $100 million dispersed on birthdays (over $1 billion in 2005 dollars).  Doris literally became the richest girl in the world.  She spent her early childhood at of Duke Farms , her father’s 2,700 estate in Hillsborough Township, New Jersey and her teen years in a Manhattan apartment.  It wasn’t all a bed of roses, while she lacked for nothing in the material realm, her unparalleled wealth made her a constant target for self-serving individuals.  At  age 14, she took her mother, Nonoline Duke, to court and successfully blocked the sale of Duke Farms and became solely responsible for the stewardship of her vast fortune.

Doris Duke (Getty image)

A Passion for Southeast Asian Art Emerges

As Doris Duke came of age she, she used her great wealth to pursue a variety of interests including extensive world travel that profoundly impacted the philanthropic interests she would later pursue, one of which was art.  She spoke nine languages, worked in a canteen for soldiers in Egypt during WWII, and even did a stint as a foreign correspondent.  She married twice and it was on her first honeymoon in 1930 with the dashing James H.R. Cromwell, son of Palm Beach doyenne Eva Stotesbury, that she embarked on a trip to India, Thailand, Indonesia and other Asian locales and started to amass a sizeable collection of important Islamic and Southeast Asian art.  She collected her artworks before the UNESCO convention, so there were basically no restrictions on purchases of sacred or rare objects. Duke’s passion for Southeast Asian art was not widely publicized and that is probably because she was collecting in areas where there was little knowledge.  While back in the States, she continued collecting through an agent she employed in Bangkok.  According to Asian Art Museum curator Forrest McGill, the juicy details of her purchases remain a mystery.  She tended to buy several objects at a time and the sales receipts that have been saved do not give a breakdown of any prices paid for individual items.

Before being distributed, Doris Duke’s collection of Southeast Asian art included more than 400 museum-quality objects and 1,800 other items most of which had been in storage at Duke Farms.  Her intention was to create a Southeast Asian cultural theme park in Honolulu.  She even bought some very beautiful farm buildings in Southeast Asia, had them dismantled, and was going to send those to Honolulu, where they would be situated amongst gardens. She couldn’t find the land she wanted in Hawaii and so she sent everything to her New Jersey estate instead and planned to design a Southeast Asian museum and gardens there. All those buildings sat dismantled in the enormous indoor tennis court for years, awaiting plans that did not materialize. Some of the buildings and artifacts were given to a Tampa garden and were going to be erected there.

Doris Duke died in 1993, at 80, of a stroke. While living, she had proven to be a substanial and often progressive philanthropist, giving over $500 million  to organizations supporting the arts, the environment, medical research, child abuse prevention and historic preservation.  In her final will, Duke left virtually all of her fortune (estimated to be in the billions) to charitable foundations, including the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation which she endowed with financial assets totaling approximately $1.3 billion.  She bequeathed her Irish-born butler Bernard Lafferty with $5 million and appointed him co-executor of her estate.  A number of lawsuits were filed against the will.  Her life was the focus of a 2007 HBO docu-drama “Bernard and Doris” starring Susan Sarandon as Duke and Raplh Fines as her butler Lafferty.

Aerial view of the main house on the Duke Estate in Hillsborough on 03/09/99. JOE EPSTEIN/THE STAR-LEDGER

The Asian Art Museum entered the scene about 1998, when its then board chairman Johnson S. “Jack” Bogart was working with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in New York to see if they would fund a portion of the museum’s re-do.  “Jack became aware that there was a collection that Doris Duke had put together and asked me about it,” said curator Forrest McGill, “In a classic bone-headed mistake I said ‘I never heard of it, so it must not be that important.’  Was I ever wrong.  I will never make that mistake again.”

Coach Barn at Duke Farms 1900-1915

Bogart insisted that McGill have a look any way, so he visited Duke Farms, just outside of Princeton, New Jersey, and was astounded.  “I walked into her coach barn, which was literally as big as a train station, and it was like going into an amazing vault of a museum with thousands of 18th and 19th century artworks–sculptures, furniture, paintings, vessels, manuscripts– and I just wasn’t prepared.  She had some of the things more or less on display, but some of them were stored in an indoor tennis court and others were in a gigantic indoor shooting gallery inside her house.  The Duke people were not aware of the rarity of this artwork. We started to make the case that the collection was much more important than they thought it was.”

A lucky coin toss

After years of negotiation, around 2002, the foundation decided to let The Asian Art Museum and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, which has a very important Asian art collection, have first choice of the objects.  “We agreed to work out the division of the artworks ourselves and to gave the Duke Foundation a reconciled list,” explained McGill.   “We had a coin toss and we won and got first pick and we went back and forth down the list in that way.  We ended up with 167 objects and they got 150 objects and the leftovers were distributed to about 20 other museums in Great Britain and the US.” (Duke Foundation gift to the Walters Art Museum , Duke Foundation gift to the Asian Art Museum)

McGill estimates that roughly 75 percent of the objects have some kind religious orientation, either direct or indirect.  They would have been commissioned by wealthy and aristocratic families for use in their homes or palaces or to donate to the monasteries.

The objects were then in storage for several decades in the 1940’s and 50’s and early 60’s.  “Everything was dirty and many pieces needed restoration,” said McGill.  In several cases, materials that survived in the tropical climate Southeast Asia decayed in the new climate.  “We spent the last five years and about 7,000 hours consolidating, stabilizing, preserving, and repairing the artworks,” said McGill.  “Some of the fragile Thai paintings on fabric were beyond repair.”

The exhibition is divided geographically into three sections— Central Burma, followed by Eastern Burma and Northern Thailand which, despite different borders, have the Shan people in common and share many cultural similarities, and it ends with a large gallery devoted to Central Thailand.   The exhibition title “Emerald Cities” does not refer to any actual emeralds on display but is meant to be poetic.    The most important Buddha image in Bangkok is the Emerald Buddha and Bangkok’s formal name is “the City of the Emerald Buddha.”  The three 19th century capitals of Burma, all have their formal names based on gems, though none are emerald.


The Burma segment opens with objects that had a religious use and continues with luxury goods.  Several ornate offering vessels, offering containers and stands are on display.  These were purchased by aristocratic families, often filled with food and given as donations to the temples at monasteries to make merit and maintain their high standing.  These vessels are metal with ornate mirrored glass in-lay or glass reproductions of precious gems on the outside.  They open in the middle and are lined with bamboo which is completely coated with lacquer.  Not much is known about the glass on these objects or on any of the artworks in the collection, except that glass was highly desirable and was used even on royal objects, in lieu of real gems.

“You can imagine for a culture that did not have or know glass what a delight it must have been to see English chandeliers and other types of European luxury glassware,” explained McGill. “We don’t actually know where did the fragments they used came from. Some of it may have been European glass and some of it may have come from India.  Eventually, because they liked glass so much and there was a heavy demand for it, the Burmese and the Thai brought in European advisors and set up glass manufacturing factories in Burma and Thailand.

The show presents many more questions.  “We do not know the name of a single maker, a single workshop or artist, and not a single object has a date inscribed on it” explained McGill.  Wall plaques are as descriptive as they can be but frequently give dates of creation ranging up to 125 years, not the level of precision most hope for.  “Some of these objects were made the same way decade after decade after decade and it’s just impossible to date them more accurately,” said McGill.

Scenes from the Burmese version of the epic of Rama (detail). Approx. 1850-1900. Cotton, wool, silk, sequins. 1989.25.1

A highlight of the Burmese section is “Scenes from the Burmese version of the epic of Rama,” a rare, sequined, nearly six-meter-long textile hanging that portrays the scenes of the legend of Rama.  Although it’s purpose is unknown, it is possible that this narrative textile may have been a backdrop for puppet performances.  The royal costumes depicted in this artwork are echoed throughout the exhibition, through actual costumes and those that appear in artworks and on puppets.

Couch. Approx. 1850–1910. Burma. Lacquered and gilded wood with glass rods and mirrored glass. Gift from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Southeast Asian Art Collection, 2006.27.51

Those with an interest in furniture will be enthralled with a stunning Burmese couch, or day-bed, with ball and claw legs, made of ornately lacquered and gilded wood that has been inlaid with glass rods and mirrored glass and it has an emerald green velvet cushion.  In old photographs, Burmese and Shan aristocrats sit, Buddha images recline and  deceased monks are laid out. The Asian’s couch was missing its original cushion, so a new emerald green velvet one was made in 2008 inspired by a similar couch in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.  This lovely couch did not come directly from Burma to Doris Duke.  Instead, she bought it from an interior designer who already had it in New York.  This was discovered by accident when one of the Asian’s conservators was looking at an interior design magazine and saw a photograph of this very couch in the living room of a designer’s posh 5th Avenue apt in the 1930’s.  “When we saw photograph and started comparing all the nicks and so forth, we determined that this was the very couch that we had obtained from Doris Duke,” said McGill.  “We have been trying to track down the exact connection yet between the decorator and Doris Duke but haven’t yet succeeded.”

Northern Thailand and Shan State, Burma

The second segment of show features the religious art and luxury goods Northern Thailand and the Shan state, Burma.  A large black and red wooden chest, gilded with lacquer would have been used in the temple for storing monk’s robes and manuscripts.  This is a rare and important chest which was a likely donation to the temple.  It is adorned on all sides with drawings telling stories and includes scenes of the Buddha enthroned, Phra Malai and Indra at the Chulamani Stupa, and guardians.  Several examples of ceremonial standards are displayed next to the chest, illustrating actual objects that are depicted in the scenes on the chest so we can  better imagine how these standards were put to use as royal regalia in official processions and ceremonies.  The number of standards showed the rank of the royal family member.

Central Thailand

Head of a Buddha image. Approx. 1800. Thailand; Wat Phra Chettuphon, Bangkok. Stucco. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60S84

The third segment emphasizes Central Thailand, particularly the royal capital of Bangkok, and accounts for more than two-third of the artworks in the exhibition.  A rare late 18th century stucco image of Buddha is situated alongside numerous Buddha statues in the opening of this gallery.  This stucco head is fascinating for what it represents–in an effort to make the Buddha images uniform and to consolidate his rule, the first monarch of the new kingdom of Siam essentially did a Buddha recall–in the 1790’s, Buddhas from all parts of Thailand were brought to Bangkok where they were covered with layers of stucco and gilded, so they were all the same.  In the 1950’s, when this style had gone out of fashion, the stucco was removed and presumably discarded.  This stucco image is only one of two that are known to have survived.

One of Doris Duke’s greatest accomplishments was that she collected Thai painting at a time when nobody else was interested.  The Asian Art Museum now has more 19th century Thai paintings than have ever been seen in Thailand, or any place else.  “These are rare, fragile and the finest to be had, ” explained McGill.  “Some are on wood, but most are painted on cotton fabric and most survived only in very shaky condition.”  Those painted on fabric have a very long vertical format because the imported Indian cloth they were painted on came in this length.  When a donor gave their valuable cloth to a temple for being made into painting, the piece of fabric was kept intact and was painted over by the Thai artisans.

Thai paintings are almost exclusively works intended to be conducive to contemplation whose themes were drawn from well-known religious writings. “The Buddha Overcomes the Demon Mara and his Forces, and the Earth Goddess Creates a Flood,” an early 19th century mural on panel, is probably the largest and most impressive Thai painting outside of Thailand (3.33 feet x 13.33 feet).  While it has sustained damage and undergone minimally-invasive restoration, it depicts a spectacular cosmic struggle that is marvelously executed in a rare palette dominated by blue, bluish gray and brick tones.  It depicts the central episode in Buddha’s life–he is in meditation and is challenged by a demon, Mara, whose forces come in from the right on elephants.  Allegorically, this is Buddha battling his own negative impulses that he must overcome to achieve enlightenment.  As he is attacked from the right side, he calls on the earth goddess in the middle to bear witness to his many lifetimes of spiritual preparation for Buddhahood.  The earth goddess wrings out her wet hair and creates a flood that washes away the demons or the negative impulses in the young prince’s psyche.  On the left side, the flood is visible and the demon is no longer attacking but now has his hands folded in reverence.  He is thus transformed by his own intellectual and spiritual efforts from a young prince into a Buddha.

Along the gallery wall is a very rare group of 13 paintings that form a complete set for the recitation of the story of the Buddha’s previous immediate life before which he became a Buddha.  The Story of Prince Vessantara is still recited annually in Thailand at a ceremony.  Each family in the village sponsored the recitation of one of the 13 chapters by paying for the painting that went with each of the 13 chapters.  Once a set of paintings was used in a recitation, it may have not been used again and generally there were no special provisions to preserve a full set.  This set survived in fair condition but the inscriptions along the bottom edges have deteriorated and are only partially visible.

Some may find it surprising while Southeast Asia had plentiful and relatively inexpensive gold, the majority of these ceremonial treasures were not made of gold or even precious metals but were fabricated from smelted metal that was elaborately gilded, lacquered or inlaid in very sophisticated patterns with materials like mother of pearl or colored glass.

Gold bowl with garudas and celestials. 1920-1921. Thailand. Gold. Gift of the family of Helen King Gethman, 2008.91

Only one of the objects exhibited is solid gold, a lovely small bowl (roughly 3 x 5 inches) adorned with three alternating motifs—garudas (a mythical eagles with human attributes), stylized foliage and a celestial being with the hand gesture of adoration.  The bowl was presented as a wedding gift in 1921 from Rama VI to the daughter of Hamilton King, a US diplomat to Siam.  Originally, it would have most likely been filled with religious objects or offerings. The gold’s unusual reddish hue, which the Siamese preferred, was analyzed by conservators at the Asian Art Museum and they could find no chemical explanation for it.

Most beguiling and graceful are two mythical 19th century carved wooden sculptures of bird-men of Siam. Once exquisitely detailed, only bits of lacquer, gilding, and mirrored glass in-lay remain. There is evidence that some damaged parts were carefully replaced.   The lower part of the bodies are similar to a bird’s—the feet are elaborately carved– and the weight is shifted forward with wings and ornate tail that would enable them to fly between the heavenly and earthly realms.  Their hands are pressed together in prayer and the torso and head are human.  In Buddhist legend, these mythical creatures inhabit the Eden-like Himavanta Forest.  Historically, such statues played an integral role in royal ceremonies such as coronations and some served as reliquaries.  Starting from the reign of Rama V onwards (1868-1910), these statues were placed high up on posts and along the main boulevards of Bangkok.  Presently, one has a prominent place on the main road from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport.

Shadow puppet of the monkey hero Hanuman in the guise of Ravana's heir, from the Thai version of the epic of Rama. Approx. 1850-1900. Thailand. Rawhide, pigments, and bamboo. Gift from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Southeast Asian Art Collection, 2006.27.115.1.

The exhibition closes by showcasing three delightful and very well-preserved Thai shadow puppets made of reticulated and ornately painted cowhide.  The shadow puppet theatre, “Nang Yai” in Thai, is an ancient form of storytelling and entertainment still practiced all over Asia.  These puppets were used to enact scenes from the epic of Rama, known in Thai as Rammakian.  Opaque figures, normally made of stretched cowhide and rattan, are held against an illuminated backdrop to create the illusion of moving images and the performance is accompanied by a combination of songs and chants.  The screen is lit from behind revealing not only the shadow of the puppet but also the shadow of performer behind it.  Unlike Indonesian puppets which have moving parts, these Thai puppets are singular and rigid. On display is a single character roaming puppet of the monkey hero Hanuman and an action or fighting puppet which depicts two famous characters—Ravana and Hanuman–charging into battle on a mythical chariot.

While there are some very rare pieces in the collection, McGill is not concerned about any lawsuits to return artworks back to their countries of origin. “In the 1930’s and 40’s, it was an open market and virtually everything was for sale,” explained McGill. “Things are much different now.  None of these works came from archaeological contexts—they were not in the ground.  They are not fragments of buildings, they are separate portable objects.  We’ve  never had a claim and directors and curators from the museums in Cambodia and Thailand have been here multiple times and we have given them photos and documentation of everything we have in an effort to be open.”

December 28, 2009 Posted by | Art, Asian Art Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment