Have you ever looked up at one of Bangkok’s regal monuments and wondered who made it? For the answer you need to go back eighty-nine years, to 1923, when the first farang (western) artist arrived in Thailand and shook up the local art scene forever.
Corrado Feroci, to give him his real Italian name, arrived here after quitting his job as a professor at The Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. Though it was a dramatic move, he did so with good reason, after winning a contest conducted by the 5Italian government on behalf of King Rama VI. This reformist monarch was on the lookout for a westerner who could come and help decorate Siam with exalted, Italian-style sculptures, and Corrado Feroci was the perfect man for the job.
He fulfilled his duties with aplomb, giving Bangkok many of its most iconic monuments, including statues of King Rama I, King Rama VI, and King Taksin, all of which still stand proud today. But aside from these works of art, this kruu farang, as his students respectfully called him, is also credited with single-handedly fostering the country’s contemporary art scene, and so rightfully earning his sobriquet as “The Father of Modern Art in Thailand.”
He founded the School of Fine Arts in 1933, and went on to establish the country’s first university of fine arts, Silpakorn, in 1943. It was in his free classes, given in the office which today houses this museum, that the foundations for a new Thai aesthetic, one that moved away from the old obsession with the Indian and Khmer styles seen in religious paintings and architecture at that time, were also laid. Having changed his name to Silpa Bhirasri after World War II (reputedly to avoid being captured), he went on to teach until shortly before passing away at the age of 69, a fully fledged Thai citizen.
In the narrow room that houses the free museum in honour of this influential immigrant, paintings by his graduates, many of whom are now legendary Thai artists, hang on the mustard yellow walls. Looking at them it’s clear that cubism and surrealism had a big influence on mid 20th century Thai art. Also on display in glass cases are some of the professor’s belongings: his glasses, stationary, work implements, even some old watercolour palettes. And displayed on plinths dotted around the room are sculptures by Ajarn Silpa and some of his students, including a famous, flow-flowing figure of a lady by Kien Yimsiri.
In the office next door, more objects conjure a sense of the austere, focused life he lived. Centre place sits the desk and chair he used when reviewing his students’ work. The Olympia typewriter he used to pen letter and his art textbooks on is also here, as is a framed copy of the picture that all Silpakorn students know as his signature portrait, and even a copy of a love letter to his wife. Silpa Bhirasri remains a revered figure, especially among Silpakornians, and this museum is a hallowed space that all Thai art buffs should visit.
There are a lot of entrances in to Silpakorn University. To avoid getting lost, we recommend using the door into the Fine Arts Department, which is opposite Sanam Luang, the royal grounds near the Grand Palace. Another way to get in is via the Au Bon Pain located in one of the shophouses on Na Phra Lan road. Walk out through the caf้e and you’ll see the yellow building on your left.
Silpa Bhirasri Memorial Museum
Registered Heritage Building, Thailand Fine Arts Department, Naphrathat Rd | 02-223-6162
Mon – Fri | 9 am – 4 pm, closed Sat, Sun + public holidays | free