P URPLE, a colour of deep spirituality in certain Asian cultures, suits Thai painter
Somboon Phuangdorkmai well.
Somboon, who often wears purple tops that highlight her mop of salt-and-pepper hair,
has just published a soulful pictorial of life in-and-around Angkor which has to
be one of the finest painted renditions of the great ruins.
"Somboon has done the first concerted serious paintings on Angkor which express
not only the architecture of the temples, but the mood and the light around the temples,"
says John Hoskin, an Asian arts and culture specialist, who attended the Nov 14 launch
in Phnom Penh of An Artist at Angkor.
"What her paintings do is to capture the feeling which people get when they
go to see monuments.
" Somboon's painting captures the feeling that Angkor is more than stone. This
is something that photography can never capture."
An Artist at Angkor, the outcome of a side-visit by Somboon to Siem Reap in January
1994 which turned into an extended stay, is made up of 79 fine watercolour paintings
and 31 black-and-white pen sketches.
"The ancient Khmer architects, stonemasons and sculptors who fashioned the majestic
monuments of Angkor have recently acquired a modern colleague, Thai artist Somboon
Phuangdorkmai," writes Roland Eng, Cambodia's Ambassador to Thailand, about
Somboon's works, which were first displayed at the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok.
"The paintings and sketches which follow not only portray the grandeur of the
ancient Khmer civilisation, but also, more importantly, symbolise the shared heritage
and the unique relationship which exists between the Kingdoms of Thailand and Cambodia,"
he adds in the foreward to the book, without specifying what has made Thai-Cambodian
relations -fraught with tension over the years particularly over the artistic booty
at Angkor - so unique.
From a distance, the original watercolours - on display at the Hotel Sofitel Cambodiana
until Dec 8 - seem sickly sweet, perfect for the fronts of glossy postcards.
But the pastel portraits of Angkor are certainly a panacea for the shocking green
oil paintings of the ruins which bedeck the walls of so many homes and establishments
around Phnom Penh.
A closer look at the originals reveals that Somboon's impressionist paintings are
actually subtle expressions of a virtuoso.
Her mastery of painting, say Somboon's promoters, comes in part from the speed with
which she pours her feelings and contains them on canvas, her versatility, and her
keenness to explore unfamiliar media that her Thai colleagues would normally shy
In his introduction to the book, Hoskin explains that Somboon's genius springs from
the reputation she has developed as being an artist whose eye captures almost everything
Hoskin calls this "an impassioned immediacy that springs from an uncompromising
attempt to portray what she sees, whether literary or with the mind's eye."
To Som-boon's friends, she is known to draw at any time of the day in any place.
"She sket-ches all the time," says Mark Stan-den, her publisher and friend,
who caught the Ankgor monuments on film in his 1995 pictorial book, Passage Through
"In this way, she records a lot of feelings and emotions in places like taxis
And, by their account, Somboon is fast. During her sojourn in Angkor and Siem Reap,
she told The Post, she averaged between two to three hours to paint the watercolours.
To Hoskin, her sketches are equally important. They are the key to understanding
her brilliant control of line, he says, which places her above her Thai contemporaries.
"Mastering the line is the grounding of good painting, because if you can draw
first, then you can explore and break the line," he says. "The essence
of art is the use of colour and the control of line.
"What is also remarkable about Somboon is that, when she paints, she doesn't
think too much.
"If you take a lot of time to paint a subject, then you lose its immediacy and
essential feeling. That is why control of line is important. If you don't have such
control, then you cannot capture that feeling quickly."
Standen, a photographer who set up his own publishing house at the start of the year,
says Somboon's and his own book were also designed to alter foreigners' mindsets
about Cambodia for the better.
"Cambodia needs a lot of help. There are many facets of the culture which need
to be portrayed to as wide an audience as possible.
" Many people think of Cambodia as being one of these forgotten places that
is filled with civil war and crime. But there are so many facets of the country that
no one seems to really know about," he says.
Standen cites classical Khmer dance as an example of a little known subject, which
is to be the focus of his next book on Cambodia, due to go to press in 1998.
As for the artist herself, the book is by no means the end of Somboon's link to Cambodia.
A socially-oriented artist - she helped to found the "Beehive" arts and
culture community at Bangkok's Weekend Market - Samboon said she would like to give
free workshops to Cambodian fine arts students before she returns to Thailand.