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Doris Duke's unfashionable Southeast Asian taste

December 11, 2009 |  1:10 pm

A mythical bird-man from Central Thailand Forrest McGill, chief curator at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, was skeptical when he arrived at the New Jersey estate of tobacco heiress Doris Duke. Much to his surprise, he found that she had amassed one of the most important collections of 18th and 19th century Southeast Asian art outside Asia. More than 400 museum-quality objects and 1,800 other items -- sculptures, paintings, manuscripts, ritual vessels, furniture, textiles, costumes, ceramics and puppets -- were stashed away in four makeshift storage spaces, including an indoor tennis court.

Today 190 of the artworks, including pieces of astonishing craftsmanship and rarity, belong to the museum, where many of them are on view for the first time in “Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam & Burma, 1775-1950.” All 140 works in the exhibition come from the museum’s collection; about 70% are gifts from Duke’s foundation.

The show is a wonderland of intricately carved, inlaid, gilded, painted, woven and embroidered objects arranged in geographic sections. Among the prizes is a pair of roughly 4-foot-tall sculptures from central Thailand depicting mythical bird-men that inhabit a legendary forest in Buddhist lore.

“They are just unbelievably rare,” McGill said, pointing out richly decorated surfaces with remnants of lacquer, gilding and mirrored-glass inlay. “And look at this manuscript. It was folded up and put in a cabinet in one of her storerooms. I started unfolding it and just flipped out. It’s so gorgeous that even if you didn’t know what it was you would be impressed.”

That works such as these were all but unknown to scholars for decades is largely a matter of taste. “In the 1950s and ‘60s when Duke was collecting this 18th and 19th century material, it was not fashionable at all,” McGill said. “To her great credit, she had the confidence of her own taste, to find an almost completely uncollected area and just go for it. Consequently, she ended up with the largest collection of pre-modern Thai painting in the world. There is not a comparable collection in Thailand, public or private.”

To read the full story in Sunday’s Arts & Books section, click here.

-- Suzanne Muchnic

Photo: A mythical bird-man sculpture from central Thailand. Credit: Asian Art Museum.