Take a journey to the ‘Emerald Cities’

“Getting to know you, getting to know all about you,” Anna sings in “The King and I.” And now, we can get to know more about the real setting of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical — an excursion into the “rich splendors of the mysterious East.”

Celebrated heiress Doris Duke (1912-1993) accumulated a huge, superb collection of Southeast Asian art, eventually bequeathing it to museums. The lion’s share went to The City’s Asian Art Museum.

The museum will display some of its most notable pieces from the Duke collection, constituting two-thirds of the exhibit “Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam & Burma” that opens Friday and runs through Jan. 10.

Burma’s military dictatorship renamed the country Myanmar, and Siam was the central region and the name for centuries of what became Thailand — “land of the free” — in 1949. The two cities in the exhibit’s name are Rangoon and Bangkok.

In the 19th century, those two neighboring (and warring) kingdoms were famous for gold-roofed temples and grand palaces. The museum is the first — and so far only — one in the West to explore the topic and does so with 140 pieces, including Theravada Buddhist relics, mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture, paintings, manuscripts, textiles and ceramics.

“The 19th century saw a brilliant efflorescence of all the arts in Thailand, under the patronage of both the aristocracy and wealthy merchant families,” exhibit co-curator Forrest McGill says. “Burma’s arts flourished similarly in the earlier part of the century.”

There are fascinatingly detailed paintings of royal hunts, historical tableaux, legends and Buddhist images. A particularly haunting work is the Burmese gilded wood statue of the monk Shariputra, the body leaning at a strange angle, every detail of it and the robe signifying something.

A wooden figure from Burma, called “Crowned deity in a position of respect,” resembles early Middle Ages angels in Europe.
Among bowls, the most striking is a ceremonial alms bowl made of lacquered and gilded bamboo, wood, metal and glass.

From Siam comes a large painting of a scene from the life of the Buddha, an ordination of young monks, with grotesque details worthy of Hieronymus Bosch or Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Speaking of the grotesque, don’t miss “The holy monk Phra Malai visiting hell,” with skeletal figures and animal-headed underworld creatures.

 

IF YOU GO

Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam & Burma

Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., San Francisco
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, exhibit opens Friday; closes Jan. 10
Tickets: $7 for youths 13-17; $17 general includes $5 exhibit surcharge
Contact: (415) 581-3500, www.asianart.org

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