A foreign hand that embraced the Thai art scene

A foreign hand that embraced the Thai art scene

Last week, the sad news came via Facebook. Alfred Pawlin, to many of his friends Freddy, passed away peacefully at the age of 69 in a hospital in Vienna. We were informed that Freddy had a brain thrombosis in October and spent more than two months hospitalised.

With Alfred Pawlin's passing, Thailand lost a great contributor to its art scene. Picture courtesy of Helfried Valenta

In the mid-70s, Freddy travelled widely in Asia where he visited India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar and Thailand. He decided to settle in Bangkok and in 1981 opened the Visual Dhamma Gallery at a converted townhouse tucked away in Soi Asoke, Sukhumvit Road. Visual Dhamma refers to the penetrating insight into the real nature of existence that can be glimpsed. The teaching of Buddhist writings became an inspiration for Freddy in the forms of visual arts and music. In those days, to run an art gallery was a challenging task as Thai artists overlooked the importance of the gallery system and art business. They preferred to sell directly to collectors and patrons.

Freddy launched an exhibition by four leading Thai artists, Thawan Duchanee, Angkarn Kalayanapongse, Pratuang Emjaroen and Pichai Nirand. He also published the catalogue Dhamma Vision, an expression of Buddhist thought in the form of visual art created by six Thai artists, Thawan Duchanee, Pratuang Em­jaroen, Pichai Nirand, Surasit Saowakong, Chalermchai Kositpipat and Panya Vijinthanasarn.

The exhibition and publication was a revelation for the Bangkok art scene. Visual Dhamma Gallery became the talk of the town and a place for artists, connoisseurs and expatriates to meet and exchange ideas.

Freddy's enthusiasm grew as he offered knowledge and vision for Thai artists. For instance, he encouraged them to appreciate Tantric and Tibetan painting. He introduced them to Vienna School of Fantastic Realist painters such as Ernst Fuchs, Rudolf Hausner and Anton Lehmden. Freddy exhibited group shows by neo-traditional Thai artists entitled Dhamma Symbols and The Art of Dhamma in the early 1980s.

In 1982, he organised a solo exhibition by Gilbert Leu, a Swiss painter, whose paintings were inspired by Buddhist tantras and yantras. In 1983, he showed The Vane Group, young Thai artists inspired by socio-surrealist works.

When I first met Freddy in 1981, I thought he was a retired hippy with a heavy accent who was in search of Eastern spiritualism through art, music and other stimulants. At that time, I was teaching at Chulalongkorn University and writing art reviews for the Bangkok Post so there were many occasions when I had talks and interviews with him. The more I got to know Freddy the more I appreciated his deep intellect and knowledge of religion, aesthetics, music and records.

He was always charming, witty and calm. His patience was his forte as he had to deal with Thai artists, many of whom had super egos and fragile temperaments. His collection of archives on art, literature and music was a great inspiration, full of creativity.

As the Thai economy boomed in the 1980s and neo-traditional Thai art flourished, Freddy's interest in contemporary Thai art shifted. He became fascinated with conceptual art and arte povera. Montien Boonma, who returned from studies in Paris, became an inspiring figure for Freddy. Montien focused on socially-engaged subjects with the use of raw materials related to labour and manual activities. Freddy had found a friend who shared the same spiritual and artistic wavelength. Both Freddy and Montien shared the passion that art had a purpose to provoke innovative ideas as well as spiritual escapism. It coincided with the period that Montien was on the brink of international breakthrough and Freddy was responsible for the support and back up that Montien needed.

In 1990, Montien held his first solo show, Form and Material at the Visual Dhamma Gallery. In 1991, the opportunity for international recognition came when Montien was given a solo exhibition, The Pagoda and Cosmos Drawn from Earth at The Japan Foundation Asean Culture Centre Gallery, Tokyo.

The same year, he held a solo show AUM in 1991 followed by a group show, Melancholic Trance at the Visual Dhamma Gallery the next year. Freddy gave a lengthy interview with Montien in 1992 after he participated in the Arte Amazonas project in Manaus in connection with the World Conference on the Environment in Brazil.Through Montien, Freddy became acquainted with emerging artists from Chiang Mai including Navin Rawanchaikul, Tawatchai Punthusawasdi and Mit Jai-In. He displayed their works in group exhibitions Magic Set and Social Contract at Visual Dhamma Gallery.

As Montien's international career flourished, Freddy was always there to support him. In 1996, Montien held a solo Arokhayasala at the Visual Dhamma Gallery. When Montien passed away from cancer in 2000 Freddy was in deep sorrow. He displayed some of Montien's major works at the Visual Dhamma Gallery in memory of his friend.

After Montien's death, Freddy wrote that "I worked with him [Montien] for 10 years and was grateful that he saved and completed my Buddhist art project and made it memorable. But after he passed away, I lost my interest in Thai artists". The Visual Dhamma Gallery became less active and eventually closed.

My encounters with Freddy became less frequent as he spent more time in Vienna. We would meet occasionally at exhibition openings and discussed the Thai art scene. His friends talked about Freddy's fascination with music and records as he was active in ZudRangLamradio. He wrote that music is not a product or art form but a personally selected soundtrack to our lives. Music kept Freddy alive as he went through the endless search for the lost chord.

Freddy explored endless areas of spirituality, art and music. His contribution to the Thai art scene has been enormous but sadly he did not fully receive the recognition and appreciation that he deserved. The Thai scene continues to overlook the importance of foreign artists, writers and gallery owners whose contribution to the art community have been essential.

In August, Freddy wrote to Navin Rawanchaikul, Montien's former student and assistant, that due to Covid-19 he could not return to Bangkok but looked forward to coming in October. Just before he died, Freddy wrote to his friend and artist Varsha Nair, "A few days ago my Indian friend, Pravin Cherkoori passed away before his 88th birthday. In Thailand, Vichoke [Mukdamanee] and Kraisak [Choonhavan] left the world … let's celebrate life and every breath … Freddy."

Auf Wiedersehen Freddy. Your kindness, passion and tolerance will be remembered. Most of all your Visual Dhamma, your penetrating insight and vision will be sorely missed.

Professor Apinan Poshyananda, PhD, is the author of 'Modern Art in Thailand' (1992), 'Behind Thai Smiles' (2007), 'Playing with Slippery Lubricants' (2009). He is Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Bangkok Art Biennale 2020.

Apinan Poshyananda

Deputy permanent secretary, Ministry of Culture

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