King Rama 5th, Picasso, and the 21st century Iron Curtain

What has this to do with Pablo Picasso, one of the world’s greatest artists? You ask.

By | Tue 19 Oct 2021

It’s the late 1800s, most of Asia has been colonised. The French took Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. From the west Queen Victoria’s British empire was gobbling up India and Myanmar, while nibbling away at Malaysia from the south. Spain occupied the Philippines; the Dutch colonised Indonesia. China was twice defeated by the British in both opium wars. Japan was forced to open her borders for trade at the behest of the US naval commodore Matthew Perry. And then there was the Kingdom of Thailand, known then as Siam, sandwiched between the British and French armies, both ready to pounce on us at any moment. Time was not on our side. Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock.

At the time King Rama 5th reigned over Siam. It was a big fish eat small fish world. There was no UN general security council. No Twitter hashtags. No nuclear weapons deterrence. No Batman to save us. King Rama 5th and Emperor Meiji of Imperial Japan took a similar approach to Western imperialism threat. Both hurried to modernise their respective nations. Whereas Meiji’s restoration led to Japan’s industrialisation, which led to Japan’s Imperial Army conquering her neighbours, King Rama V took a more nuanced and softer approach. Having been taught by Western tutors, he knew there was more to the world than Siam and the Grand Palace. Accordingly, he sent his heirs to study abroad in Europe, forged ties with Russia, European powers, and the US, and travelled extensively. He brought back western science, knowledge, and administration, reforming Siam into “Siam 2.0”, some of which was opposed by the aristocrats. Fortunately, through him and the “Thai Smile diplomacy” the global powers agreed to leave Siam as a neutral territory – a buffer – in order to avoid a directly clashing with one another. A no man’s land of sorts.

What has this to do with Pablo Picasso, one of the world’s greatest artists? You ask.

While both were unaware, during King Rama V’s diplomatic trip to Madrid, Spain, in October 1897, the young unknown Pablo Picasso was also in the same city. At 16, Picasso had painted an oil pastel portrait which gained him entry to the Royal Academy of San Fernando – a prestigious arts school. What was that portrait? It was Picasso’s first crush, and would prove to be his unrequited love and obsession for the rest of his life. He had met her at the art school and painted a portrait of her – with her boyfriend alongside, to Picasso’s displeasure.

That painting was gifted to the Queen Regent of Spain Maria Cristina by the academy, who then gifted it to the crown prince – the future Rama VI – who was touring with his father. Queen Maria was a formidable ally of King Rama V, along with Tsars Nicholas II of Russia. Thus, unbeknown to the young Picasso, his painting – meant to be his personal secret crush – became a powerful diplomatic gift forging solid alliances between the two nations to repel the French.

Years later, King Rama VI sold the painting to raise funds to purchase national war ships (‘Phra Ruang’ destroyer, now decommissioned) in World War 1.

Through strategic alliances and diplomacy, Siam escaped colonisation. Indeed, Princess Consort Dara Rasmee of Chiang Mai played a crucial role in the tug-of-war between Queen Victoria and King Rama V for the Kingdom of Chiang Mai’s alliance – an autonomous region then. I like to believe Picasso’s painting had played a role in the 19th century geopolitics, large or small. Unfortunately, for Picasso, he hadn’t met his romantic interest ever again – both the portrait and her lost to him forever. His loss unwittingly became Thailand’s gain. Four months after he had painted that portrait, he produced a sketch titled “Carmen”, still very much longing for her, as both pieces share much similarity. The Carmen sketch is at Picasso Museum, Barcelona.

Today, approaching the year 2022, I can hear Winston Churchill calling the Iron Curtain dividing Europe, only this time it’s the 21st century Iron Curtain dividing the world, with greater stakes and complexity, amidst the global pandemics and its global economic consequences.

For a chance to win, you must play the geopolitical game. Not playing the game guarantees zero chance of victory. Indeed, AUKUS (Australia + UK + US combo) and the CIA’s newly created China Mission Centre were strong signals of the US and her staunchest allies’ determination to be in the game no matter what. They aren’t going to watch idly, munching their supersized BigMac on their front porch, with a rifle nearby, and an American flag on the balcony (wink). The QUAD (AUS, India, Japan, US) have taken a backseat somewhat, but are also in the game. The stakes have usually been raised by the West, prompting China to counteract as was the case in the diplomatic hostage exchange between the two Canadians and Huawei’s founder’s daughter. As for ASEAN? Due to their non-interference policy, there isn’t much of real substance happening….each to her own internal affairs. Here is my take. Let’s say your neighbour’s husband is beating up his wife daily. You hear her shriek and cry after each beating. If it were me, I’d call the police. On the international scale, however, ASEAN leaders ignore their neighbours’ screams. “It’s not our business” they say. Partly because there isn’t “ASEAN Robocops” to provide peace and security. Partly, it’s Asian mentality. For these reasons, QUAD will always have more teeth than ASEAN.

In poker, once you go all in there’s no turning back. You force your opponent to either fold or go all in too. A dangerous move. I suggest raising the chips slowly in small amounts, without cornering any player, and always leaving room for negotiations. Leaders come and go. Public opinions shift. Situations change. But lives can never be brought back.

In the 21st century Iron Curtain, can Thailand be the Asian Switzerland, staying aggressively neutral? Or will we be forced to choose? Picasso and King Rama 5th can no longer save us. Alternatively, is it time for “Siam 3.0” – to liberalise our economy, modernise the country’s affairs and set our own destiny?

Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock.

Edward Shinapat Kitlertsirivatana
PS: The author with the owner of the painting