'Unearthly Elegance' at the Walters


Wealthy Baltimoreans of the late 1940s and '50s no doubt were baffled by Alexander Brown Griswold's grand passion.

Griswold, who died in 1991, was a scion of the family that #F founded Alex. Brown & Sons investment bankers and already had made his fortune by the time World War II began. Yet it was as a 37-year-old army officer attached to the Office of Strategic Services in the closing months of the war that the defining event of Griswold's career occurred -- one that transformed not only his life but also Baltimore's publicly owned art collections.

Griswold's unit parachuted into Bangkok, Thailand, as the Japanese were retreating. The young officer was enthralled by the remote and exotic land then known as Siam. After the war he decided to devote himself to the study of its art and history.

From the late 1940s on, Griswold made frequent trips to Southeast Asia and Europe to buy examples of Buddhist art, eventually amassing a collection of several hundred pieces. He also published scholarly articles and books on aspects of Thai culture and, in 1964, became a visiting professor of Southeast Asian history at Cornell University.

The Griswold collection, which for many years was housed at Breezewood, the family estate in Monkton, is the most comprehensive collection of Thai art outside Thailand. Griswold donated the collection in stages to the Walters Art Gallery, whose current show, "Unearthly Elegance: Buddhist Art from the Griswold Collection," presents the major objects of the collection publicly for the first time together with the latest data on the art and its history.

The show recounts in fascinating detail the evolution of Thai art as well as that of neighboring Burma, Laos, Indonesia, India and Cambodia. Thai religious art, centered largely on depictions of the Buddha, has a powerful yet mysterious serenity that even the casual viewer can readily appreciate. The title of the show is taken from a phrase Griswold himself coined to describe one of the most beautiful stylistic periods in Thai history.

Queen Sirikit of Thailand was present last week at the opening of the exhibit, which runs through August 20. Next year the museum will publish a catalog of the collection with full-color photographs of many newly restored objects. The show and the catalog represent a major contribution to the study of Southeast Asian art and serve as a fitting tribute to the Baltimore collector whose vision and generosity made it possible.

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