Technology trumps Cambodia’s royal portrait artist

The dozens of identical photographic portraits of Cambodia’s new King Norodom Sihamoni looming over the capital’s boulevards to mark his coronation have left royal artist Kimsong Narykun wringing his hands.

Technology has trumped 40-year-old Narykun, who works daily in a fan-cooled studio equipped with just one small easel set on a rattan mat, a stone’s throw from the spire-topped palace and a park ringed by six of the portraits alone.

"I haven’t yet painted any pictures of King Norodom Sihamoni — all the portraits of him have been printed using computers," he told AFP, pausing from his work on a likeness of a young Cambodian soldier.

The portrait painter’s style caught the eye of royal palace officials in 1995 and over the next six years they commissioned 10 huge oil portraits of former king Norodom Sihanouk and other top royal figures, he said.

The oil canvases, stretching as high as six metres (20 feet) and created by working from photographs, adorned the royal palace exterior and numerous official buildings, and inspired the national assembly to order a further 40 portraits.

While there is no official royal artist, Narykun believes he is the only artist to have worked on palace portraits recently — although his commissions dried up after his last national assembly order was completed last year.

"The pictures generated by computer are good," he conceded. "But if we compare them with portraits painted by hand, using an artist’s power, energy and intelligence, than these others have more expression and depth."

Narykun earned under 1,000 dollars for each of the palace orders. He typically earns around 40 dollars for an ordinary commission, which takes around three days to complete.

"I want the leaders of our national institutions to think more about art created by artists," he said, adding he was hopeful that King Sihamoni may be sympathetic to artists’ plight.

The new monarch, who is in the midst of a three-day coronation, was Cambodia’s ambassador to the UN’s cultural agency in Paris for 11 years. He quit his post just weeks before his appointment as king earlier this month.

"King Sihamoni likes art, so he will think about the painted versus printed paintings," he said.

Cambodia’s top artists were among those wiped out by the murderous 1970s Khmer Rouge regime, which oversaw the deaths of up to two million people, and their community is struggling to recover in the destitute Southeast Asian nation.

"In Cambodia, they don’t think painting is useful for the country. They believe painting portraits is just for fun, or entertainment. But pictures are priceless," Narykun said.

A royal palace official charged with erecting the photographs of the king around the city told AFP Friday’s coronation was announced too soon for any paintings to be ordered — and photos were cheaper and a better likeness anyway.

He hinted that the days of royal portraiture could be over in Cambodia.

"Now there is new equipment available to make printed portraits in Phnom Penh," he said when asked whether any orders would be placed with Narykun.

But Narykun still harbours a glimmer of hope: a government client asked him for a quote on a two-by-three metre portrait of the new king last week.

But the client hasn’t yet given the green light for the 400-dollar job.

"Maybe they’ll just use printed ones, they’re cheaper," he sighed.

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