Contemporary Burmese Art

The frescoes of Pagan are more a spiritual than a technical influence on our contemporary Burmese painters, who no longer have large wall surfaces on which to paint. Actually, the transition to smaller scale began when the art of papermaking was introduced from China. Large sheets were folded backward and forward, like a fan, and the strips were painted on with lampblack or Chinese ink, chalk, vermilion, indigo, and yellow orpiment. These illustrated folding books were called parabaiks, and their subjects ranged from Buddhist themes such as the Jataka stories and splendid court ceremonials to more everyday scenes such as a monk at the gate of a monastery, a festival dancer, a weaver at her loom, a trader in the market, or a mahout on his elephant. Plate 38 is a good example of this parabaik school of painting in the nineteenth century.

Two Italian artists spent some time at the court of Mandalay, but it seems more probable that Western art made its first real impact on us by way of illustrations in British books and magazines, and perhaps also from the pictorial labels on imported goods. It was only in the 1920’s that Western-style oil painting was enthusiastically taken up by our artists after two gifted young Burmese, U Ba Nyan and U Ba Zas, had been enabled to study in England. Returning to Burma, they rendered our native scene in oil and water color, popularizing the style of conservative British landscape artists. (See Plate 24: U Ba Nyan’s Oxen Resting.)

U Ba Zaw died in 1943 and EJ Ba Nyan in 1945, but several very talented younger men have followed in their footsteps. One of the best known is U Ba Kyi, who has a distinguished historical style (Plate 19), as well as a humorous eye for the lighter side of Burmese character in the paintings he has done for Rangoon’s Strand Hotel. U Ngwe Gaing is executing a series of large historical panels, but perhaps his power shows to better advantage in easel works such as the romantic Recluse in the Forest (Plate 36) or the graceful portrait of one of our classical dancers (Plate 22).

U Hla Shain’s delicate landscapes (Plate 37) belie his protestations that he is only an amateur. U Ohn Lwin makes his living as a commercial artist, but, in his serious vein, he has successfully explored our cultural heritage. His Dance of Ravana (Plate 21) depicts one of the dance forms which came to Burma from Thailand in the eighteenth century. U Tin Aye (Plate 20) is a sensitive and accomplished water colorist.

In landscapes whose contrasts of light and shade sometimes recall the impressionism of Monet, and in occasional figures, U San Win (Plates 17 and 23) has shown his mastery of the tonal values of color. It is interesting to note that U San Win now directs an extensive program for teaching art in our schools. Such government support of art is very encouraging to our artists because, since the end of the monarchy, there has been far too little private patronage. Few wealthy Burmese collect art or decorate their homes with paintings. So our artists have welcomed the founding of a National Gallery, the establishment of art schools in Rangoon and Mandalay, and art instruction in schools which will educate the public to appreciate art and perhaps even to buy it. And they are grateful for recent commissions to decorate the handsome new buildings—most of them designed in very modern style by British architects—which are rising in Rangoon. U Ba Kyi has done murals for the magnificent new Rangoon Air Terminal, and U San Win (Plate 30), U Nann Waii (Plate 31), and U Ohn Lwin (Plate 32) have executed large mosaics for some of our new schools and colleges.

“Modern” art, such as is now in vogue in the West, has not yet arrived in Burma. Our public is not yet ready for abstraction, let alone non-objectivism. But several of our youngest painters, among them U Nann Waii and U Aung Soe (Plate 35), have been exposed to the new trends and, without much encouragement as yet, are experimenting with less representational forms. And some of the sculpture done for new buildings is also abstract, though the pieces by U Han Tin (Plate 33) and U San Pe of Taunggyi (Plate 34) which are illustrated here are far more typical of what is acceptable in Burma today.

So much for what might be called our “secular” art movement. As “Thaw Ka” has pointed out, the mainstream of our art—at least in terms of quantity and mass appreciation—still flows in religious channels. And beside it goes the calm, unbroken flow of folk art and crafts—wood and ivory carving; gilding; silver work and work in copper and brass; embroidery and tapestry (Plate 18); weaving, basketry, canework, toys; and the remarkable lacquerware.

Compared with the artistic wonders of Pagan, I must confess that Burmese contemporary art sometimes seems uninspired. There is a rather deadly monotony of theme in most of our art shows—innumerable pagodas, innumerable huts, an endless series of river and village scenes. But our artists are gaining both confidence and technical skill; some of them may soon surprise us.