Paintings were first used in Myanmar to decorate temples, rather than palaces or homes, in order to propagate knowledge about Buddhism. The first ‘illustrated’ Buddhist texts in Myanmar are in the Pahto Thamya Temple at Bagan, which is believed to have been built in the early 11th century.
The paintings show scenes from the Jataka Tales, which are about the 550 previous lives of the Buddha before his Enlightenment.
There might have been an extensive tradition of painting on cloth in the Bagan era (11th to 13th centuries) but only one example survived, hidden inside the hollow arm of a Buddha image and discovered in 1984 during restoration work.
The fragmented cloth, dated to the 12th century, was skillfully painted with elegant lines and rich colours using organic paints made from cinnabar, realgar, lacquer, carbon, yellow ochre, red ochre and orpiment. The painting was tested and restored in Rome and is displayed at the Bagan Archaeological Museum.
Many temples in Bagan feature beautiful murals but some were added years after construction work was completed. The temples with the best murals are Myingaba Gubyaukkyi, Lawka Hteik-pan, Abeyadana, Sulamunni, Nandamanya, Nagayon, Thanbula, the Paya Thonzu Pagoda Complex and Penatha Gu as well the Ananda Oke Kyaung (monastery) next to the Ananda Temple.
This monastery was built in the 19th century and by then murals had changed from being exclusively devoted to Buddhist themes to including secular scenes.
Faded but intriguing murals can be seen in the Kyansittha Umin, a dark cave-like structure meant for meditation. On one interior wall is a line of musicians and a dancer followed by men in long robes holding offerings. The features of those depicted in the murals were painted in such a style that the artist seems to have predated Picasso by several centuries.
The Pinya and Inwa eras that followed Bagan showed a more stylised manner in art, which continued to be Buddhist in theme. A good example of these periods can be seen at the Tri Lawka Temple in Sagaing, on the cave walls of the Po Win Taung Pagoda complex of Monywa and at the Shinpin Sargyo Pagoda at Salé.
By the late 18th century and early 19th century secular scenes became more common on murals, although most were still based on religious subjects. The style also changed to more relaxed, informal poses with the experimental use of perspectives and shading. The most beautiful and undamaged murals of this period can be seen at the Shwe Gu Ni Pagoda in Monywa, and Po Kala Temple just north of Mandalay, next to the famous Shwe Sar Yan Pagoda. Murals from the mid-19th century decorate the walls of the Taung Thaman Kyauk Taw Gyi Temple, on the far end of the wooden bridge spanning Taung Thaman Lake at Amarapura. In some temples, there are even humorous touches such as men peeping at two embracing lovers or women bathing in a lake.
The interiors of many temples are dark, which has helped to preserve the colours in the murals. It is advisable to take a powerful torch to view the murals.
Paintings on paper emerged in the early 19th century but unlike those of the West, they were not meant to be framed. (The use of framed paintings to decorate the walls of houses is a fashion that came to Myanmar well after the British annexation of the country in 1885). Instead, paintings were used to illustrate books made of paper that were folded in accordion pleats and when stretched out could be up to six metres (20 feet) long. There would be a few lines at the bottom of the page to give a brief description of the scene.
The royal court always had a team of artists in residence and they painted such books to record gifts received by the king, such as a giraffe (which they noted as ‘giraffee’), musk deer, or the sightings of strange creatures (such as a mermaid), or the uniforms of ministers and generals, and the insignia they were allowed to use, such as the gold strands criss-crossing their chests. Readers for royal children were also illustrated and there were folding books of games in which the players had to guess the name of particular flowers or trees before turning the page for the answer. The most important books were created by master painters and recorded such state events as the 12 ceremonies and feasts that took place during the year, or special occasions such as when the king traveled outside the palace to consecrate a pagoda he had sponsored. One book listed more than 200 handmaidens, each in a different pose, and many relaxing at leisure with some in a state of undress, and all with their names inscribed. It was the duty of the best apprentice painters to make copies of the works of the master artist. U Kyar Nyunt was one of the most well-known artists in that genre.
“One book listed more than 200 handmaidens, each in a different pose, and many relaxing at leisure with some in a state of undress, and all with their names inscribed.”
After the British annexed all of Myanmar and exiled King Thibaw and his family to India in 1885, court artists no longer had secure employment. Many left Mandalay as they could not bear to live with reminders of the downfall of the king. They set up studios and accepted apprentices who were required to serve their master while studying for at least three years. Many began to paint stylised court scenes, on cloth because it is more durable than paper, which were mounted and framed. Sometimes they painted on silk. By then they were using gouache paints imported from Britain. These court scenes became popular with the British who wanted paintings they could hang on walls and many such works were commissioned. The most famous of these court painters and their students were Saya (‘teacher’ or ‘master’) Chone, Saya Thaung, Saya Saw, Saya Nwe and Saya Aye.
The Western style of painting was introduced when British art lovers formed an art club and later sent painters, the first being U Ba Nyan, to study in London. Oil paint was introduced and as the Western style of commerce flourished, illustrators were needed for advertisements in magazines or to do posters. Similar in intention with the murals of ancient Bagan, painters were commissioned to do sequences of Buddhist scenes to be hung along pagoda walkways, but by then the style of painting was entirely in the realistic Western manner. As in some of the ancient murals, artists could not resist adding whimsical touches, such as a car or Western sofas, in scenes supposedly from the time of the Buddha.
It was not until the 1950s that two artists introduced modern art to Myanmar. One was U Kin Maung (Bahn) from Mandalay and the other was a Yangon resident, Baji Aung Soe. Their influence spread to the next generation who within ten years had passed on the concept to yet younger artists. By the early 1970s modern art was flourishing among a relatively smaller but passionate and dedicated group. At the time there were, and still are, many artists who prefer to paint in the traditional realistic or at most impressionistic styles.
With the opening up of the country in the late 1980s interaction with Western artists and galleries expanded so much so that many artists of all ages have entered the international art scene. Contemporary art emerged in the mid 1990s and young Myanmar artists were not left behind; many of them now tour the world as performance, installation and video artists. However they still retain their identity rooted in the Buddhist thoughts of peace, harmony and gentleness.