Evolution of Myanmar (Burmese) Painting

(from the book of “Old Myanmar Paintings in the Collection of U Win” )

Author - Minn Tin Aung


If you study the evolution of the art of Myanmar painting, you will notice that the earliest works of art on the walls of Pyadarlin Cave express the social life of prehistoric cavemen. Before medicine, art and technology were fully developed; these individuals did their best to express their way of life visually.


In the period of Srikshetra (the Pyu period), decorative art could be more often seen in the ornaments, dress and utensils of the people, especially Pyu coins, beads and pottery. In the eleventh century, the Theravada or southern Hinayana Buddhism received from Thaton and Thuwunna Bonmu flourished in the kingdom of Bagan. The king of Bagan and his followers built countless pagodas and stupas. On the walls of the pagodas the lives of the Buddha described in the five hundred and fifty Jataka tales were depicted as homage to the religious edifices. In those days, mural paintings were the most important feature of the Palla art style flourishing in the southern part of India. Then the art of painting murals was handed down to the Sagaing, Pinnya, Innwa and Konbaung periods respectively. In the Konbaung period, a typical Myanmar period, court artists were appointed to draw or paint royal ceremonies and Jataka tales on palm leaf. Sayar Chone, Sayar Saw, Sayar Kha and Nandi Meitta Sayar Ni were preeminent artists of the time.


In the later Konbaung period, the British colonial forces invaded Myanmar. Artists following the British army recorded the foundation plans, side plans, cross-sections and perspectives of the ancient pagodas in Bagan. They also painted the tropical environment of Myanmar in a natural way. This marked the introduction of the Western art style into the Myanmar traditional art style.

During the reign of King Mindon, as a sign of the mutual goodwill between the British and Myanmar, a group of foreign envoys entered the palace. The group included British artists led by Henry Yule. Myanmar court artists and British artists learned about each other styles of painting. Thus the traditional art style of Myanmar was supplemented by the painting of nature making use of light and shade, natural perspective and volume. The traditional style was exemplified in the work of Myanmar court artists. These included Sayar Chone, U Kyar Nyunt, Nandi Meitta Sayar Ni, the portrait painter Bawdigon Sayar Aye, Kwan Chan Gon Sayar Saw, Sayar Kyauk, Shwe Pyi Sayar Mya Gyi, Sayar Kha, Sayar Ni, U Saw Maung and U Chit Myae, all of whom painted Jataka paintings. The story of the Buddha's many lives based on the Jataka tales expressed in great detail royal customs, costumes, buildings, elephants, horses and the way of wearing clothes down through the ages. Each one of the great Jataka artists was skilled in his owned way.


The British occupied the whole of Myanmar. The artists Sir Gerald Kelly, Talbot Kelly and J. R. Middleton completed portraits in oil and reproductions of Myanmar scenery in water colour. Sir Gerald Kelly painted portraits of Theinni Saw Bwar's sisters, Saw Ohn Nyunt and Ma Than Aye. In the book, Talbot Kelly depicted Myanmar scenery in water colour. The water colour paintings were unique and attractive. In 1918, British officials such as the Railways Commissioner Martin Jones, Mr. Ward from the University of Yangon Physics Department, and Commissioner Mr. Kinch established the Burma Art Club in Yangon. They formed the association with Myanmar artists U Ba Zaw, U Ba Nyan, U Thar Dun, U Tun Hla, Sayar Saung and U Ba Kyi. At the Burma Art Club building, they joined together for still-life and portrait painting. They also did outdoor and indoor paintings on weekends. The art club paid too much attention to system and method in the art of painting.


Two outstanding artists, U Ba Nyan and U Ba Zaw, who were members of the Burma Art Club, were sent to England for further studies. U Ba Zaw was clever at water colour painting. When U Ba Nyan came back from abroad, he transmitted his knowledge of art to U San Win, U Ba Kyi, U Ngwe Gaing and Sayar Saung. They all became skilled in their own ways in oil or water colour painting.


In 1930, led by the English official Mr. Morris Collis and Dee Doke U Ba Cho, the artists U Tun Hla, U Ba Sein, U Ba Lone and U Ba Nyan formed the Traditional Arts Association. In 1932, an exhibition of traditional art was held on the first floor of Scott Market (now called Bo Gyoke Aung San Market).

Then the Second World War broke out. The government art and music school, opened in 1930, now moved from Yangon to Sit Kwin. Under the Japanese regime in Myanmar, a military art department was formed, led by U Ngwe Gaing. During the Japanese occupation, art exhibitions could not be held at all. In 1946, the Japanese surrendered and an art club from the English army and the Burma Art Club jointly participated in the Post-War Art Exhibition (Services Art Exhibition) held on the western grounds of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, together with other venues. In addition, the Union Culture Art and Photography Exhibition and Competition was held for three years running. In 1946, U Ba Kyi presided over the Associated Artists of Burma organization.


In 1952, the State School of Fine Arts (Yangon) and the State School of Fine Arts (Mandalay) were opened. In Yangon, U Khin Maung acted as the director. The art instructors were U Thein Han, U M. Tin Aye, U Myat Kyaw and U Ba Lone Lay. In Mandalay, U Sein Nyunt served as director and the instructors were U Ba Thet, U Aye, U Chit Myae and U Kan Nyunt. In 1952, the National Museum started to buy and collect national paintings. The great artists U San Win and U Ohn Lwin displayed their skills in the art of mosaic in artworks at the Institute of Medicine and the Nat Mauk Institute of Technology.

In 1992, as an amazing and unique event, the Burma Art and Sculpture Council was dissolved and replaced by the Myanmar Traditional Artists and Artisans Organization (Centre), consisting of artists and skilled manual workers. In 1998, under the sponsorship of the Ministry of Culture, the organization held the All Myanmar Art and Sculpture Exhibition. The exhibition was held in the art gallery at the National Museum with 936 paintings and 53 works of sculpture. These all-Myanmar art exhibitions, as well as one-man shows and group shows, are increasing in number each year.


Author: Minn Tin Aung


(Artist cum Art Writer)


05 April, 2006