The Centre Pompidou in Paris has organised the first major exhibition of Burmese Modern Art by Bagyi Aung Soe (1923-1990), who was renowned for his modernistic, semi-abstract art and considered one of Myanmar’s most prolific modern artists. A selection of 300 works and documents trace his evolution bestriding regional and international sources of inspiration over more than 40 years. Works are in diverse media: oil paintings, reverse glass paintings, illustrations, as well as felt-tip pen on paper works. Archival materials are also included in the exhibition, as well as film excerpts of the artist, who was also an actor during the golden age of Burmese cinema. He also worked as an illustrator of books and magazines throughout his career.

Life of Bagyi Aung Soe

Through 88 works, most of which are from the last decade of the artist’s life, the exhibition explores the Aung Soe’s ideas and conception of ‘modern art’. There are also over 200 documents, including printed matter, photographs and manuscripts from the 1940s to 1990s that record his life. The exhibition shows how the artist was influenced by, and mixed, artistic and spiritual legacies: Western Modernism, the thoughts of Indian Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, as well as Hindu and Buddhist tenets. Cultural influences including Burmese classical art, folk culture, and the distinct architecture found in the country – especially the arts that flourished around the city of Bagan.

Aung Soe says of his own work and Burmese Modern art, ‘Art is what flows through the soul of the people, where the old and the new meet. We cannot destroy all that is old, or accept all that is new. Nature will choose the good traditions out of the old, sincerity and truth out of the new. Not everything old is decadent, not everything new is revolutionary. We have to search for the soul in the old, and foster the progress of the new … We must sow the seeds of modem art, to weed, to fertilise; this is the artist’s responsibility towards the people’. Taken from The End of the End, in From Tradition to Modernity (Yangon, Khin May Si Sapay, 1978).

Studying at Santiniketan

The artist was one of a handful of Southeast Asian artists, especially for Burmese modern art, who was invited to study at Santiniketan, the ashram in West Bengal, India, that received many noted pilgrims, as well as students, which had eventually expanded into a fully-fledged university in the same year. In 1951, at the age of 27, he joined this group for only a brief one-year period, before returning home, but in that short time he had imbibed the ethos of knowing and being able to draw from various pictorial traditions in his own art: what he called ‘manaw maheikdi dat painting’, an idiom that stands for an individualised and particular approach to synthesising existing pictorial traditions of the world into a new and modern tradition of its own.

Yin Ker is an expert on the artist’s work and life, and Burmese Modern art and is the curator of the Paris exhibition. She comments, ‘On his return to Burma, over the next 19 years Aung Soe managed to explore diverse art forms and concepts from around the world. He never explained the reason for his abrupt return, but considering the guidance given by Santiniketan’s gurus to the renowned Indonesian artist Rusli – to seek inspiration in his homeland at the ancient Buddhist site of Borobudur. It is likely Aung Soe had been passed similar advice: to seek enlightenment at home’.

Returning to Burma and the rise of Burmese Modern Art

Once back home, he travelled throughout the country to study its arts and crafts, and later its classical art and architecture, particularly that of Bagan. He also studied the Buddhist art of the region and of China and Afghanistan. It was also during this period of self-study that he left on a diplomatic exchange for Moscow, where he acquainted himself with the works of 20th-century European masters such as Picasso, Matisse, and Kandinsky at the Pushkin Museum. This trip to the Soviet Union in the winter of 1953 proved to be his last outside Burma (Myanmar).

Under the regime of the late Ne Win, Aung Soe had to rely on art books from the Rangoon University library for inspiration to create his Burmese Modern art. But it was for the most part his imagination – and the occasional swig from the liquor bottle – which he called upon for creative strength. The works he exhibited introduced Rangoon’s intellectual community to international art movements like Cubism and Surrealism.

From his subsequent exchanges with students, and studies of his artistic development, it is clear that he never forgot the teachings of Santiniketan: the technique of mnemonic drawing (as opposed to the Western approach of copying from sight), the linear tradition (as opposed to the Western concept of the effects of shadow and light) and most importantly, the emphasis on the artist’s natural environment, his cultural origins and identity. This was Aung Soe’s food for thought throughout the years of ideological and artistic solitude.

Illustrations of Buddhism and Burmese Life

Yin Ker wrote in The Irrawaddy, ‘By the 1970s, Aung Soe came to judge his stylised interpretations of pwe (festival), peya (the Lord Buddha), and zat (theatre), for example, as superficial. He aspired for his paintings to be visual translations of Buddhist truths, not mere illustrations of episodes from the Buddha’s previous lives or pretty pictures of pagodas and monks. His commitment to creating an artistic idiom based on the Buddhist laws of impermanence intensified in the years of ailing health, his family’s financial degradation, his country’s economic slide, and his increasing recourse to Thamahta meditation.

Bagyi Aung Soe Later Works and Burmese Modern Art

Works of Burmese Modern art from his last years are especially spectacular: Burmese alphabet, Pali mantras, the Buddha’s profile, magical squares (called in) and references to numerology, all represented alongside each other in striking shades of ink and ‘magic pen’. Not only is the iconography never before seen in painting, the style and technique are equally original. The essence is Buddhism as it is practised in the country. Indeed, material limitations did not stop Aung Soe from creating; it led him to greater heights, to invent his unique method and style of coloured inks on paper, while expounding the linear tradition of Burmese aesthetics, and the calligraphic features of the Burmese script. Whether it was on the backside of calendars, on scrap paper or a fresh piece of paper which a sympathetic fellow artist or student had presented as a gift, Aung Soe drew and painted relentlessly.

Aung Soe’s Burmese modern art works are monologues which discourse on the objectives of the modern Burmese artist of the 20th century: to assimilate foreign influences without renouncing cultural identity; to accept the challenge of contemporary Western art whose values contradict the very essence of local artistic traditions. In other words, to imitate neither the Western nor the Burmese, but to invent a new idiom rooted in one’s origins – a task which preoccupied the Japanese artists of the Meiji period and Chinese artists in the first third of the 20th century’.

Bagyi Aung Soe (1923-1990), Pompidou Centre, Paris, centrepompidou.fr. At the time of going to press, the exhibition is temporarily closed due to Covid-19 restrictions. Check the centre’s website for updated information on opening.