Opening up of Burma has resulted in a beautiful and fascinating exhibition of paintings, weavings and manuscripts – but it’s the sculpture that really shines.
“Beauty is meaningless until it is shared,” wrote George Orwell in Burmese Days – his coruscating first novel of life in south-east Asia during the last days of the Raj. It was truer than Orwell could have realized. For five decades after 1962, when a military dictatorship took power in Burma, the country’s rich cultural legacy was essentially put on ice. (After the widespread protests in 1988 and the emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi, the junta changed the country’s name to Myanmar – a decision that still grates. The Guardian prefers to call the country Burma.)
Museums languished, starved of modern conservation science or even electricity. Looting, already a problem in the colonial era, continued under the kleptocratic military regime. International loans were unthinkable. Tourism was essentially nonexistent. Censorship was standard.
Yet four years ago, the military junta was officially dissolved, and Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. The military still exerts great control – but Burma is opening up. Last year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art presented Lost Kingdoms, a landmark exhibition of early south-east Asian art that included unprecedented loans from Burmese museums. Now comes Buddhist Art of Myanmar, a new exhibition at Asia Society: the first museum show in the United States to look solely at the art of south-east Asia’s least understood nation. Much of the art here has never left Burma.
It’s a bogglingly diverse nation, and its population of 50 million includes dozens of different ethnic groups, though this show looks only at Buddhist cultural traditions. (Theravada Buddhists make up about 90% of today’s Burma, and running conflicts with Rohingya Muslims and other ethnic minorities formed part of the pretext for the junta’s long rule.) Religious, linguistic, and stylistic diversity has been a constant in Burmese history since the establishment of Buddhism by Indian monks around 500 AD. A worn, enigmatic two-sided stele from that era, loaned from the National Museum of Myanmar in Rangoon (it was also included in Lost Kingdoms last year), shows a warrior toting a huge club in both hands, attended by a deputies holding staffs with symbols of Vishnu. But on the back is a throne reminiscent of Buddhist kingship, and earlier documentation suggests that a Buddhist dharmachakra, or wheel of law, once hovered above the scene, as prominent as the Hindu symbols.
Burmese art grew in sophistication as Buddhism took root, especially during the Pagan period of the 11th to 13th centuries, which saw the Burmese language spread across the kingdom. Religious architecture proliferated – its capital, now called Bagan, is studded with soaring, gilded pagodas – and the life of the Buddha provided fertile material for both religious veneration and artistic experiments. There’s a sandstone sculpture here, 900 years old, in which the Buddha sits cross-legged, eyes shut, with a sword in his right hand. He’s taking the blade to his own hair, chopping off his topknot. The long path to enlightenment under the tree in Bodhgaya begins here: the prince turns into a monk, mortality gives way to divinity.
The show features manuscripts, weavings, furniture, and more than a few paintings – including an exquisite illustrated folding book, painted on mulberry paper, that depicts the grand procession of Myanmar’s last king en route to a white pagoda, borne by an elephant. But sculpture is where the Buddhist art of Burma really shines, and its beauty and intensity reflect not only monarchical power but everyday faith. In Burma, devout Theravada Buddhists evince a deep commitment to merit-making – the accrual of karma through acts of charity and self-sacrifice – and donations of up to a quarter of one’s income are not uncommon. A bell whose holding ring is fringed with lions, from the late 19th century, is inscribed on the circumference with the Burmese equivalent of an art donor thank-you: a mother and daughter, “with a clear, detached mind full of good intentions”, donated the bell with the express purpose of attaining nirvana.
Asia Society has been working on this show since 2011, when the Obama administration relaxed sanctions against Burma as the country began reforms. It took years to convince officials to agree to loan the dozens of works on view here, and the resultant show isn’t a blockbuster. It is a quieter, subtler effort, a showcase of diplomacy as much as art history. There are better reasons to hope for political reform in Burma – and the possible ascent of Suu Kyi at this year’s critical elections – than the mere possibility of western art loans. But beauty is meaningless unless it is shared. It would be wonderful to see shows like this more frequently, and even to start sending our Pollocks and Warhols to the galleries of Rangoon.