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Buddhist art of Myanmar review: a subtle, sculptural nirvana ...

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/feb/13/buddhi...

Buddhist art of Myanmar review: a subtle,


sculptural nirvana
Asia Society, New YorkOpening up of Burma has resulted in a beautiful and
fascinating exhibition of paintings, weavings and manuscripts but its the sculpture
that really shines

Parinibbana, from the Kubyauknge Temple, Myinkaba village, circa 1198. Photograph: Sean Dungan/Bagan Archaeological
Museum

Jason Farago
Friday 13 February 2015 18.54GMT

Beauty is meaningless until it is shared, wrote George Orwell in Burmese Days his
coruscating rst novel of life in south-east Asia during the last days of the Raj. It was
truer than Orwell could have realized. For ve decades after 1962, when a military
dictatorship took power in Burma, the countrys 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 countrys 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.

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Buddhist art of Myanmar review: a subtle, sculptural nirvana ...

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/feb/13/buddhi...

Buddha, Pyu period, eighth-ninth century. Photograph: Sean Dungan/Sri Ksetra Archaeological Museum, Hmawza

Yet four years ago, the military junta was ocially 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 rst museum show in the United States to look solely at the art of
south-east Asias least understood nation. Much of the art here has never left Burma.
Its a bogglingly diverse nation, and its population of 50 million includes dozens of
dierent ethnic groups, though this show looks only at Buddhist cultural traditions.
(Theravada Buddhists make up about 90% of todays Burma, and running conicts
with Rohingya Muslims and other ethnic minorities formed part of the pretext for the
juntas 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
stas 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.

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Buddhist art of Myanmar review: a subtle, sculptural nirvana ...

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/feb/13/buddhi...

Plaque with image of seated Buddha, pagan period, 11th13th century. Photograph: Sean Dungan/Bagan Archaeological
Museum

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. Theres a
sandstone sculpture here, 900 years old, in which the Buddha sits cross-legged, eyes
shut, with a sword in his right hand. Hes taking the blade to his own hair, chopping
o 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 Myanmars 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 reect 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-sacrice and donations of up to
a quarter of ones 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.

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Buddhist art of Myanmar review: a subtle, sculptural nirvana ...

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Maras Demons, Shwegugyi Temple, Pegu, c. 1479 Photograph: Sean Dungan/Bagan Archaeological Museum

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 ocials to agree to loan the dozens of works on view here, and the
resultant show isnt a blockbuster. It is a quieter, subtler eort, 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 years 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.
Buddhist art of Myanmar is at Asia Society, New York until 10 May. Details here

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