The Art of Burma

The Burmese section of the National Gallery's collection is small, but perhaps one of the most revealing of religious feeling and the influences of different countries on the art making practises of this country. The three wooden Buddhist figures and the kalaga cloth make a considerable impact on the viewer when displayed in the Gallery because of their distinct surface qualities and in the case of the textile, the elaborate detail in its working. Religious themes are at the fore in these works, expressed in visually engaging ways.

For a sample of the architectural context from which these works originate, see the

[image] 1. Title: Buddha calling the earth to witness
Date: c.1800-99

This large image of Buddha has a highly evocative presence and commands attention in the exhibition space. The sheen given off by the lacquered and gilt surface of the carved wood make the figure appear to glow and beckon. Buddha sits in an open pose, inviting people to approach. He rests his left hand on his knee, palm down, to allow followers to stroke his hand during worship. The surface of the sculpture has in fact been worn back by prolonged use. The tactility of this piece is part of its appeal as a religious representation. Flanked by his two chief disciples when displayed at the National Gallery, this depiction of Buddha stands out as an uplifting source of worship and authority. Other works which relate this Buddhist narrative are those from India (image no.4) and Thailand (image no.2).

[image] 2. Title: Sariputta figure
Date: c.1800-99

[image] 3. Title: Mogallana figure
Date: c.1800-99

These two figures can be discussed together as they were made to be shown as a pair. They represent Sariputta and Mogallana, the two chief disciples of Buddha in Burmese tradition. They sit in relaxed poses of quiet contemplation, wearing the simple robes associated with the Buddhist religion. They are smaller in size in relation to the Buddha figure which was made at around the same time as these two figures, signifying their status as disciples rather than authority figures. They do exude, however, a sense of wisdom and calm which invokes respect in the viewer. Constructed from lacquered wood, detailed with gold leaf and glass eyes, these figures appear approachable and surprisingly human, despite their stylisation and inhuman surface texture. When displayed beside the central Buddha figure which they are intended to accompany, they create an image and feeling of balance and serenity which is apparent in much Buddhist art.

[image] 4. Title: Buddha calling the earth to witness
Date: 1812

Executed in the 'U Tong' style of this period, this bronze sculpture depicts a highly stylized Buddha figure with little emphasis on the true form of the body. The torso is blocklike and very straight, the legs and icts a highly stylized Buddha figure with little emphasis on the true form of the body. The torso is blocklike and very straight, the legs and feet are hardly defined at all and the facial features are delineated by line rather than shape. Clothing is similarly shown by line, with the only real detail being shown in the hair and hat, which is done in the traditional mode of representation for depictions of Buddha. The story behind this oft repeated image of Buddha goes as follows. Buddha was once tempted from his meditations by Mara, the God of desire and death. Reaching down to earth with his right hand, Buddha summoned the help of the earth goddess, who rose to his aid, wringing water from her long hair and washing away Mara and his army. Buddha was hence saved from the temptation of desire.


5. Title: Religious hanging (kalaga) the importance of its purpose. The text included in the image relates that the cloth was made as a religious gift from Ko Sein to a Buddhist monastery in the year 1911. People of wealth often made such elaborate donations to monasteries and monks in the hope of speeding their spiritual journey towards Nirvana, the ultimate state of Buddhist enlightenment. The scenes depicted on the textile are centred around the life of Buddha, in keeping with the tradition of much Buddhist art and literature in Burma. Influences from Europe, however, are evident in the use of overlapping figures, perspective rendering of some objects and in the actual materials used in the construction of the textile such as imported velvet and braid. The techniques of applique and embroidery have also been adopted from a European source.

For a brief history of Burma in ancient and modern times, see my page entitled


or see works from

Jane Carter 19.10.95