Creation in Isolation: The Life and Career of Bagyi Aung Soe
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Tuesday, December 07, 2021
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CULTURE

Creation in Isolation: The Life and Career of Bagyi Aung Soe


By Yin Ker MAY, 2004 - VOLUME 12 NO.5


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Solitary and destitute throughout his life, Bagyi Aung Soe probably never imagined the impact of his work on future Burmese artists and the success many now enjoy.

Today, more than a decade after the death of illustrator, actor, teacher, and, above all, artist Bagyi Aung Soe (1923-1990), paintings by Burmese artists are fetching record prices in the local and international markets.

Bagyi (Burmese for “painting”) Aung Soe did not live to see his own work on display in museums and private galleries or to see his fellow artists shine in international art exhibitions. It probably never occurred to him that it could be so. When he passed away in Rangoon in 1990, he had just witnessed some of the most appalling events in recent Burmese history. Hope in his homeland’s future was bleak; the health of the country’s art community was the furthest thing on most people’s minds. Yet, he continued to express and create—if only on any scrap of paper that he could get his hands on.

Aung Soe’s artistic potential was recognized by the Indian government in 1951, when at the age of 27 he was offered a scholarship to pursue higher studies in art at Shantiniketan, or the “abode of peace”, founded by the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

But he cut his studies short and returned to Burma only a year later. Still, over the next ten 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 Shantiniketan’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.

Once back in Burma, he travelled throughout the country to study its arts and crafts, and later its classical art and architecture, particularly that of Pagan. 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 like Picasso, Matisse and Kandinsky at the Puskin Museum. This trip to Russia in the winter of 1953 proved to be his last outside Burma.

Under the regime of the late Ne Win, Aung Soe had to rely on art books from the Rangoon University library for inspiration. But it was for the most part his imagination—and the occasional swig from the liquor bottle—which he called upon for creative strength.

Due to his unorthodox behaviour and emotional outbursts not everyone—artists included—was eager to be associated with him, even if they admired his work. The few who did associate with him did so more for the sake of camaraderie than for the pursuit of shared artistic convictions.

In fact, there is no evidence to suggest that he ever worked closely with any of his contemporaries. Preferring to work independently, he did however participate in underground exhibitions which were more like informal gatherings among artists. The works he exhibited introduced Rangoon’s intellectual community to foreign 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 Shantiniketan: 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. They were Aung Soe’s food for thought throughout the years of ideological and artistic solitude.

It was precisely meditation on these teachings that led him to examine the authenticity of art with regard to that of a Burmese artist of the 20th century. What the artist came to refer to as the “painting of impermanence” was the fruit of his years of pictorial research on this complex issue.

By the 1970s, Aung Soe came to judge his stylised interpretations of pwe (festival), peya (the Lord Buddha), and zat (theater), 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.



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