A brief history of Myanmar modern art by Ma Thanegi

The first generation

Mandalay is the ancient capital famous for its wealth of traditional culture, as a centre of all arts and crafts, as well as the performing arts. Maybe it is not so surprising, then, that the second faction for movement of modern art in Myanmar originated there. U Kin Maung, (1911 – 1983) was a bank manager with a deep interest in art and he had studied by correspondence course from the Press Art School of London in 1933 He started painting seriously in 1935.

It seemed that he studied graphic art, for that was what he taught later to young pupils, during the early post-War period. These students, among them Win Pe and Paw Oo Thett were to play leading roles in the movement. U Kin Maung’s works differed in composition from that of the traditionalists in the early pieces and later still cubist influences were notable. However his works were not aggressively modern: they could be considered modern mainly in its composition, as it lacked distortion in the subjects such as Bagan era temples or riverside scenery, normal subjects for realistic painters.

His young students were Paw Oo Thett and Win Pe, both born in 1936, both growing up in Mandalay with fathers who were painter (POT) and scholar (WP) who encouraged their interest. They gave active support to their sons by having them study with U Ba Thet, a well-known artist also of Mandalay. Although a fine-arts painter himself, U Ba Thet understood the need for individuality and creativity with modern concepts, so it was he who had sent his pupils to U Kin Maung. The two boys also managed to gain scholarships to study, by correspondence, from the Famous Artists’ School of the States.

In lower Myanmar in the ‘new’ capital of Yangon that emerged after the British Annexation of the whole country in 1885, a young man later to be termed the Father of modern Art was studying art during the war years from a famous artist, U Ba Nyan.. He was U Aung Soe (1924 – 1990) to be more known by the name he took up: Baji Aung Soe, Baji meaning art. Both U Ba Thet and U Ba Nyan were almost the first to paint in the western style, with mediums not used before by the traditional artists. U Ba Nyan had been a member of the Burma Art Club that was formed in 1920 by British administrators and members of the Myanmar aristocracy and had been sent to England as a student.

U Aung Soe was selected to study art at Rabindranath Tagore’s ??ntiniketan and there he discovered, and which became his lifelong obsession, a style of founding his modern concepts on the base of folk art; i.e., the Asian use of swift and graceful lines, primitive colours and the two-dimensional effect of the two. His works were certainly bolder and freer than the rather disciplined and sedate works by U Kin Maung, so some critics attribute the founding of modern art to him.

He rarely painted on canvas as he preferred the freedom of doing quick sketches with flowing lines on paper or on glass. He preferred gouache to oils but in later years he was to use colour soft pens. His use of materials meant that although his output was prolific, many of his works had been destroyed by time and the tropical weather of Myanmar.

However, many of his sketches showed too much influence by Indian art, as in the facial features or at times in dance poses. Although he was portraying the dancers in Burmese dress the choreography was clearly Indian.

However U Kin Maung and Baji Aung Soe were the first two to use the modern concept which at the time caused some derision among the overall-realistic art community. In the early art shows presented at Jubilee Hall or other prestigious venues, the selection committee had refused to accept modern works by these two, as one of them explained 50 years later, “because they did not understand what it was all about.”

The true leaders

Ludu Daily newspaper of Mandalay was a publication which gave strong support to the younger generation of artists and writers and there Paw Oo Thett and Win Pe worked for some years as illustrators and cartoonists. At times they would write articles about modern art and art shows taking place in other countries.

For special issues such as for Union Day, Independence Day, etc., instead of the usual pretty covers of other dailies, Ludu gave free reign to these young artists. They began to experiment with mixed media, collage, woodcuts etc, that were never before seen in the local press, to create illustrations that caused acclaim and horror at the same time. Ludu was a popular paper even in Yangon and thus the people of Yangon had heard of them even before they finally decided to move to the city. Their cartoons were acidic comments on the social and political situations of the time.

Knowing that they needed to broaden their horizons they came down to Yangon in 1963. They joined a group of young intellectuals, artists, writers and architects.

A small company called Architects Incorporated had its office on the corner of 24th. Street and Strand road and one of their members was Kin Maung Yin, also born 1936. He is an architect who gave up that profession to devote himself to painting. In the 1970s he had directed a movie inspired by Sarajit Ray’s Apu’s World, a movie of great aesthetic success but of an equally great commercial failure.

Kin Maung Yin lived on the premises and soon Paw Oo Thett and Win Pe were living with him. Kin Maung Yin, more artist than architect, was the mainstay of the group of painters who often gathered at this office day and night, which now included Aung Soe, Nan Waii, Shwe Oung Thame, and later Kyi Twe, Aung Taik and Sun Myint. The AI office became an informal clubhouse of the modern artists.

Later the office was moved with only Paw Oo Thett in residence to a flat on Sule Pagoda Road, overlooking the Mahabandoola Park. Kin Maung Yin and Win Pe by that time had moved elsewhere. There, every Saturday morning young artists would gather to plan exhibitions, talk, argue, discuss theories, and exchange ideas. As is usual in the art scene of developing Asian countries, the main patrons were expatriates, especially members of the western the diplomatic corps.

Diplomats would sponsor private shows in their houses for them, giving a reception in their honour and inviting interested parties etc. Usually the paintings would be sold out in the course of the evening.

There were also art shows sponsored by the Art Council of Myanmar, an official government organization, which exhibited both fine and modern art works. However there were less of the latter, due to the small numbers of artists of this school. The younger generation of the intelligentsia took great interest in the modern trend, but the older and more conservative group barely tolerated them. The period of 1962 to 1988 was under a Socialist regime and as the majority of the intelligentsia was leftists, modern art was often attacked as ‘decadent Western ideas’ in papers and even novels.

Lack of exposure to the international art scene, scarcity of materials, lack of support from traditionalists, not to say antagonism, and a conservative and official censorship had stunted the growth of modern art in Myanmar, although the artists themselves refused to feel confined.

In spite of restrictions a few groups emerged. The most known and successful was the Movement series group, led by Paw Oo Thett and Win Pe, with a membership of about twenty artists, including about six young women. The leaders Paw Oo Thett, Win Pe, Nan Waii and others such as Sun Myint or Aung Taik had individual styles. Nyunt Myat did exclusively abstract work while Kyi Twe’s paintings bordered on photo realism. Khin One and Maung Di either did photo realism or pure abstracts. The rest of the members’ works were mostly in the impressionist trend.

Khin One who was not always a member of that group but was the first to have a fully abstract solo exhibition. He, more than anyone else, brought modern art beyond mere style and colours into a deeper concept of non-objective forms as subjects. His so-called ‘sculptures’ at that period were what one would term as installations decades later. He went on to become a singer and composer for some years and when he returned to painting a few years before his death in 1970, his talent was seen to be undiminished.

Sonny Nyein is a rare modern sculptor who since the late 1970s was working in metal and found objects. He was studying at the SSFA where only traditional (i.e., realistic) sculpture was taught when he came across a book on Louis Nevelson which marked his total change to the modern trend. He and artist Paw Thame co-founded a prestigious and highly successful Peacock Gallery from 1979 to 1986.

The third generation

Po Po was originally from Pathein (formerly Bassein) a delta town where music and poetry flourished. Many from his hometown became famous singers and composers. Po Po emerged as a notable name in the mid 1980s and for about 12 years he was almost unrivalled. He after Khin One was the earliest to do installation work, first seen in his solo show in 1986.

By 1988 the Socialist regime had stepped down and an open-market economy under military rule was set in place. This change, plus the cease-fire agreements between the near-twenty insurgency groups and the government, meant that travel within the country became safe. Tourism, an industry reluctantly practiced by the Socialist government, was widely promoted. Access to foreigners and contacts with foreign galleries, museums and art centres became possible.

The opening of the Universities of Culture in Yangon and Mandalay where before only the State School of Fine Arts exists in these cities, meant that more students studied art as a major for their bachelor degrees, whereas the SSFAs, prestigious as they were, only offered diplomas.

The latest generation of artists, who could be said to be the fourth, are men in their thirties or forties or a few in their early fifties such as Min Wae Aung, Tin Win, Chan Aye, Soe Naing, Htein Lin, Nay Myo Say, Aye Ko, Nyein Chan Su, Min Zaw, Myat Kyawt, etc and young women like Nan Nan, Sandar Khaing, Pyu Mon or Chaw Ei Thein.

Many of them have incorporated performance art and installation art in their exhibitions. Many have taken part in international exhibitions. Finally, the modern painters of Myanmar seemed poised to join the international art community.


The first modern art show opened to the public was held in December of 1967 at the YMCA hall. The show was brought together by Paw Oo Thett, and consists of young doctors, architects, students as well as professional artists. They were Paw Oo Thett, Shwe Oung Thame, Kin Maung Yin, Maw Ba Han, Sunn Myint, Aung Taik, Alban Law Yone, and Byron Law Yone all men, and one woman Ma Thanegi, who at that time was painting under another name, Yin Wyn.

Group shows of the young modern artists had been held from the mid sixties, led as usual by Paw Oo Thett, Win Pe and Kin Maung Yin. The modern exhibitions took place annually under the names Monsoon, Winter and Summer and with its fourth event changed to the 4th Movement until the 11th, the final one in the late 1970s.

Baji Aung Soe was an individual who worked alone, as well as taking parts in many movies, but the trio of Paw Oo, Win Pe and Kin Maung Yin seemed to be mentioned as one word. Although U Kin Maung and U Aung Soe made the first step it was these three who broke the ground to forge a path.

The next generation were Kyi Twe, Sun Myint, Sann Min, Aung Taik, Khin One, Paw Thame, Sonny Nyein,Win Pe Myint, Pe Nyunt Way, Nyunt Myat, Myo Nyunt, Aung Myint as well as some women artists, Tin Tin Sann, Khin Myint Myint, Ma Thanegi, Myint Myint Tin and Anna Aung Myint etc.

Those of Mandalay were U Aung Khin, Kyaw Moe Thar, Tin Maung Oo, Sein Myint, Tin Tun and later, Myo Khin, Zin Linn Yu, Rahula, etc.

Of these artists some had left the country, while some had given up painting to concentrate on their own professional careers.


From 1969 to about 1971, over a period of two years or so, a gallery called The Orient was opened at No. 555, Merchant Street, not far from the US Embassy, in a large, high ceiling hall, which also served as a residence for Paw Oo Thett. It was managed by Shwe Oung Thame. Due to lack of funds it folded after two years.

Another important gallery to present modern art is the Lokanat Gallery, situated at the corner of Pansodan and Merchant Street. It was founded in 1971 by Win Pe, Paw Oo Thett, Paw Thame, Sun Myint etc under the patronage of U Ba Than, a retired military officer who had a great love for the arts. This gallery still exists to this day, and has an important place in the history of Modern art. It was the first gallery to allow payment by instalments, so that Myanmar collectors could also afford to buy the paintings. Other artists of note who were of an older generation included U Hla Shein, a retired government officer whose paintings are rare and much sought after.

A small but successful gallery which made a huge impact on the modern scene was Peacock Gallery, which opened in the late seventies, founded by Paw Thame and Sonny Nyein. Throughout the existence of this gallery, up to 1986, it held a great number of annual shows with diverse medias such as batik, papier-decoupé, collage, glass, bronze etc, which had very seldom, if at all, been used in art as even modern artists tend to stick to the traditional mediums of oil, aquarelle and later, acrylics.

The members of that gallery were eight men, Baji Aung Soe, Kin Maung Yin, Paw Thame, Sonny Nyein, Win Pe, Gyee Saw, Nyi Nyi, Sein Myint, and one woman, Ma Thanegi. Peacock Gallery was at that time the only gallery of modern art. It folded in 1986, after Paw Thame immigrated to the States.

Another gallery and for many years the only one of modern art is the Inya Gallery, founded in 1989 by Aung Myint and Sann Minn. It has over twenty members.

The Myanmar Gallery of Contemporary Art, opened in the mid 1990s by a Myanmar businessman was the first to support the member artists with a monthly income, which enabled them to create without financial worries. This system seems to be working well as the gallery members are by now the top young artists of Yangon.

However some of its members left to open their own galleries, notably Studio Square, managed by Nyein Chan Su, Min Zaw, and Myat Kyawt.

There are increasing new art galleries opening in Yangon and Mandalay as local artists such as Min Wae Aung, Tin Win, Zaw Win Pe, Maung Aw, Tin Maung Oo, Nann Nann, Nyein Aye Myint and Nyein Chan Su to name but a few, are being successfully represented abroad.

A gallery in Mandalay run by a group of artists and owned by one, which also opened in the 1990s is the Htan Yeik Nyo. This gallery too supports members with materials if not with monthly incomes and it is fast becoming a gallery of note in Myanmar.

One Response to “A brief history of Myanmar modern art by Ma Thanegi”

  1. Chris Dodge says:

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