Buddhist Visual Cultures from Burmese Wall Paintings

Tilman Frasch

The book traces the way murals in Buddhist temples of Upper Myanmar (Burma) have developed artistically from the 17th to the 19th century. The starting point of this period of investigation is in the 1630s, when King Thalun ordered to transfer the capital of the Burmese kingdom from Lower Burma back to Ava. The royal move triggered a wave of renovations and constructions of religious monuments in the heartland of the kingdom, centred on Ava and the Lower Chindwin area (Monywa and Pakhan-gyi). This area, a crucial field of the art production of the period, provides the geographical focus for Alexandra Green’s study. By the 17th century, decorating the interior walls of religious monuments with paintings did have a long tradition in Burma that went back to at least the Bagan period (11th–13th centuries), so the way these paintings were composed to tell their stories displays continuities, but even more change and innovation.

Green sets off with an exploration of the standardized nature of the paintings throughout Burmese history. The stock body of stories informing the themes and motives of the paintings comprises popular Buddhist texts such as the Jatakas, the major events of the Buddha’s life, the history of the previous Buddhas (Buddhavamsa), and, to a lesser degree, episodes from the Suttas. The preferred format to present these stories are square frames, which are occasionally supplemented with short captions indicating the image content. But while the stock of stories has remained the same over the centuries, the format has undergone a more substantial change as the originally one-dimensional, static depiction gave way to a more dynamic portrayal with overlapping and interwoven images. This also includes narratives being arranged vertically, replacing the originally plain horizontal layout of the paintings.

The next theme deals with the forms of commemorating the Buddha and investigates the relationship between the length, time, or the stories and the amount of space allocated to them in the paintings. In addition to space and size, the selection of the motives and their repetition or omission make up the specific rhetorical matrix of the paintings, the aim of which is the commemoration and veneration of the Buddha – whose image occupies the core space of each monument (p. 62). In her interpretation of paintings, Green draws parallels to the theatrical performances emerging in Burma at the time, as both paintings and dramas highlight the 10 qualities, parami, of the Buddha. In their work the painters often emphasized a single parami instead of telling the story in full detail. Another feature addressed in this chapter is the hierarchy of the Buddhist cosmos as well as the status of beings existing within its spheres (p. 93). In the paintings, this hierarchy is usually represented vertically, though the main image then adds a second, horizontal axis to the representation, which makes the spectator experience the Buddha’s presence immediately.

Green expands on these human encounters with visual art by also exploring the links between paintings and religious practice and ritual. Here, she looks at the ‘frames’ of the images not so much as demarcations of physical space, but as a notional and thematic structure that enables observers to focus their thoughts and thus informs their actions inside the temple. Green also examines the relationship between the centre and the periphery of the images as well as their function in defining the interior space of the temple. In this, she pays special attention to adorants and worshippers, who are exemplary in their attitude towards the Buddha. She also notes the conflation of forms of book or manuscript illustration and the wall paintings, which may have started in the late 18th century with the arrival of artists from Thailand (p. 126-7). Another crucial input to the art of Burma from abroad can be seen from the textiles worn by the people painted, which show Indian patterns from Gujarat, Bengal, and the Indian east coast.

A final survey analyses the expansion of the narrative through the lens of the word-image distinctions. Changes between paintings in style and substance cannot only be attributed to the artists’ taste and skill, but also to variations in the underlying textual versions of the stories. This, however, is a reciprocal relationship, because the narrative of a painting can create a new version of the text as much as a variant text may lead to a distinct visualization. Simultaneously, late 18th century paintings and the textual sources both indicate a turn towards the vernacular, which can be gleaned from the increasing length of the explanatory captions that often accompany the paintings and made them accessible to a wider audience (p. 168-9). Though the rise of the Konbaung dynasty in the middle of the 18th century certainly gave a boost to the vernacular Burmese idiom in literature and art, there are two reasons why this vernacularisation alone cannot sufficiently explain the growing use of Burmese found in the murals. On the one hand, lengthy Burmese captions or even ‘full stories’ have a long history in Burma going back to the 13th century, such as temple 585 at Bagan; and on the other hand, Dhammasami has recently thrown light on the attempts of the Burmese (and Thai) kings to halt the decline in monastic scholarship and Pali studies (Khammai Dhammasami, Buddhism, Education and Politics in Burma and Thailand: From the 18th Century to the Present, Bloomsbury, 2018). The increased use of the vernacular may therefore reflect a wider development that encompassed art production, education, and the politics of identity.

Such points are quibbles, however, and can hardly taint the excellence of the work. Green has brought together and carefully examined an amazing array of visual sources from late pre-colonial Burma. Her observation of the material is close and attentive to detail, her interpretations are grounded in solid theoretical reflections, and her conclusions are thoughtful and stringent. For all this comprehensiveness and depth of reflection, the book seems set to become a reference work for the art history of Burma, while scholars interested in the art of Buddhism more broadly may also gain much from reading it.