The Art of Burma - New Studies
edited by Donald M. Stadtner
Photo special by Derek Brooke-Wavell

The Art of Burma - New Studies is a new sumptuous volume by the Indian publishing house Marg, that provides a collection of large colour photos of Burmese artistic achievements in many fields - accompanied by some grounding in the background and history of these arts. This hardback is only 128 pages long, but an impressive 10 inches by 13 in cover size (25x33cm.) It has 75 colour and 55 black and white pictures. At £38.00 it looks like excellent value, and even more so at the discount price of £29.00 offered to Britain-Burma Society members.  

The people of the Pyu kingdom use a silver coinage. They use green bricks to make the walls surrounding their city, which takes a whole day to walk around.
  The common people all live within the city wall. There are twelve gates. In front of the gate of the palace where the king of this kingdom dwells, there is a great image seated in the open air, over a hundred feet high and white as snow... The people's nature is friendly and good. They reverence the Law of Buddha.

  That Chinese account of the Pyu kingdom was written in 863 AD, and quoted by the book's contributor on Pyu and Mon art, John Guy. The book has chapters by expert contributors from the UK, France, India, the US and Australia. There is an introduction by the editor, Donald Stadtner, who also writes about Pagan bronzes. The introduction provides the book's only modern context, expressing regret that Burmese experts are unable to contribute in the present political situation.
  Apart from the subjects mentioned already, Pagan's vaults and arches are described by the leading expert Pierre Pichard; Richard Blurton writes on Burmese lacquer and Patricia Herbert on court manuscripts. An Indian professor, Choodamani Nandagopal, writes on Burmese jewellery, Pratapaditya Pal describes cloth paintings from Pagan, and there are articles on other aspects of Burmese cultural imports from India too - in the shape of the god Vishnu and the so-called "andagu" stelae.

The gilt bronze on the right, from the collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, is described below in a further excerpt from John Guy's chapter on Pyu and Mon art. (In the book, this illustration and the preceding one are both printed at full page size.)

This gilt bronze, found at Pagan but undoubtedly belonging to the Pyu tradition, shows a princely figure seated in royal ease. The smoothly modelled body, the oversized hands and the cushion-throne all bear close comparison with the image shown above. The rich jewels and elaborate crown, however, contrast sharply with the vigorous severity of the preaching Buddha, and point to this figure's identity as a Bodhisattva, most probably Avalokiteshvara, although the signifying attributes are not present.

Some of the best pictures are of Burmese court manuscripts - and one magnificent double-page example can be seen spread over the front cover (click for large reproduction - see also illustration above).

The black and white picture on the left is an illustration from Pierre Pichard's essay on the many and varied architectural techniques employed by the 12th Century builders of Pagan to support weight and create a variety of internal spaces. The illustration shows a niche that originally sheltered an image of the reclining Buddha in "Temple 1686".
  On the right (below) is a sophisticated lacquer "pumpkin box", from T. Richard Blurton's article on Lacquer Traditions. Such dramatic gold-on-black work is known as shwei-zawa, and he quotes a report prepared by Morris in 1919, which goes into detail on the manufacturing process:

After the surface has been treated with excessive coats of lacquer until a high degree of polish is obtained, the artist paints in a design with a paint made of orpiment and gum water. The whole area is then covered in a thin layer of thit-si. When completed and before the thit-si is absolutely hard the whole surface is treated with gold leaf. The surface is then allowed to harden in the usual way and is afterwards washed with water. On the surface to which the orpiment paint has been applied the gold (and indeed the thit-si and yellow orpiment) washes away leaving a jet black surface, and the pattern stands out in black and gold. The pattern that is painted on (in orpiment) is therefore a negative of the final design.