— The New York Times
"In terms of grandness, nothing beats Buddhist Art of Myanmar"
— The Nation (Thailand)
"Beautiful and fascinating"
— The Guardian
Buddhist Art of Myanmar is the first exhibition in the West focusing on works of art from collections in Myanmar. The exhibition comprises approximately 70 spectacular works—including stone, bronze and wood sculptures, textiles, paintings, and lacquer ritual implements—from the fifth through the early twentieth century. Artworks include objects created for temples, monasteries, and personal devotion, which are presented in their historical and ritual contexts. The exhibition explores how Buddhist narratives were communicated visually and the multiplicity of regional styles. Many of the works in the exhibition have never been shown outside of Myanmar. Works are on loan from the National Museum of Myanmar in Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw; Bagan Archeological Museum; and Sri Ksetra Archaeological Museum, Hmawza, as well as works from public and private collections in the United States.
Myanmar, also officially known in the English language as “Burma” from the period of British control until 1989, is one of the most ethnically diverse countries on earth. Today the nation is home to over one hundred officially recognized ethnic groups, each with its own distinctive way of life, language, and adherence to a variety of belief systems. Although nearly ninety percent of Myanmar’s inhabitants count themselves as Buddhists, the country also is home to many Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and animists.
Buddhism was established in Myanmar around 500 CE or the middle of the first millennium, centuries after the Buddha’s demise in India. The faith was likely brought to Myanmar by Indian monks and traders during their interactions with local kingdoms. Lower Myanmar was then in the hands of the Mon, while Upper Myanmar was ruled by the Pyu. These two major ethnic groups were eclipsed by Bamar-speaking peoples who had begun to filter into Upper Myanmar by the beginning of the second millennium. The Bamar created their capital overlooking the Irrawaddy River at Pagan, or Bagan, where a frenzy of Buddhist devotion resulted in the construction of over two thousand brick temples, stupas, and monasteries. While Pagan’s art owed a strong and undeniable debt to eastern India, its sculptors, painters, and architects forged a distinctive aesthetic, which in later centuries diverged completely from Indian modes.
Buddhist legends developed locally in Myanmar, reflecting indigenous interpretations of Buddhist texts brought from South Asia. A number of Myanmar’s oldest Buddhist stories describe the Buddha’s visits to the kingdoms of Myanmar. In these tales, the Buddha bestows hair relics and presses the soles of his feet into stone to create what are known as living relics, which have remained under continuous worship in Myanmar. In fact, the Buddha never ventured beyond India, but the relics of the stories were enshrined in many of Myanmar’s temples and stupas along with sculptures and objects commissioned by donors. The objects forming this exhibition, formerly in the service of temples, stupas, and monasteries, embody an enduring tradition in which myth and history blend seamlessly.
Sylvia Fraser-Lu, Guest Curator
Donald Stadtner, Guest Curator
Adriana Proser, John H. Foster Senior Curator for Traditional Asian Art
The Image of the Buddha in Myanmar
Buddha seated in dharmacakra mudra. Pagan period, 11th century. Sandstone. H. 42 x W. 27 x D. 10 in. (106.7 x 68.6 x 25.4 cm). Bagan Archaeological Museum. Photo: Sean Dungan
Beginning in the middle of the first millennium, many diverse influences from the Indian subcontinent, China, and Southeast Asia shaped the evolution and stylistic development of the Buddha image in Myanmar. Excavations from Pyu period (2nd–10th century CE) sites underscore the early presence of Theravada Buddhism. This school of Buddhism stressed monasticism, the importance of Pali canon, and merit-making through good works and meditation.
The kingdom of Pagan (10th–13th century) had strong connections to Sri Lanka, which placed Myanmar firmly within the Theravada fold. The people of Pagan embarked on a golden age of Buddhist art, filling the capital’s remarkable temples with paintings and sculptures depicting scenes from the life and past lives of the Buddha. Drawing on the refined canons of eighth- to twelfth-century Pala art from eastern India, artisans created icons that emphasized the serenity and divinity of the Buddha through downcast eyes and the idealized form. Depicting the earth-touching gesture was popular at Pagan and became the standard throughout Myanmar.
The waning of Buddhism in India coincided with the demise of Pagan, and a reversion to former polities resulted in the evolution of a distinct, locally inspired Ava image in Myanmar with a more rounded torso and a larger head, set slightly forward on a short neck. Crowned and bejeweled Buddhas—indicative of possible influence from elsewhere in Asia—also became popular, subtly reinforcing the inferred relationship between kingship and the religion.
Such influences continued into the Konbaung period (1752–1885), characterized by the development of the more naturalistic, heavily clothed image in the Mandalay style widely seen today. Although regional images continued to be inspired by the Ava icon, later crowned images throughout Myanmar show Thai influence in the details of the crowns and costumes.
The Life of the Buddha (Video)
Buddha Severing His Hair. Pagan period, ca. 11th-12th century. Sandstone with traces of pigment. H. 31 x W. 18 x D. 9 in. (78.7 x 45.7 x 22.9 cm). Bagan Archaeological Museum. Photo: Sean Dungan
The historical Buddha, or Sakyamuni, was born as Prince Siddhatta into the royal Sakya clan, whose territory lay on what is now the border between northeastern India and Nepal. After witnessing human suffering in the forms of old age, illness, and death, and inspired by the sight of a monk, the prince abandoned his wife and newborn child to begin a long spiritual journey. He later became the Buddha after his enlightenment beneath the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya and he embarked upon many decades of teaching throughout northeastern India.
In India, by the Pala period (ca. 700–1200), the Buddha's life had been codified into a series of “Eight Great Events.” These eight events are, in order of their occurrence in the Buddha's life: his birth, his defeat over Mara and consequent enlightenment, his first sermon at Sarnath, the miracles he performed at Shravasti, his descent from the Heaven of the Thirty-three Gods, his taming of a wild elephant, the monkey's gift of honey, and his death.
The Buddha was never viewed as an ordinary mortal, evinced by his miraculous conception and birth, and the countless miracles he performed. Episodes or stories from the Buddha’s life were popular subject matter for many kinds of works in Myanmar, including temple and monastery sculptures, tiles created for temples, and decorative arts such as chests for storing Buddhist scriptures.
Birth of the Buddha
Earth Goddess (Vasudhara)
19th-Century Bronze Bell
The Jatakas or Birth Stories
Wall hanging depicting the Vessantara Jataka (Wethandaya Zat).Late 19th-early 20th century. Velvet, cotton and flannel cloth, wool, sequins, and metal-wrapped thread. H. 17 1/2 x W. 138 1/2 in. (44.5 x 351.8 cm). Burma Art Collection at Northern Illinois University: Gift of Paul J. Bennett, BC90.4.275. Photo: Northern Illinois University media services
Jatakas were among the earliest Buddhist literature and are found in a handful of collections, each differing somewhat from the other. The most popular set of stories in Southeast Asia is from the Pali canon and comprises 547 tales describing previous lives of the Buddha. The protagonists in the tales are either human or animal and each story poses a moral challenge where virtue is justly rewarded, underscoring the law of karma. In each of the Buddha’s lives, he embodies exemplary behavior based on one or a combination of ten virtues: Generosity, Morality, Patience, Vigor, Meditation, Wisdom, Skill in Means, Conviction, Strength, and Knowledge. For example, in the case of the Vessantara Jataka—depicted in this gallery on a hanging and on a silver vessel—the merit of generosity is emphasized. Local myths similar to jatakas also emerged in Myanmar. These non-canonical narrative tales were depicted by artists and describe or portray what many Myanmar natives believe to be incidents from past lives of the Buddha.
Ritual and Devotion
Bell. 1884. Bronze. H. 16 x Diam. 9 in. (40.6 x 22.9 cm). National Museum, Nay Pyi Taw. Photo: Sean Dungan
Soaring, gilded and white-washed temples and pagodas interspersed with teak monasteries crowned by multitiered roofs dominate the national landscape of Myanmar and are a visual reflection of how deeply Buddhism has permeated the life, ideas, and aspirations of its people. The catalyst for such a proliferation of religious architecture lies in Theravada Buddhism’s preoccupation with merit-making through acts of generous giving and self-sacrifice to improve karma in future existences, with the goal of eventually achieving nibbana, or nirvana. In Myanmar, many Buddhists are known to donate from ten to twenty-five percent of their annual income to merit-making. The pinnacle in giving is to build a pagoda, temple, or monastery for the religion, an action that reflects not only the piety and generosity of the donor, but also the wealth and status. Given that temples and monasteries are expensive to build, it is no surprise that many of the largest and most famous edifices were constructed by monarchs, who led the nation in making munificent contributions.
For most believers merit-making has traditionally centered on the symbiotic relationship between the monkhood and the laity. Highly revered as spiritual preceptors and keepers of the dhamma, the monks who pledge themselves to a life of poverty, humility, and self-denial are completely dependent upon their followers for all basic necessities. Housewives dutifully supply them with food during the daily morning alms round. On Sabbath days, households take large pagoda-shaped receptacles (hsun-ok) filled with alms food to monasteries. Supporters also provide robes and other requisites on a regular basis and offer their sons as novices to learn the rudiments of the Buddhist faith. Some choose to celebrate this rite of passage for their sons by donating religious manuscripts and scripture chests to monasteries.
Pagodas and temples were a fertile field of merit. In addition to relics, votive tablets, and precious objects for enshrinement, numerous images of the Buddha and his disciples, replicas of his footprint, miniature stupas, and tableaux of his life were all required for veneration along with the donation of bells, gongs, and various receptacles as accouterments to worship.
Vishnu. Pagan period, 11th-12th century. Bronze. H. 14 x W. 7 x D. 4 in. (35.6 x 17.8 x 10.2 cm). National Museum, Yangon. Photo: Sean Dungan
Although Theravada Buddhism focuses on the historical Buddha, monasticism, and meditation, statues of Brahma and Vishnu from the Hindu triumvirate were common in Myanmar and assimilated into Buddhist temple imagery until the rise of Pagan. Effigies of Sakka, the guardian god of Buddhism (formerly Indra, a major god in early Hinduism), continue to be a fixture on pagoda pavilion gables throughout Myanmar. The Hindu epic the Ramayana, also featured in the Dasaratha Jataka (No. 431), is widely performed in Myanmar as popular entertainment and referenced in the Buddhist context as a dialectic on good versus evil.
Mahayana Buddhism, which emphasizes popular devotion and the compassionate nature of the Buddha, and to a lesser degree Vajrayana, a more esoteric offshoot, are also practiced in Myanmar. Avalokiteshvara, the Mahayana god of compassion, is acknowledged by Theravadins in the role of Lokanatha, guardian and protector of the universe until the arrival of Mettayya, the future Buddha. The teachings of the Buddha are not confined to the human sphere but also extend to beings of both the celestial and lower realms of existence within the Buddhist universe. This is evident in the welcome presence of creatures such as kinnari, semidivine half-human half-bird figures, and fierce ogres from the lower regions on the pagoda platform. Pre-Buddhist elements such as guardian gods of the locality and mythical biological guardians known as nats in Myanmar also have been accorded a minor place within the pagoda precincts.
Ma Nay Le Nat. Myanmar, Amarapura, 2004. Lacquered teak wood, gold leaf, red and black paint. H. 48 x W. 10 in. (121.9 x 25.4 cm). Burma Art Collection at Northern Illinois University: Gift of Catherine Raymond, 2006, BC2006.04.04. Photo: Center for Burma Studies Burma Art Collection at Northern Illinois University
There continues to be a wide range of spirits popularly worshiped in Myanmar that are peripherally related to Buddhism. Such spirits serve pragmatic and worldly rather than religious functions. Most colorful among these are nats, who on occasion may be benevolent or malevolent. In exchange for ritual attention they may grant boons, such as success in business or the defeat of a rival. The veneration of nats is organized at the national level into the Cult of the Thirty-Seven Nats—select figures from Myanmar’s historical and legendary past most of whom died tragically and were raised by royal decree to the status of nat. The dual concern for the mundane and the religious has informed Buddhism in Myanmar from its inception. These images remain ubiquitous in household shrines and near pagodas, temples, and other religious sites throughout Myanmar. Commonly created from wood and identifiable by their poses and attributes, few antique effigies of nats have survived Myanmar’s frequently humid and wet climate. Once an icon shows signs of wear and tear it is quickly replaced by a new image.
Critical support for “Buddhist Art of Myanmar” comes from The Partridge Foundation, A John and Polly Guth Charitable Fund.
Major support has been provided by Fred Eychaner Fund and Henry Luce Foundation.
Additional support provided by E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, Lisina M. Hoch, and a gift in honor of David Owsley.
We appreciate the support of Yoma Strategic Holdings, the Ellen Bayard Weedon Foundation, River Gallery, and Andaman Capital Partners.
Support for Asia Society Museum is provided by Asia Society Contemporary Art Council, Asia Society Friends of Asian Arts, Asia Society Traditional Art Council, Arthur Ross Foundation, Sheryl and Charles R. Kaye Endowment for Contemporary Art Exhibitions, Hazen Polsky Foundation, New York State Council on the Arts, and New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.
Lenders to the Exhibition
Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
Bagan Archaeological Museum
Center for Burma Studies at Northern Illinois University
Ronald L. Krannich
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
National Museum, Nay Pyi Taw
National Museum, Yangon
New York Public Library
Southeast Asia Collection, Northern Illinois University Libraries
Sri Ksetra Archaeological Museum, Hmawza
We also acknowledge with gratitude those lenders who prefer to remain anonymous.
Buddhist Art of Myanmar: The Intersection of Faith and Karma
Tuesday, February 10 • 6:30 pm
Join a guest curator of Buddhist Art of Myanmar, Donald M. Stadtner, for an in-depth perspective on this groundbreaking exhibition.
Homecoming Myanmar: A Midi Z Retrospective
March 6-13, 2015
A rising star in international cinema, Myanmar-born and raised, Taiwan-based filmmaker Midi Z has earned critical acclaim for his intimate portrayal of the ethnic Chinese community in Myanmar.
Art and Devotion: Pathways to the Buddha in Myanmar
Sunday, March 15 • 10:00 am
Join Sylvia Fraser-Lu, one of the guest curators for Buddhist Art of Myanmar, for an illustrated talk about the relationship between art and religious practice in Myanmar as captured in this groundbreaking exhibition.
Music and Dance from Myanmar: Shwe Man Thabin Zat Pwe
Friday, April 10 & Saturday, April 11 • 8:00 pm
One of Myanmar's most revered traditional performing arts troupes, Shwe Man Thabin makes its New York premiere with a 20-member company of musicians and dancers. Performing Zat Pwe — the traditional Burmese performance form that combines elements of music, dance, puppetry, and theater into a unique variety extravaganza — this is a rare glimpse into an extraordinary art form, which remains little known outside its native land.
Music and Dance from Myanmar
Sunday, April 12 • 11:00 am
A highly stylized form, Zat Pwe typically takes the form of an all-night cabaret, and is a highly popular part of village pagoda celebrations, featuring dancers, comedians, clowns, acrobats, and puppeteers, all accompanied by a live percussion and gong ensemble known as the Hsaing Wang. Explore these traditions in a music and dance workshop led by the Shwe Man Thabin troupe.
All programs are subject to change. For tickets and the most up-to-date schedule information, visit AsiaSociety.org/NYC or call the box office at 212-517-ASIA (2742) Monday through Friday, 1:00-5:00 pm.
Enjoy Asia Society's free audio guide for Buddhist Art of Myanmar, just look for the audio icon next to select artworks in the exhibition.
For easier mobile access, listen at Soundcloud.
Lectures & Events (Video)
The Intersection of Faith and Karma (Complete)
NEW YORK, February 10, 2014 — Donald M. Stadtner, one of two guest curators of Buddhist Art of Myanmar, offers an in-depth perspective on the exhibition at a Members-only opening lecture. (52 min., 54 sec.)
Art and Devotion: Pathways to the Buddha in Myanmar (Complete)
NEW YORK, March 15, 2015 — Sylvia Fraser-Lu, guest curator for Asia Society Museum's exhibition Buddhist Art of Myanmar, explicates the relationship between art and religious practice in Myanmar through an illustrated lecture. (1 hr., 14 min.)
In the Blog
When Arts and Policy Intersect: The Story Behind Buddhist Art of Myanmar
The story of how Asia Society's behind-the-scenes policy engagement early in Myanmar's reforms led to a historic art exhibition.
Interview: Bureaucracy, Bumpy Roads No Deterrent to Bringing Myanmar's Art to US
Asia Society Museum's Adriana Proser recounts the long, complex back story behind the upcoming exhibition Buddhist Art of Myanmar, which includes many works that have never been seen outside of the country before.
From Myanmar, With Love: An Ancient Buddha's Historic Journey to New York City
The 11th-century stone Buddha is just one of many treasures leaving Myanmar for the first time for Asia Society Museum's landmark exhibition Buddhist Art of Myanmar, opening Feb. 10 in New York.
Behind the Scenes
Double-Sided Stele Installation Timelapse
Watch a team of art handlers orchestrate the installation of a 724-pound sandstone sculpture that dates back to the fourth to sixth century prior to the opening of Buddhist Art of Myanmar. (1 min., 50 sec.)
Conserving Buddhist Art of Myanmar
Art conservator Leslie Gat shares her insights about art conservation and describes how some of the objects in Buddhist Art of Myanmar were conserved for the exhibition and beyond. (3 min., 53 sec.)
"Welcome to Bliss City"
"Crash Course in Nirvana"
Contact: Elaine Merguerian 212.327.9313; [email protected]
ASIA SOCIETY MUSEUM TO PRESENT FIRST EXHIBITION IN THE WEST FOCUSED ON LOANS FROM COLLECTIONS IN MYANMAR
Buddhist Art of Myanmar on view in New York February 10 through May 10, 2015
Asia Society Museum presents a landmark exhibition of spectacular works of art from collections in Myanmar and the United States. Buddhist Art of Myanmar comprises approximately 70 works—including stone, bronze, and lacquered wood sculptures; textiles, paintings, and ritual implements—from the fifth through the early twentieth century. The majority of works in the exhibition on loan from Myanmar have never been shown in the West.
On view in New York from February 10 through May 10, 2015, the exhibition showcases Buddhist objects created for temples, monasteries, and personal devotion, presented in their historical and ritual contexts. Exhibition artworks highlight the long and continuous presence of Buddhism in Myanmar since the early first millennium, as well as the unique combination of style, technique, and religious deities that appeared in the arts of Buddhist Myanmar.
Buddhist Art of Myanmar includes loans from the National Museums in Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw, the Bagan Archaeological Museum, Sri Ksetra Archaeological Museum, and the Kaba Aye Buddhist Art Museum, as well as works from public and private collections in the United States.
The exhibition is organized by guest curators Sylvia Fraser-Lu and Donald M. Stadtner in conjunction with Adriana Proser, Asia Society’s John H. Foster Senior Curator for Traditional Asian Art. A fully illustrated catalogue, copublished by Asia Society and Yale University Press, accompanies the exhibition and features new photography of the loans from Myanmar. The book is the first publication to critically examine works of art from collections in Myanmar with contributions by art historians, historians, and religious studies specialists. It includes scholarly essays and an extensive bibliography. A glossary of Myanmar, Pali, and Sanskrit terms; geographical, historical, and religious names and places; and mythical figures is also included.
Buddhist Art of Myanmar is organized into three sections—Images of the Buddha, Lives of the Buddha, and Ritual and Devotion—which showcase the multiplicity of styles throughout the country, in part a reflection of the localization of religious practice. The objects bring into relief such issues as state support of Buddhism, the effects of trade and international relations, and the role of local myths and ethnicity, all of which have inextricably linked Buddhism and Myanmar for more than two thousand years.
Buddhism has been present in Myanmar since the third century BCE. Buddhist Art of Myanmar features objects from the eras when Theravada Buddhism—the predominant religion of continental Southeast Asia for many centuries—was rooted in Myanmar history. These include the Pyu period, an era of significant overland trade with the Indian subcontinent and China; the Bagan period (849–1287), a time of strong Indian Pala-period Buddhist influence that was notable for stunning stone and bronze sculptures; the Ava period (1287–1782) from which relatively little Buddhist material survives; and the Konbaung Dynasty (1752–1885), when Myanmar’s rulers extended their domain into parts of Laos and Thailand (Siam) and a period from which resplendent gilt and inlaid lacquer Buddhist sculpture survives.
Critical support for Buddhist Art of Myanmar comes from The Partridge Foundation, A John and Polly Guth Charitable Fund.
Major support has been provided by Fred Eychaner Fund and Henry Luce Foundation.
Additional support provided by E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and Lisina M. Hoch.
Asia Society has organized a series of public programs to coincide with the exhibition, including talks on the history of Buddhism in Myanmar, as well as performances and other cultural programming. Two, rare performances of Zat Pwe—a Myanmar tradition that combines elements of dance, song, comedy, puppetry, and drama—will be held on April 10 and 11. A Lunar New Year Family Day workshop on February 21, exploring New Year traditions across Asia, will include presentations of customs from Myanmar.
Programs will also address current issues in Myanmar. A retrospective of films made by director Midi Z, who was born and raised in Myanmar and is currently based in Taiwan, will be screened in March and be followed by discussions with the director. The three feature films and two shorts explore the lives of the Chinese community and other displaced people in Myanmar. Panel discussions on the country’s emerging civil society, its evolving relationship with the international community, and the status of minority populations are planned.
More information about public programming is available at AsiaSociety.org/nyc.
About Asia Society Museum
The Asia Society Museum presents a wide range of traditional and contemporary exhibitions of Asian and Asian American art, taking new approaches to familiar masterpieces and introducing under-recognized arts and artists. The Asia Society Museum Collection comprises a traditional art collection, composed of the initial bequests of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd, and a contemporary art collection focused on new media.
Founded in 1956, Asia Society is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, educational institution headquartered in New York with new state-of-the-art cultural centers and gallery spaces in Hong Kong and Houston, and offices in Los Angeles, Manila, Mumbai, San Francisco, Seoul, Shanghai, Sydney, and Washington, D.C.
Asia Society Museum is located at 725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street), New York City.
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