BAGYI AUNG SOE, Female figure with mandala, sacred letters of the Burmese alphabet, “om” in Bengali script and “solar energy,” 1987, felt-tip pen and ink on paper, 33 × 28 cm. Courtesy Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Bagyi Aung Soe

Also available in:  Chinese

At the heart of Bagyi Aung Soe’s exhibition at the Centre Pompidou hung a colorful self-portrait. The painting exemplifies the late artist’s knowledge of the post-impressionist aesthetic: the face is delineated in thick white lines, traced against an orange background adorned with red and green abstract motifs. The portrait is reminiscent of the archetypal portrayal of the artist of the early 20th century: voluminous hair falls on a pair of rimmed glasses and lips press between them a pipe. Above the right shoulder and barely visible against the painting’s background is the silhouette of a wine bottle. A symbolic sun drawn in bright red, which could be mistaken for a brooch pinned to the artist’s blue vest, gives away the identity of the sitter; Aung Soe signed many works with this circle in reference to his “zero theory,” which he developed in his writings and associated with zen and vajrayanist concepts
of emptiness.

While Bagyi Aung Soe’s legacy as a pioneering artist of the 20th century is uncontested in his native Myanmar, his lack of global institutional recognition has long been lamented by art historians in Southeast Asia. Curated by Catherine David and Yin Ker, Bagyi Aung Soe’s exhibition at Centre Pompidou in Paris was the first major retrospective dedicated to the prolific figure.

The selection of more than 300 documents and artworks for this exhibition was informed by nearly two decades of research conducted by the art historian and co-curator Yin Ker. The exhibits offer a glimpse into the scope of pictorial traditions ranging from Western modern art, Buddhist iconography, Indian miniature painting, and traditional Burmese art from which Aung Soe drew. Indeed, the selection only shows the surface of the eclectic aesthetic developed by the artist over the course of his career, in an oeuvre estimated to total around 10,000 works. Elements of his biography offered in the form of wall text, such as the mention of the formative years the artist spent at the Visva-Bharati University, founded in Santiniketan by poet and artist Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), also elucidate Aung Soe’s abundant references to ancient Indian theories of aesthetics, and Tagore’s humanist and universalist ideals transcending national borders.

Contrary to the accepted hierarchy of media in modern art, Aung Soe did not necessarily privilege painting, dabbling in illustration, cartoon, drawing, and reverse-glass painting; he even starred in motion pictures. In a plane no larger than a letter-size sheet of paper, or torn sheets from a sketch pad, the drawings of Aung Soe—especially those realized in the last decade of his life, which were well represented in the exhibition—capture the most diametrically opposed elements: abstraction and figuration, modern and traditional, sacred and profane. In one drawing, the contours of a seated female figure seem to be the result of the accidental trace of bright red ink on the paper. Rapid markings in black and yellow made in felt-tip pen create the figure’s volume. Floating around her, graphic and textual elements complete the composition: a mandala, the sacred “om” syllable of the Burmese alphabet, and the English words “solar energy.” The latter is a phrase found in many of Aung Soe’s drawings and refers to his practice of meditation, the power of which the artist likened to the sun’s rays.

The impossibility of categorizing the artist within a single geography or pictorial tradition exposes canonical Western art history’s lack of tools for the study of a figure like Aung Soe. Indeed, his use of cheap and readily available materials as well as the interdisciplinary nature of his practice render him truly singular among his contemporaries in Myanmar but also in the broader art of the 20th century. The lack of visibility given to this important retrospective was a shame (as it was barely advertised in the museum, visitors must have had prior knowledge of the exhibition or else wandered into it) and undermined the potential of such an exhibition in contributing to re-evaluating how the discipline of art history might study an artist who sits outside the so-called universal narrative of modern art. We still have much to learn from Bagyi Aung Soe.

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