The history of Myanmar's visual art goes back to the Stone Age. One can see some works of art at Pyadarlinn Village, near Iwarngan in the southern part of the Shan State. These are the first Myanmar paintings we know of. The Pyu, Rakkhine and Mon cu|tures aH fiourished in the middte and southern parts of Myanmar at the beginning of the Christian era. There are traces showing that the peopte lived in large towns and villages. Ancient cities existed at Beikthano, Han Linn, Ta Gating, Tharay Khit ra, Danyawaddy and Thuwanna Bommi. At the sites of shrines and places of habitation, archaeotogists ave excavated numerous cultural heritage objects, including utensils, pots, urns in graveyards, silver coins, sculptures, weapons, tablets, scriptures, gold plates and bronze piates, among other items. There were no . paintings, perhaps because they are not easily preserved.
In the era of Bagan, from the 10th to the late 11th centuries AD, mural paintings and frescos were produced in temples. During the same period, wooden plates, lacquer and fabrics were used as materials to paint on. Later on, during the Pinya, lnnwa and Konebaung periods, Myanmar paintings appeared not only on the walls of temples and cave monasteries but also on written folded tablets in the late Konebaung era as well as in the lacquer arts of Bagan and on palm leaves. Paper came into use during the Amarapura and Yadanarbon periods. As Myanmar became involved in trade with foreign countries, Myanmar artists met foreign artists and exchanged methods and techniques. In the 18th and 19th centuries, both Myanmar and foreign artists were appointed to serve at the court, and the arts flourished.
Kyaw Htin Nawyahtar, U Kyaw Nyunt,2 Saya Sar and Saya Chone were court artists. When Myanmar was occupied in 1885 by the British, Saya Cho, Saya Pon, Saya Mating Gyi, Saya Maung Hlaing, Saya The, Saya Thaung. Saya Ni, Saya Mya Gyi, Saya Myo and Saya Myint were all we||-known artists. At a later stage, more artists emerged and gained recognition, such as U Tun Hla, U Ba Ohn, Saya Saung, U Ba Lon, U Ba Sein, Saya Hla, Saya Myint, U San Lwin, U Lun Kywai, U Tun Min, U Pho Ba, U Pho Leik and U Saw Maung.
After 1885, Saya U Ba Zaw (b. 1891), Saya U Ba Lon (b. 1894), Saya U Ba Nyan (b. 1897) and Saya Saung (b. 1898) came into prominence. In 1920 those artists were in their early twenties. U Ba Lon was known for his illustrations in periodicals. Saya U Ba Nyan and Saya U Ba Zaw went abroad to study the visual arts and European-style painting. Saya Saung studied on his own by reading books and periodicals; he was also a student under the supervision of Saya U Maung Mating Gyi and Saya U Ba Zaw and later became a well-known artist.
Saya U Ba Nyan imparted the methods of Western art in Myanmar for a considerable number of years. In the 19205 he paid two visits to Europe and lived there for eight years. He studied at England’s Royal College of Art and at the British artist Stephen Lat’s private Yellow Door Fine Arts School. He proceeded to France, ltaiy, Spain, Switzerland, Holland and Denmark, painting, conducting exhibitions and even selling paintings to European museums. Although he could stand on his own as a ”European” artist, he returned to Myanmar in 1930 and taught European-style painting to the new generation until his death in 1945.
The second generation of painters who studied under Sayagyi U Ba Nyan were U Nywe Gaing, U Ba Kyi. U La Baw, U Thein Han, U San Win, U Myat Kyaw, U Ohn Lwin, U Aung Khin, U Thu Ka, U Aung Soe and U Kyaw Hlaing. In the 19305, Myanmar’s art scene was active and dynamic. The followers of Saya U Ba Nyan became famous during the postwar period. The style and techniques of Western painting became more familiar to Myanmar artists, who developed more advanced painting skills.
In the year 1930, when Sayagyi U Ba Nyan returned to Myanmar after living in various parts of Europe, a boy by the name of Maung Nyi Nyi alias Maung Lun Gywe was born in the lower part of Myanmar. His parents were U Ba Khaing and Daw Ohn Thwin. Young Maung Lun Gywe was not able to pursue an academic education. But while the war raged between 1942 and 1945, he attended a Buddhist monastic school and passed the 7th standard. While studying, he used to draw pictures on the backs of the schoolbooks. Later on, in 1945, he studied watercolour painting under Sayagyi U Chit Maung in Yangon. It was partly by chance that he came to pursue his interest in art and in becoming a professional artist. After passing the 7th standard, having a keen urge to work in the arts, Maung Lun Gywe earned a living by painting signboards, posters and advertisements. Although he was engaged in producing commercial art, he dreamed of making a career in the fine arts. In 1954-55 he had a chance to attend special arts teachers’ courses at the Teachers' Training College in Kanbe, Yangon. There he met Saya U Thet Win, a lecturer and the head of the Art Department, who became a close associate.
While studying at the Teachers’ Training College, he came to understand the principles of visual art under the instruction of Saya U Thet Win. In 1958, U Lun Gywe reached a turning point in his life. He got an opportunity to work as an arts instructor at the Yangon Arts and Sculpture School under the Ministry of Culture. He received advice and encouragement from Saya U Thet Win and filled the post in spite of keen competition. This transfer had a profound impact on him because he now had the opportunity to pursue further studies in fine art under Sayagyi U Ngwe Gaing and Sayagyi U Ohn Lwin. The most valuable opportunity was to meet Sayagyi U Thein Han (1910-1986), who was the acting director of the Yangon School of Fine Arts from 1958 to 1979. Sayagyi U Thein Han, once a student of Sayagyi U Ba Nyan, was an expert at colour. He had mastered painting techniques using oil, watercolours, poster colours and crayon.
In addition to his duties at the State School of Fine Arts, Sayagyi U Thein Han put up many students at his home, providing them with meals and training. Among these students was U Lun Gywe. Although U Lun Gywe had experienced severail other teachers such as U Chit Mating, U Thet Win, U Ngwe Gaing, and U San Win, U Thein Han was closest to him and provided his longest relationship. From Sayagyi U Thein Han, U Lun Gywe learned that art is not only about vision, but also about consciousness, emotion, technique, skill and aesthetics.
U Lun Gywe was fortunate to receive an opportunity to go to China in 1964-65 and stayed for one year under a cultural exchange programme. He studied traditional Chinese brush painting as well as oil painting at the Beijing Central Fine Arts Academy. He also got a chance to study in East Germany in 1971 and carried out studies at art museums in Berlin, Dresden and Potsdam. He learnt restoration techniques and at the same time had the chance to admire works by European masters.
In the field of commercial art, U Lun Gywe has created many posters, mural paintings in temples and pagodas, and illustrations for magazines and periodicals. These were produced when he served as an instructor at the State School of Fine Arts. During his time as an art instructor he participated in the Sarpaybeikhman Jubilee Hall arts exhibition and later various other exhibitions, even though teaching responsibilities took up most of his time.
U Lun Gywe served as an art instructor and civil servant for twenty-three years until his retirement from the State School of Fine Arts in 1979. After retirement, he has had more time to engage in exploring and creating his own original and individual style of art and in being a full-time artist. At his first show at Sarpaybeikhman, most of his works were realistic in a classical style. But in 1987 I noticed that U Lun Gywe’s works had developed and moved towards his own vision of Impressionism. And in 1998 his style tended towards a form of dynamic Impressionism. The rapid brush strokes, choice of colours, and thoughts and ideas changed, developed and matured in accordance with his experience in life and art. In terms of quantity as well as quality, I was flabbergasted to find his works prolific and flawless. In 1999, U Lun Gywe established the Artist Life Art Gallery, where he paints in tranquil surroundings with his family around him.
The development of visual art in Myanmar has included many artists, from the beginning led by Saya Chon, Saya U Ba Nyan, Saya U Ba Zaw and Saya Saung. The second period included Saya U Ngwe Gaing, U San Win, Saya U Thein Han and Saya U Ba Kyi. Up to the present, there have been just a few serious, full-time artists in Myanmar. U Lun Gywe is one of them and belongs to the third generation of artists. He is now 75 years old, but is still active and creating new and beautiful paintings.