www.aungsoeillustrations.org is an open-access online database of periodical and book illustrations and covers by Bagyi Aung Soe (1923/24–1990), Myanmar’s trailblazer of modern art, who was also her most prolific illustrator in the twentieth-century. It seeks to conserve the memory of this artistic, cultural and intellectual heritage, to raise awareness of its value and significance, and to foster scholarship on the topic. Users of the database may browse the collection according to the source, date or title of publication of the illustrations, or conduct a search using keywords in English (by 2017). Its contents may be shared freely on social media and be used for non-commercial and educational purposes on the terms stipulated here. High-resolution images may be available upon request.
The format of the illustrations gathered in this database includes photographs and scanned images. The earliest images are photographs taken in 2005 in Denise Bernot’s library and the Bibliothèque universitaire des langues et civilisations (BULAC) of Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales (INALCO) in France. Researched within the framework of a Masters 2 (D.E.A.) thesis submitted at the University of Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV) in 2006, they served the purpose of examining Aung Soe’s stylistic evolution between 1948 and 1990. The interest being the image – Aung Soe generally illustrated freely independently of the text –, these photographs do not always include the text found on the same page as the illustration, or even its title. It was only subsequently that I made it a point to include them, even if it were only to demonstrate that Aung Soe rarely illustrated the written content. The inclusion of the text is more faithful to how Aung Soe’s art would have been first received and perceived by the Burmese audience for whom he intended the illustrations. Furthermore, it would be more respectful to preserve the link between poetry, one of his principal sources of inspiration of which he was enamoured, and his art. Whenever possible, the titles of the poems, short stories or articles next to which Aung Soe’s illustrations appear have been translated into English for the benefit of non-Burmese-speaking users of the database. These titles ought not be mistaken for those of the illustrations; Aung Soe rarely titled his works.
The quality of the images presented in this database differs widely – especially the full-page ones including text from the collection of the Universities’ Central Library –, and will continue to be an area of focus for improvement in the years to come. While those from 2015 onwards were scanned, the earlier ones from 2005 were photographed with unequal results. The trawling of Aung Soe’s illustrations continue in libraries both public and private, as well as in second-hand bookstores, and we seek to replace images of poor quality and lacking in textual context with full-page images of higher resolution. In the meantime, we share whatever we have lest the desire for perfection impedes accessibility. However, to avoid damaging the binding of many a fragile publication, it is not always possible to flatten the page entirely during digitisation, which means that we will have to content with partial images for certain illustrations. We seek your kind understanding with respect to the shortcomings, oversights or human errors in the documentation and presentation of these illustrations, and would be most grateful to be alerted to them and to receive your feedback. We also welcome offers of volunteer support, especially for translation, and look forward to receiving hitherto unknown materials to be shared and credited accordingly on the database.
The reasons for choosing the online database as the medium to present Aung Soe’s illustrations are manifold. First and foremost, it is the most efficient and cost-effective way of making the materials available to the largest public throughout the world. Given Aung Soe’s mammoth production with close to 4,300 documented illustrations at the time of the database’s launch in January 2016, an online database is to date the most economical known alternative to the classic printed catalogue raisonné that is imperative for advancing an overview of an artist’s oeuvre. Indeed, how many more illustrations out there await our discovery? In all probability, they number thousands. A website is in addition dynamic – a feature that is particularly advantageous to an ongoing research project whose development is indeterminable. It is favourable to updates, amendments and expansion in tandem with the revision of scholarship, new technology, funding and other forms of resources: the replacement of existing images with those of higher resolution, the Burmese-English translation of titles and texts, the supplementation of images of printed illustrations with those of corresponding original works whenever the latter can be traced (and with the collector’s approval) and the addition of texts by and on Aung Soe, for example. Eventually, this database may also grow to include illustrations by Aung Soe’s contemporaries for the purpose of comparative studies. Our principal regret with an online database is its inability to make its materials readily available to communities with limited access to the Internet. We also apologise that a Burmese version of this database does not exist (as yet).
The greater aspiration of www.aungsoeillustrations.org is to exhort a rethinking of the prevailing narrative of arts from Myanmar and the region. In foregrounding Aung Soe’s illustrations numbering thousands, this database points to illustration’s crucial role in the emergence of a new artistic consciousness in twentieth-century Myanmar. Its contextual significance exposes the inappositeness of Western art’s allegedly “international” constructs and theoretical frameworks – the dichotomy between fine and commercial art, for example –, whose application beyond the centres of Euro-America has been indiscriminate with treacherous consequences. Further examination of the content, motivations and fabrication processes of these works straddled between the artificially carved regions of South, East and Southeast Asias, between the purportedly antithetical traditions of Eastern and Western art, between the falsely irreconcilable systems of ancient spirituality and modern scientific thought, etc., will hopefully enhance revisions of the discipline’s premises and methodologies.
Not one, not a few, but a series of them. Such are the karmic links that brought together the many authors of www.aungsoeillustrations.org. They are Bagyi Aung Soe’s friends, students, colleagues and admirers; they are artists, collectors, editors, librarians, academics, independent scholars as well as well-meaning strangers whose trajectory and location are a mystery. They share their collections of old publications containing Aung Soe’s illustrations; they facilitate access to such collections; they point to collections known to them. They also share recollections of the processes of creation and publication. Some knew the artist personally; others, like myself, have never met him. A few are no longer with us on this Earth; others continue to live and work in France, Myanmar (Burma), Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States. Without them, there would have been no illustration, no inspiration and no database.
While the term “authors” rather than the customary “contributors” is not consummate, it is a means of drawing attention to how I understand the forces and dynamics that have shaped the outcome of this marathon to be distinct. Almost invariably in art history and wider academia, the writer with the intellectual input assumes unique authorship of the research presented, but this convention is demonstrably misleading in the case of this project whose realisation has been contingent on the coming together of numerous individuals and the expertise they bring with them. Take the compilation of primary materials for example: in a country where access to historical archives by foreign scholars is extremely restricted, and where (hi)stories are essentially relayed in the form of anecdotes by word of mouth and documentation conserved in private hands, it is our Burmese friends and colleagues who see to the transmission (or evanescence) of Aung Soe’s legacy. Clearly, the absence of any individual named here would have divested www.aungsoeillustrations.org a part of what makes it the way it is; it is unworkable to hierarchise our contributions, and hence the inappropriateness of the art historian playing the role of initiator and coordinator to claim sole authorship or ownership. Besides, to do so would be contradictory to the raison d’être of this database.
Having taken up the self-appointed task of concretising shared aspirations and of penning the acknowledgements for this website, it is my duty to retrieve my co-authors’ names and deeds from the depths of a fickle memory; this database is otherwise a faceless electronic repository of digital images deprived of a past, orphaned of the many voices that gave life to the world it endeavours to echo. Until now, my writings have centred around the complex aspirations behind Aung Soe’s art: the unwonted strategies espoused and the larger art historical conundrums they expose, i.e. research topics acknowledged by and in academia. This time – and it is time –, these topics take a backseat to the grossly belated acknowledgment of the many individuals that have been part of the ongoing excavation and restoration of Aung Soe’s memory and art. I shall attempt to recall the key players one by one, dwelling more on some than others – not necessarily because the word-count is commensurate with the significance of their contribution, but because of my inability to recollect details equally. There is no better occasion to do so than for and on this online platform, whose prime motive is to give back by making freely available as many known illustrations by Aung Soe as possible, just as the artist aspired for his art to reach all strata of the society beyond the gallery through the medium of illustration.
It was in 2001 during my Masters I (Maîtrise) thesis focusing on the sources of Aung Soe’s inspiration that I discovered his illustrated oeuvre. In 2004, investigation into his illustrations began at the University of Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV) following Osmund Bopearachchi’s acceptance to supervise my Masters II (D.E.A.) thesis. The objective was to map the stylistic evolution of Aung Soe’s art based on his dated illustrations from the beginning of his career in 1948 to the year he passed away in 1990. Documentation of these illustrations started at the Bibliothèque universitaire des langues et civilisations (BULAC) of Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales (INALCO), which used to be at 2, rue de Lille in Paris. Librarians Florence Carneiro, Cédric Cao-Van-Phu and Alexandra de Mersan who oversaw the Burmese collection patiently and efficiently assisted with all my requests to comb the entire collection. I thank them from the bottom of my heart for their tireless efforts; carting stacks of publications back and forth day in, day out was unlikely to have been painless.
It was next thanks to Daw Yin Yin Myint and Marie-Hélène Cardinaud, dedicated professors for Burmese at INALCO, that I was able to study the collection of Denise Bernot, the initiator and grande dame of Burmese studies in France, whose private library in Antony has benefited innumerable students. At this point on “Madame Bernot” – or “Boudou” as she is affectionately known to some students –, I shall make a parenthesis and dwell on the encounter with her, for if this website were to be dedicated to anyone, it is to her whose instructions as she laid ill in bed in June 2005 embody our database’s aspirations: to do things well and to transmit (“il faut faire les choses bien ; il faut transmettre”).
Bernot had retired many years before I started learning Burmese; I was never exactly her student. She knew next to nothing about me, yet opened up her home and private library to me to work on Aung Soe’s illustrations. Indeed, thanks to her, I was also to learn generosity: a generosity that is neither random nor for the purpose of self-gratification, but one that is coupled with inquisitiveness and judiciousness. Ever since, the light, textures and smells of her home and library where I spent entire days sifting through old publications, identifying and photographing illustrations by Aung Soe have been the backdrop of my work on the topic: the light from the garden filtering into the dim long room with the library on the other side, the wooden salt cellar on the dining table, the old family photographs, prints and wooden puppets slumped against the sofa. Later that year in November 2015, when a research grant from the Doctoral School of Paris IV enabled me to return to Yangon, we would share a meal of noodles on the campus of Yangon University, where thanks to Bernot again, I managed to discreetly consult the library’s collection of old periodicals, which was otherwise barred to foreigners. I did not realise that it would be her last trip to Myanmar; at 83 years old, she remained one with the vitality of the Burmese people and at home in the brouhaha of this typically Burmese teashop where boys of no more than twelve ran the place like seasoned adults.
This recollection might seem irrelevant to our topic on authors of www.aungsoeillustrations.org. I argue for the contrary. If not for the presence and inspiration of teachers like Bernot lending warmth to what would have been an otherwise excruciatingly lonely process, could these thousands of illustrations have come about? Their memory alone imparts the reassurance that the long days and nights, weeks, months and years spent perusing disintegrating printed matter, weighing words and reworking phrases are not necessarily symptoms of lunacy, that not all might be in vain. Indeed, if not for “Boudou”, Flora Blanchon, Lilian Handlin, Catherine Raymond and T.K. Sabapathy, none of the conditions for the work done thus far on Aung Soe would have arisen, including those for the realisation of this online database.
Likewise, the faith and goodwill of Aung Soe’s friends and family in Myanmar have been a tremendous source of motivation. Beginning with his family, there were his widow Daw Ah Mar and eldest son Maung Myint Soe who are greatly missed. Aung Soe’s youngest and only surviving son Maung Maung Soe, whose commitment to the family’s well-being and the betterment of society is patent, continues to be a key player in my research on his father. Like Aung Soe’s family are his “benefactor” and student U Sonny Nyein and his neighbour and student Bagyi Lynn Wunna, along with their spouses Ma Amy and Ma Khine Myae respectively, whose knowledge and support have been paramount to the research behind this database and much else. For the last fifteen years, they have shared their recollections, insights and collection so that Aung Soe’s vision and art might live on. They have also gathered many other individuals whose voices continue to shape our memory of Aung Soe, nourish the (hi)story of his art and expand the contents of this database. I recall their names in alphabetical order: Aung Lwin, Aung Myint, Dagon Taya, Htein Win, Daw Khin Swe Win, Khin Thin Si Si (Vicky), Kin Maung Yin, Kyaw Thaung, Min Thu Wun, Myint Lwin (Peter), Nay Lynn (Lu Nay Lynn), Pangyi Soe Moe, Paragu, Paw Thame, Pe Nyunt Way, Thein Win, Thet Soe, Thu Maung, Saya Thu Ka, Tin Win, … Other artists, writers, filmmakers, collectors and members of the Yangonite art and literary worlds who have also left an imprint on the making of this story of Aung Soe’s art include Aung Min, Magic Aung Min, Aung Soe Min, Aye Ko, Chan Aye, Htein Lin, M.P.P. Yei Myint, Maung Yan Paing, Maung Di, Min Thein Sung, Min Zaw (Zaw Hein), Nay Myo Say, Nyein Chan Su (NCS), Nyo Win, Po Po, Phyu Mon, San Min, Shar Nyo, The Maw Naing, Tun Win Aung, Wah Nu and Zeya. I highlight Ma Thanegi who, since 2001, has been present at every step of the writing of a (hi)story of Bagyi Aung Soe’s art as well as the making of this database.
The contribution of editors like Maung Wuntha of Atway Amyin, Min Yu Wai of Myawadi, U Soe Nyunt of Yarpyae Publishing House and U Than Ohn of Moway merit special mention. In Aung Soe’s living, the original works intended as illustrations would be systematically discarded after printing. With a barely existent art market – the handful that were initiated to the notion of “art” through a Western education were moreover conditioned to view illustration as “commercial art” and hence unworthy –, there was no further use for them. Not even the artists thought otherwise, including Aung Soe; there were simply too many illustrations. As such, rare are the originals of illustrations salvaged from incineration and oblivion. Considering how the level of humidity in the colonial capital and the armies of insects and fungi thriving in the crumbling buildings that have outlived their lifespan are not at all propitious to the preservation of the paper medium, these editors’ perseverance in preserving fragile publications containing Aung Soe’s illustrations and even some of his original works is truly laudable. Their commitment is particularly salient against the context of impoverishment and precariousness reducing most Burmese to living from hand to mouth and being indifferent to anything that represented no immediate material gain. If not for their love for Burmese art, culture and literature – and Aung Soe –, the current (hi)story of Aung Soe’s art (and by extension that of 20th-century Burmese art) and this database would have been lesser versions.
Our enumeration of authors continues with Jasdeep Sandhu, to whom I owe my encounter with Aung Soe’s works in 1997, and who has never ceased to believe in the extraordinariness of his art. Next are friends, colleagues and collaborators whose knowledge and assistance have enriched the writing of the (hi)story of Aung Soe’s art in ways more than one since 2000: Aisha Amrin, Bobo Lansin, Marie-Françoise Boussac, Isabel Ching, Ladane Dehdar, Sabai Shwe Demaria, Chris Dodge, John Glass, Kriz Channyein, Kyaw Htet Soe, Kyaw Nyi Nyi Ko, Kyaw Yin Hlaing, Lin Lei Lei Tun, Maung Maung Theit, Myat Sandar, Edith Parlier-Renault, Thomas Patton, Baby Shwe Piguet, Andrew Ranard, Ariane de Robien, Gertrud Rosenberg, Guillaume Rozenberg, Janice Stargardt, Tin Tin Htar Myint, …
With respect to the large number of illustrations whose provenance are the National Library of Myanmar (Yangon) and Universities Central Library, they are first and foremost due to Sayagyi Dr Thaw Kaung, former Chief Librarian of Universities’ Central Library. It is impossible to overrate his role in their consolidation. Thanks to him, our database has benefited from access to the two libraries’ collections, as well as assistance with the digitisation of all relevant materials. From the National Library of Myanmar (Yangon), I thank Director Daw Mya Oo, Deputy Director Daw Yee Yee Htwe, Daw Tin Tin Myat who is in-charge of the Periodical Section, Daw Myint Myint Kyi who is Library Assistant of the Periodical Section, and Daw Khin Myo Myint and Daw Khin Hnin Thein who are both library assistants of the General Reading Room. From Universities’ Central Library, I thank the former Director Daw Tin Phone Nwe, Daw Tin Win Yee and in particular, the current Director Daw Ni Ni Naing and her team for all the initiatives taken to ensure that my short but intense stays are as fruitful as possible. Their support from Myanmar at the institutional level is of immense significance to not only this database but also to all ongoing research on Aung Soe, the country’s foremost twentieth-century artist.
Apropos of www.aungsoeillustrations.org’s technical fabrication, my gratitude goes to the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Start-Up Grant which has been the source of all funding for this project, as well as to NTU Libraries, our host for the database. The two principal authors overseeing this final stage have been Phoebe Lim Choon Lan and Hedren Sum, respectively Head and New Media & Design Librarian at the NTU ADM Library (School of Art, Design & Media). It was Phoebe who made known to me the availability of this platform in March 2015; it has been Hedren the architect of the website. Thanks to them, what began as an unsophisticated proposal for a database subsequently expanded to include a number of dynamic functionalities beyond my narrow art historical imagination. At every stage, Phoebe and Hedren alerted me to issues that would be crucial to the long-term operation and relevance of the database, and proposed ideas to improve on its design. Throughout the collaboration, their passion for their profession and willingness to share their expertise have been nothing less than inspiring and empowering. Thank you! From NTU ADM, I also thank Associate Chair (Research) Michael John Kirk Walsh, as well as Lew Huey Shan and Ivy Wee Poh Yan, coordinators for the grant, who have been supportive in all ways. The administrative support provided by Nana Kooy assisted by Fan Xiuyi and Lisa Peng Yuchan in the editing of images and data-entry has been utterly invaluable, and lastly, an immense “thank you” to Kyaw K. Lwin for his commitment and conscientious translation of the titles of the texts next to the illustrations, without which our non-Burmese-speaking users would have to make do with a lesser appreciation of the reception of Aung Soe’s illustrated oeuvre.
If the names and backgrounds of each author matter, it is also because they embody ethos that affect the incessantly evolving fabrication and reception of the story of Aung Soe’s art. Each epoch rewrites the (hi)stories it inherits, and the visage of Aung Soe’s illustrations and art is bound to morph in the image of its authors too. The names here cited do not constitute the final list of our authors, for work on the online database does not end with it going live. With the discovery of new illustrations by Aung Soe, the progress of scholarship and changes in technology, amongst other variables, the database will evolve and grow, and so will the list of its authors. To begin with, the Internet has redefined an expanded mode of authorship and ownership, and the manner of operation of an open-access online database such as this is not exempt from its medium’s transformations and emerging configurations. Nil about this website is static – not its contents, not the lenses through which it is perceived, not the ends it serves, and certainly not how and by whom it is being made. Emphatically, www.aungsoeillustrations.org is not the exclusive property of any individual or group; it belongs to many – to all whose lives have touched it, will touch it, been touched by it and will be, including you the reader and user.
Bagyi Aung Soe & Illustrations in Myanmar
The book and periodical illustrations and covers of Myanmar’s spearhead of modern art, Bagyi Aung Soe, do not captivate the way the originals of his signature works baptised “manaw maheikdi dat painting” do. The loss of details in these visuals due to poor printing technology is glaringly obvious when placed next to their corresponding originals that have miraculously survived the vicissitudes of history; Aung Soe’s vibrant palette is almost invariably reduced to faded tones of a handful of colours in the former. Yet, these illustrations spread over more than four decades from 1948 to 1990 are vital for the study of Aung Soe’s oeuvre and even that of twentieth-century Burmese art, for they are the sole vestiges of attempts at a modern artistic sensibility, whose original expressions are now lost for good. (As said, originals works destined as illustrations were systematically disposed of after printing.) Being the site of experimentation for avant-garde art in then “Burma” as well as the laboratory that gave us manaw maheikdi dat painting, they are as indispensable as they appear prosaic and unspectacular.
While the artistic legitimacy of illustration remains doubted in the “international” art world, its contextual significance in Myanmar makes it the art historian’s primary resource. Contrary to Western art’s emphasis on specialisation and its distinction between fine and commercial arts, an artist’s versatility in moving from one expression, medium and platform to another was perceived as a mark of excellence by the Burmese: an artist making movie posters and periodical covers alongside paintings for exhibitions would be considered more outstanding than one who only exhibited. As such, with illustration being a supplementary source of income offering the promise of greater renown, almost every protagonist in the history of modern art in Myanmar illustrated at some point of time in his or her career: U Ba Kyi (1912–2001), U Ba Yin Galay (1915–1988), Paw Oo Thett (1936–1993), etc. Many of them, like Aung Soe, became better known for their illustrations than original works. The inferior print quality did not seem to have deterred them. The fact that “Burma” under socialist military rule lacked the conditions favourable to the development of a robust art market only boosted illustration’s popularity as a means of showcasing one’s works to the widest audience possible in the entire country. To begin with, the notion of “art” in the image of Euro-American art was alien, and the Burmese were more accustomed to hanging calendars with reproductions of idyllic landscapes or charming ladies than “art” on the walls of their homes. In other words, art collection that is a requisite for any art market was inexistent. The chances of avant-garde artists experimenting on pictorial idioms beyond the representational impressionist style to show in the intermittent and often arbitrarily censored public exhibitions organised by the socialist government were slim to boot. For these multiple reasons, illustration became the uncontested site for artists to make known their artistic innovations; it was not necessarily for financial gain that artists illustrated – and certainly not Aung Soe.
Of all the artists who illustrated, Aung Soe’s engagement with illustration was probably the most profound, whether measured in terms of his output, the duration of his activity or his motivations. Poets lauded him as the poet’s artist; editors gave him carte blanche to illustrate as he desired; there were even fans who made scrapbooks of his illustrations. In 1948 at the age of twenty-four, he made a red-carpet entrance into illustration as the protégé of one of the country’s most eminent writers Dagon Taya (1919–2013) in his newly founded magazine Taya. Soon after, he quit his full-time job at an American company to devote himself to art. That is to say, it was through illustration that Aung Soe launched his career as an artist. From then on, for more than four decades, he illustrated non-stop except for a brief interlude in 1951 and 1952 when studying art at the Viśva-Bharati University in Śāntiniketan, which had begun as an ashram founded by the Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941). Highly prolific, he illustrated book covers, short stories, articles and poems, with as many as eighty illustrations each month at his most prolific. Shumawa, Myawadi, Ngwaytayi, Thway Thaung, Moway, Hkyeyi, Atway Amyin, Sapay Hloktha, Paybuhlwa, Sanpepyu, Thabin, Myethman, Pyithmu, etc., all carried his works, with as many as twenty illustrations in a single issue. As such, given that Aung Soe very rarely dated his works, illustration is the only reliable means of charting the evolution of his oeuvre from the very beginning of his career to his death in 1990; no (hi)story of Aung Soe’s art would have been possible without these illustrations. There is moreover otherwise inadequate examples of his earlier works from the late 1940s to the 1970s.
Throughout his career, Aung Soe prioritised illustration over the gallery. Of the pentatonic pedagogical program at Śāntiniketan, one of the five directives emphasised the artist’s duty towards society. In various ways, Aung Soe sought to accomplish this mandate by placing his art at the service of his fellow countrymen – and this through the medium of illustration. At all costs, he was determined to reach out to the widest public possible by taking his art out of the exhibition and gallery spaces dominated by Yangon’s intelligentsia, elites and diplomats, and engaging with the bus-conductor, farmer and labourer:
“I want my paintings to reach people. How am I going to do it? I don’t even have anything to eat.”
He was so single-minded about placing his art at the service of as many people as possible that when he did peddle his original works out of financial desperation, he was ready to accept less than what he would receive from an editor for an illustration:
“No matter how much they [his fellow countrymen] want to buy, they can’t afford to spend the extra money, even for 25/50 kyats. That’s why I slashed the prices to 10 kyats. That’s fair to all. I want them [the works] to reach everybody.”
To be sure, Aung Soe espoused Śāntiniketan’s teachings that it would be “mercenary and vulgar for artists to consider painting as a market commodity” too, and practised art as a calling rather than a profession. Out of a sense of camaraderie with the writers and poets whose financial difficulties were comparable to his own, he even accepted rates for illustration that were so low that no other artist would. For many years into the 1960s, he remained the only artist to accept five kyats per illustration. Towards the end of his life, Aung Soe reminisced:
“For about 30 to 40 years straight I illustrated poems and short stories, and the soul of poetry grew within me. Poetry was apparent in whatever I drew. The first fee I received for an illustration for a poem was 5 kyats. It was so little that no other artist wanted to do it. I endured years of this low payment because I believed in what I did. Other artists might have been enjoying success after success, but committed to creativity, I continued to do illustrations at 5 kyats each, surviving as I could together with my friends the poets who were also half-starved like me, I would say. I was not painting to survive but surviving to paint.”
In all likelihood, his devotion to illustration was also due to the debt of gratitude he owed to the poets and writers. We recall that it was Dagon Taya, the innovator of the sa-pay-thit (“new literature”) literary movement, who brought him into illustration in 1948 and exposed him to a number of artistic practices and geniuses from the West. There were next the esteemed exponents of the khit-san (“to test the new age”) movement, Min Thu Wun (U Wun) (1909-2004) and Zawgyi (U Thein Han) (1908-1990), whose nomination of the young artist in 1951 for the Indian government scholarship to study in Śāntiniketan changed the course of his life. The outcome was momentous for his artistic trajectory, and by extension, the (hi)story of Burmese art. Then there was his veritable love for poetry. That he titled his self-published anthology of illustrations Poetry Without Words (1978) is telling of the extent to which he engaged with the poetic dimension in his artistic practice.
Understandably, given how much Aung Soe wanted his art to be accessible to the masses, illustration was the most effective medium in socialist Myanmar. Today, if he were alive and aware of how space and time have been reshuffled and reconfigured by information technology, it is not absurd to believe that he would likewise experiment with online presence. We hope he would approve of this open-access database too. Not only does www.aungsoeillustrations.org take his art beyond the gallery; it takes it beyond Myanmar, beyond the constraint of any physical space locked into a single time frame. In gathering, documenting, digitising and making freely available Aung Soe’s illustrations, these representatives of Myanmar’s and humanity’s intellectual, cultural and artistic heritage are liberated from the caprices of the elements and take a shot at perpetuity.
Singapore, December 2015