In a country where brutal and arbitrary punishments have for decades been used to uphold strict social, religious, and political orthodoxies, the Burmese artist Bagyi Aung Soe spent a lifetime trying to create a way of being that enabled him to live and work with relative freedom. If Burmese art was defined by displays of self-conscious erudition and technical virtuosity, Aung Soe would scrawl his works in cheap coloring pens. If decorum demanded one dress according to rank or class, Aung Soe would alternate between sportswear and religious costume.
Aung Soe, who is currently the subject of an extraordinary exhibition at the Pompidou Center, in Paris (through August 23), was born in 1924 to affluent parents, a police superintendent and an heiress, in what was then colonial Burma (now Myanmar). Like many Southeast Asian artists of his generation, he grew up captivated by the work of Van Gogh and Gauguin. But after Burma achieved independence, in 1948, it was his cartoons that propelled him to critical notice.
Poets, novelists, and songwriters scrambled to make use of the hundreds of images he produced every month. His work adorned countless Burmese film posters, book covers, and magazines. It could be said that Aung Soe was primarily an illustrator, if your definition of illustration embraces a practice that completely ignores what is normally considered illustrating. Often he plucked his “illustrations” randomly from a suitcase.
In 1951, Aung Soe secured a scholarship to study at Visva-Bharati University, in Bengal, where an explosion of diverse religious and cultural imagery found its way into his repertoire: from Javanese batiks to Renaissance sculpture via Bengali alpana, Surrealism, ukiyo-e, Cochin murals, and medieval European cathedrals. Following the Indian polymath Rabindranath Tagore, Aung Soe pursued “freedom of mind, not slavery of taste.”
Yet Aung Soe also embraced the idea of plebian art. He sold his artworks to people on the street for the price of a few dozen eggs, less than he charged for his magazine illustrations. While he experimented with forms such as reverse glass painting, he was equally happy working on scraps of paper with felt-tip pens. During “the golden age” of Burmese cinema, in the 1960s, Aung Soe starred in films and was briefly a poster boy for Burmese popular culture. His work defies neat aesthetic and cultural distinctions.
The versatility makes it equally difficult to discuss a “typical” Aung Soe work. One of the issues that the Pompidou curators struggled with in mounting the current exhibition is the artist’s willful disregard for record-keeping. Many of the artworks on display have been ripped out of magazines and journals.
He grew up captivated by the work of Van Gogh and Gauguin. But after Burma achieved independence, in 1948, it was his cartoons that propelled him to critical notice.
Ultimately, this is not an art of sense-making but one pervaded by a pulsing sense of the numinous. Aung Soe’s illustrations mix the figurative with the abstract, religious texts, and scientific formulas, along with imagery plucked from wildly different cultures, places, and historical periods. At a time when Burmese artists were isolated, and excluded from international exchanges, Aung Soe was committed to a universalist vision. The art was a means, not an end, of a spiritual and social commitment.
On top of this, an extreme dislike of competition and a wariness of professional recognition led Aung Soe to reject almost any offer of material compensation. Although he taught part-time at the Rangoon Institute of Technology, Aung Soe was never an Establishment figure. His work was not supported by the government, or through the cultural establishment. To this day none of Bagyi Aung Soe’s work is in the National Museum of Myanmar. Toward the end of his life, when he was living in extreme poverty, he exchanged his drawings for food and medicine. Born wealthy, he died very poor.
The last decade of his life was marred by alcoholism and periodic spells in a psychiatric hospital. No one is sure whether he was mentally unwell or whether he was simply continuing to play the role of the outsider. In the words of one of Tagore’s acolytes, “if there was no confusion, there would be no wisdom.”
The brief compact between Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy and the military generals that led to the creation of Myanmar’s “discipline-flourishing democracy” (an elite compact that has recently collapsed, plunging the country into violent chaos) allowed Myanmar to “open up” for a brief period in the 2010s, during which Aung Soe’s work became the basis for a mini-industry of counterfeits. A lifetime of generous collaboration, in tandem with an erratic approach to authentication, has been a boon for opportunists and fraudsters.
The international art world continues to be somewhat wary of Aung Soe’s work, whose provenance can be as dubious as that of religious relics or rubble from the Berlin Wall. Despite the welcome recognition offered by the Pompidou show, this is art that continues to resist the easy exercise of external ownership or authority. —Scott Anthony
Scott Anthony is the author of The Story of Propaganda Film