Book Reviews

cover image

The Buddhist Murals of Pagan

Timeless Vistas of the Cosmos

Claudine Bautze-Picron
with photography by
Joachim Karl Bautze

2003. 280 pp., 253 colour plates. 28 x 22 cm., hardbound.

ISBN-10: 974-524-025-7 $60.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-524-025-4


Book review by Charlotte Galloway

(The Asian Arts Society of Australia: Volume 13 No. 1, 2004)

‘Treasures hide in the temples of Pagan - treasures in part never meant to be seen, enshrouded in the darkness of the high vaults.’
   This opening to the forward of Bautze-Picron’s book captures the essence of her much-awaited publication, which uncovers one of the lesser-known aspects of Pagan’s rich visual heritage. The arts of Burma have long been under-represented in the body of Asian art historical material and this recent book is a very welcome addition. The effective isolation of Burma through much of the second half of the 20th century saw art-historical and archaeological research continue in a limited and fragmented manner. Now, with much improved access over the past 15 years, interest in Burma has increased dramatically. Scholarly research is now at a stage where it is possible to bring together much of the earlier work and present a cohesive body of material. Bautze-Picron has done just that, choosing as her subject the fascinating wall paintings at Pagan.
   Bautze-Picron introduces the reader to the background of art historical research at Pagan, the themes of the book, and provides a solid overview of the principal Buddhist concepts most relevant to the wall paintings. As an Indian art scholar, she is well qualified to stress the strong links between Indian artistic styles and those found at Pagan, particularly in the early period from the mid-llth to the mid-12th century. This influence is central to her interpretation of the iconographic features of the murals. The paintings are introduced first through their subject matter, and then by their ancillary features - though, as Bautze-Picron remarks, ‘Probably no motif can be qualified as being purely “decorative” in the field of religious art’, and most of us would agree. This section is selectively illustrated to highlight a number of the most common ‘decorative’ motifs. I am sure many will be captivated by the more complete examples - one can only imagine how the interior of many temples at Pagan must have originally looked with wall to wall and floor to ceiling figurative paintings.
   It may puzzle some readers that such a large proportion of the book is given over to imagery associated with the last earthly life of the Buddha. However, narrative is a constant feature of art at Pagan and continues as an important part of the Burmese Buddhist art repertoire. Narrative was also expressed in the sculptures of the Pagan period and in terracotta wall plaques. Bautze-Picron’s textual ‘walkthrough’ of the Buddha’s life story, accompanied by a fine selection of representational images, is very effective in bringing life to this expansive story, so well known to all Buddhists.
   Finally, Bautze-Picron presents a review of some of the principal temples containing wall paintings. This is a good conclusion as it enables the reader to gain a sense of chronological stylistic change, not found in the earlier chapters where illustrations have been chosen to highlight a narrative scene or demonstrate particular iconography such as the ‘flamed’ Buddha. Her compilation of temples and images is also useful for readers who, having been captivated by the extraordinary nature of these murals, wish to plan their own visit. It also highlights the strength of this book as a resource. It has previously been very difficult to obtain this type of information, principally for the reasons outlined above and those mentioned in Bautze-Picron’s own introduction.
   As with any ‘first’ book of its type, it has not been possible to cover every aspect associated with the subject (the author is generous in her commendation of the handful of texts which do discuss Burmese wall paintings, but these are not readily available). Some will wish for more technical information regarding the method of painting, pigments, preservation etc., while others may want more visual theory. Some will not agree with all of her arguments regarding the sources of the imagery. But these points should not distract from the quality of the content, the fine presentation and excellent photographs. For those of us who have tried to obtain good images of the murals, the success of these illustrations alone warrants the book’s purchase.
   To thoroughly appreciate the text, the reader would benefit from some background knowledge of Buddhist history and, in particular, Indian Buddhist art, as Bautze-Picron makes frequent references to both. Her footnotes and references are comprehensive and very useful for those with a more academic background, and she has presented a solid and comprehensive foundation from which further research in this area can built. While this book favours those with a more than passing interest in Burmese Buddhist art, it will also have appeal to a wider audience.

[Read a review from Cambridge University Press] [Read a review from Artibus Asiae] [Read a review from The Journal of the Siam Society] [More Orchid Press Reviews]