Watercolours by Maung Htun Hla

This landscape by Burmese artist Maung Htun Hla depicts a sailboat on a Burmese river. The boat, manned by a small crew, is reflected in the surface of the water. The use of muted tones gives this river scene a hazy, dreamlike quality. But peer at either river bank and you will see evidence of daily rural life: households and vessels, or the stupa of a Buddhist temple.

Maung Htun Hla commonly signed his works, ‘M. T. Hla’. He painted a range of portraits and landscapes, in both oils and watercolours, some of which are cared for by the South Asia Collection. It is the watercolours that we will focus on here.

A Girl from Northern Burma

Hla’s portraits mostly contain single figures. He made a number of paintings of national types; figures in local costume, usually painted in a standing position. The two portraits here, are tribal hill costume studies. The frame of A Girl from Northern Burma was originally inscribed ‘Kachin girl from N. Burma,’ suggesting that she may have resided in Burma’s most northerly state, bordered by China, Tibet and India. The Kachin group is subdivided into six tribes. The second portrait likely depicts a girl from the Maru subgroup of the Kachins, who are mostly found in the China-Burma borderlands. These images are a useful source of traditional costumes, as Hla painted in great detail.

Girl from the Maru Community, Kachin State

Hla’s life is a fascinating tale of an artist working at the turn of the nineteenth century, through to the middle of the twentieth century (1879-1946). Hla was born in Rangoon and engaged in a monastic education, of which a significant part was artistic, particularly in relation to Buddhist styles of painting.

His most substantial period of art production and economic sustainability, came when he began to produce commissions for the Smart and Mookerdum store in Rangoon. Here, he typically produced landscape watercolours and ethnic portraits to sell to the international community. It is likely that these paintings originate from that period. There are a number of influences on Hla’s painting style: his monastic education and traditional ideas about art, the tastes of customers at the Smart and Mukerdum shop (a largely western clientele), and the work of European artists, such as Sir Gerald Kelly, who travelled through Burma, and contemporary photography. He was also influenced by his friendships with important figures in Burma during that period. It is the combination of these factors (Hla’s personal journal and the influences he encountered along the way) alongside Hla’s artistic ability, and the Burma he portrayed (which is long in the past) that make his works so interesting.

The Royal Lakes and the Schwedagon Pagoda

The Royal Lakes and Crow Island by Maung Htun Hla, is currently on display at the South Asia Collection in the South East Asia: Traditions and Beliefs exhibition.