Bangkok, 19 November, 2014
I was in Myanmar last week for the first time in my life, with a team of colleagues. Unfortunately, our trip coincided with an ASEAN Summit in the new capital Nay Pyi Taw, which was attended by sundry political worthies, including President Obama and Premier Li Keqiang. We seemed to have spent most of the week fleeing from these worthies. We hurriedly visited various government Ministries in Nay Pyi Taw in the two days before the Summit started and rode out of town to Yangon the night the politicos started arriving. We were congratulating ourselves on having missed the craziness which usually accompanies the presence of political heavyweights, but we had not reckoned on President Obama following us down to Yangon. His motorcading around the city to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi and do various other things like visit a church snarled Yangon’s already chronically congested traffic and made our lives a misery as we threaded our way through back roads to arrive more or less on time at our various meetings.
But actually this post has nothing to do with President Obama or any other Big Cheese. It has to do with a stop we made somewhere in all this threading, at a market. One member of the team had made promises to his wife to bring a little something back to her, and the other team members thought this was an ideal occasion to pick up some Burmese bibelots. Unwillingly, I tagged along. As I feared, the market was a tourist trap: store after store of rubbish and store keepers hovering ready to pounce. But I preferred to walk around grouchily than sit in the van grouchily.
I had a faint glimmer of hope when I came across a store which sold lacquerware from Bagan. I’d read about the ancient Burmese king who had conquered his way through northern Thailand, Laos and over to Yunnan, and brought back skilled lacquerware craftsmen in his baggage train, using them to create a new luxury industry in his capital Pagan. Might I find something worth contemplating in the store?
Alas not. For one thing, I cannot stand places which look like this.
All that stuff pressing claustrophobically in on you! The feeling of being the proverbial elephant in a china shop, bumping into something and bringing mounds of breakables crashing down around your ears! My immediate reaction is to run out of such places. But I controlled my urge to run and looked. And liked not what I saw. This picture shows the typical designs being offered for sale.
Too much, too much! Too – damned – much! All those dense, dense designs. It makes me think of Australian Aboriginal art, which I wrote about in an earlier post. In art, in design, the KISS principle applies (Keep It Simple, Stupid!). Now it could just be that modern makers of Bagan lacquerware use these designs because tourists have shown a preference for them, and he who pays the piper calls the tune. But a look at older designs suggests that the Burmese kings and their aristocracy also liked busy designs, although this is a good deal better than the modern stuff.
No, give me Japanese lacquerware any day. Look at this bento box in the maki-e style
Or this box in the Aizu style
Or this tray in the Negoro style (where the upper red layers of lacquer are intended to gradually wear away with use, revealing the black lacquer underneath).
These are old fashioned if not antiques. Modern Japanese lacquerware is just as lovely. Look at this:
Or if you find that this has strayed too far from lacquerware, how about this vase?
Or if you find the design too modern, how about this?
Beauty is in simplicity of form and of pattern.
I have spoken.
Myanmar lacquerware store: https://c1.staticflickr.com/5/4106/4989036093_92231568aa_z.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/kelvinlls/4989036093/)
Typical modern Bagan lacquerware: http://www.travelwireasia.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/IMG_6223.jpg (in http://www.travelwireasia.com/2012/07/5-great-arts-and-crafts-to-buy-in-burma/)
Yun lacqerware tray: http://image0-rubylane.s3.amazonaws.com/shops/owensantiques/263.1L.jpg (in http://www.rubylane.com/item/197251-263/Burmese-Red-Lacquer-Tray-Court-Scenes)
Maki-e bento box: http://image0-rubylane.s3.amazonaws.com/shops/781325/ju7.1L.jpg (in http://www.rubylane.com/item/781325-ju7/Japanese-Traditional-Laquer-Maki-e-Bento)
Aizu box: http://www.swarthmore.edu/library/exhibitions/japan/gallery/images/lacquer-box-2f.jpg (in http://www.swarthmore.edu/library/exhibitions/japan/gallery/lacquer-box.php)
Negoro tray: http://content.ngv.vic.gov.au/col-images/xl/EPUB000495.jpg (in http://publications.ngv.vic.gov.au/essays/negoro-lacquer-the-refined-beauty-and-rustic-ambience-of-medieval-japan/#.VGyipmIaySM)
Modern Japanese lacquerware-1: http://www.materialtimes.com/files/files/2014/03brezen/uru.jpg (in http://www.materialtimes.com/vsimame-si/jedovata-kraska.html)
Modern Japanese lacquerware-2: http://www.orientaltreasurebox.com/item.php?id=1601&cat_id=8 (in http://www.orientaltreasurebox.com/category.php?page=3&cat_id=8)
Modern Japanese lacquerware-3: http://toku-art.up.n.seesaa.net/toku-art/image/mutsumi20104.jpg?d=a75 (in http://toku-art.seesaa.net/archives/200709-1.html)