Thavibu Gallery | Contemporary Art from Thailand, Vietnam and Burma

U BA NYAN (1897 - 1945)

from the book Old Myanmar Paintings in the Collection of U Win (05 April, 2006)

U Ba Nyan had an extraordinary ability to create art. His inborn aptitude for painting made him renowned internationally. He was the fourth of six children raised by U Ba Oh and Daw Nyo. He had a talent for painting since childhood and copied everything from nature. He studied the application of colour and the principles of depicting arabesques and dragons under the guidance of U Pho Maung. U Ba Nyan stayed with him for four years as a disciple.

One day, the Maubin district officer, Major Roberts, visited Pandanaw, and observed U Pho Maung’s art workshop. The major saw the results of U Ba Nyan’s workmanship, and as he had a smattering of basic art, formed an estimate of the young man’s ability to be an up-and-coming painter. In 1915, at the major’s recommendation, the government supplied U Ba Nyan with a stipend to study painting at the Norman School in Mawlamyaing with Sayar U Ba Lwin, a master who had studied Myanmar traditional art as well as perspective drawing. After he passed the seventh standard at Norman School in 1911, U Ba Nyan painted a portrait of King George V. This painting received first prize in the All Schools of Myanmar Art Competition. Mr. Kinch, headmaster at St. Matthew’s in Mawlamyaing, sent for him and taught him the European painting style.

A tuberculosis specialist, Doctor Lancaster, staying with his friend, the Royal Consultant Chief Officer Sahar Court Butler, visited many Myanmar towns and villages during his observations of the disease. While on tour, he came across some of U Ba Nyan’s paintings at the Norman School. Doctor Lancaster mentioned these paintings to Royal Consultant Chief Officer Sahar Court Butler at dinner. The next day, this official wrote a letter to the Norman School headmaster Mr. Mart asking him to bring U Ba Nyan’s paintings over as soon as possible. As a result, with the arrangement of Sahar Court Butler, U Ba Nyan proceeded to Yangon. Professor K. M. Ward, who had earlier seen and appreciated U Ba Nyan’s paintings during a stay at Mr. Kinch’s school, appointed him assistant drawing master at the Yangon High School. He tried painting Myanmar designs in the Myanmar style repeatedly. After three years, he became well trained in this style of art.

In 1920, the Burma Art Club expanded its classes. Professor Ward taught oil painting, Martin Jones taught the anatomy of the human figure and U Ba Nyan taught basic design. He was the ost class teacher among Myanmar teachers at the Burma Art Club. In early 1921, the Ministry of Education textbook committee bought U Ba Nyan’s Myanmar designs. On 24 August 1921, U Ba Nyan left for England together with a scholarship architect, U Thar Dun (page 16). His sketchbook was full of seascapes, skies, wharf labourers and sailors on deck. Upon arrival, he proceeded to learn painting at the Royal Art Academy. At about the end of 1922, he moved to the Yellow Door Fine Arts School, the fashionable establishment of the artist Stephen Lat. The master taught him separately at his studio. On 18 July 1924, the title of “Royal Etcher” was conferred on U Ba Nyan. In that year, the Wembley Exhibition was held in London. Backgrounds of Myanmar were needed for two paintings at the exhibition. So the Office of India assigned U Ba Nyan to paint these backgrounds.

In early 1925, he returned to Myanmar, together with over three hundred of his paintings. He attended weekly classes at the Burma Art Club and communicated his experiences whenever he got the opportunity to talk about art. Soon an exhibition was held to show his paintings brought from England. U Ba Nyunt, owner of the Myanmar Ah Swe Film Company, commissioned U Ba Lone and U Ba Nyan to paint film posters. The name of the film was Hmime Wai Wai. U Ba Nyan painted with bold brushwork, lively colours and rough strokes. A poster competition held by the Marketing Board received three paintings by U Ba Nyan. He won first prize at the competition. This prize, a round-trip ticket, entitled him to travel all over Europe within the next one and a half years. Moreover, he received sixty pounds each for the three posters. Before the end of 1925, U Ba Nyan left for England for the second time.

He continued studying at the Yellow Door Fine Arts School. At this time he became acquainted with the artist Frank Brangwyn and the headmaster of the Royal Art Academy, Sir William Rothenstein, using these contacts to keep in touch with local associations of artists and oil painters. He also had the opportunity to take part in seasonal art exhibitions. When the British Colonial Office arranged to hang paintings that depicted products from the colonies, they accepted U Ba Nyan’s representations of Myanmar oil fields, forests, mines and farmland.

In January 1927, he visited Europe. While in France, he submitted three paintings to the Paris Salon Museum, all of which were sold. When he returned to London in 1928, his scholarship had expired. He kept on studying on his own. In 1929, he sent some paintings from his three or four boxes full by ship to Myanmar. One day he saved a man from drowning in the river Thames. On hearing the news, King George V conferred an honorary certificate upon U Ba Nyan. In June 1930, he came back to Myanmar. With the permission of Mr. D. G. Sloss, the Head of the University, he stayed at Thaton Hall.  

Then, with Mr. Sloss’s permission, he moved to an apartment at the B.O.C College consulting with U San Win. Every Sunday, he gave an art lecture at the College. On 19 August 1930, at the house of the Royal Consultant Chief Officer, U Ba Nyan held a one-man art show. On 6 September 1930, he met with other great artists to form a local association. He was elected as vice-chairman. The chairman was U Tun Hla. In February 1931, there was a special art exhibition of U Ba Nyan’s work. On the wall of the Jetty and Wharf Office, he applied poster colours to depict the Yangon wharf and various kinds of transportation in Myanmar. He was also commissioned to paint two pictures for the Union Building at Yangon University. He painted portraits of the Sawbwa (ruler) of Hsipaw and his Queen. In addition, his designs of a “dance peacock” and a “fighting peacock” were accepted to appear on the original flag of Do Bama Aisayone On December 1934, U Ba Nyan was appointed as an art master at the Teachers’ Training College. In the rainy season of 1934, his one-man art show was held at the house of the Royal Consultant Chief Officer for the second time.

In 1935, U Ba Nyan married Ma Sein Khine. In 1936, he was elected chairman of the Burma Art Club. His murals were displayed in the Art Hall, History Hall and the living room of the Teachers’ Training College on Pyay Road. Ko Aye Maung outlined and filled in the background colours, and Ko Ba Kyi added some additional colour. Then U Ba Nyan gave finishing touches to the paintings. Sometimes Ko Thein Han came and helped them. U Ba Nyan did not ask for any money from the government for these murals, which took three years to complete.

In 1943, he was appointed headmaster of the newly opened Art Academy. The Chancellor, Dr. Ba Maw, bought three of his paintings. In November 1944, Dr. Ba Maw presented one of them, “Night of the Shwe Dagon,” to the Japanese Emperor. The other two paintings were given to the Royal Consultant Chief Minister Kuniaki Koiso. After making watercolour sketches, U Ba Nyan tried to paint “The Abduction of Mae Thi Dar’ and “Mae Ma Di Coming Back after Searching for Fruit.” His masterpieces of this period included “The Shwedagon,” “Prosperous Myanmar,” “Portrait of Father U Ba Oh,” “Fat Man” and others. He passed away on 12 October 1945.

His work, praised in England as equal to the standards of academic painting and of the British royal artists, contributed to the acceptance and popularity of Western-style techniques in the Myanmar art world. While U Ba Nyan was studying painting in London, a well-known Chinese artist, Shu Pae Hone, was painting at the National Art Institute in Paris. After Shu Pae Hone arrived back in China, he was able to improve and cause Western-style painting methods to flourish in his country. U Ba Nyan played the same role in Myanmar.


Hla Tin Htun

© Thavibu Gallery