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Reviewed by:
  • Illustrations of Myanmar: Manuscript Treasures of the Musée Guimet ed. by William Pruitt
  • Bryce Beemer
William Pruitt, ed. 2019. Illustrations of Myanmar: Manuscript Treasures of the Musée Guimet. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books. 407, ISBN 6162151484

In October 2011, the Museum Guimet unveiled a remarkably well-preserved collection of painted, lacquered, and gilded Burmese manuscripts most dated to the mid-to late-nineteenth century, corresponding to the final decades of the Konbaung dynasty (1752–1885). For admirers of Burmese royal painting, the show, De laque et d’or, manuscrits de Birmanie, was a rare opportunity to see for the first time several painted white parabaik, the accordion-folded documents of mural-like miniature paintings. These detailed paintings charmingly capture the important events of Burmese royal life: festivals, parades, and sacred ceremonies. The exhibition also included meticulously gilded religious texts, relatively undecorated though beautifully incised palm leaf manuscripts, and two oddities: a precisely detailed wooden model of a Buddhist temple complex and an indigenous map of Ava, a former capital city. During 2011–2012, the exhibition was accompanied by a smallish forty-eight-page booklet that was also distributed as a PDF, and friends passed copies of these to me at the time, knowing my interest in Burmese art. The exhibition booklet functioned as an amuse-bouche, stoking interest in the exhibition, but a scholar like me, hoping to incorporate its tiny, relatively low-resolution images into their research or teaching, would have been deeply frustrated. No longer. The expanded English-language version of the booklet, Illustrations of Myanmar: Manuscript Treasures of the Musée Guimet, edited by William Pruitt, wisely includes every painting from the parabaik manuscripts in crisp, high-quality reproductions. The original museum booklet was limited to representational selections of the parabaik paintings, which additionally limited its use as a research tool. The Guimet Museum staff and the publisher, [End Page 332] Silkworm Books, should be applauded for the design and quality of this large-format art book. It is a beautiful document.

Illustrations of Myanmar begins with an engaging passage from Michael Symes’s 1795 visit to a monastic library in Amarapura. Symes notes that “common” books of both Upper Burma and among the Hindus of India were incised on palmyra leaves, while finer books were composed on plaited strips of bamboo hardened by lacquer and then painted with black and gold letters. Monastic libraries so impressed Symes, with their rows of gilded and ornamented chests swelled with well-organized and numbered manuscripts, that he was moved to speculate, “it is not improbable that his Birman Majesty may possess a more numerous library than any potentate from the banks of the Danube to the borders of China” (p. 3; grammar corrected slightly for clarity). What follows are six short essays from the 2011 booklet translated from French, some perhaps more relevant in the context of the original exhibition than they are now as book chapters. For example, the first essay, “Languages and Scripts in Myanmar (Burma),” is a perfectly good synthesis of scholarship on the Burmese script, syntax, loanwords, and pronunciation, but its presence seems ill-suited to a book almost entirely turned over to the reproduction of parabaik paintings that are typically absent of writing or contain simple labels. Two essays on the architecture of Burmese Buddhist monasteries feel similarly out of place, though in combination they provide context to a perplexing object in the museum’s collection, a wonderfully carved miniature of a wooden Burmese temple. One could speculate, as the author Pierre Baptiste does, that this carving was created by a royal architect to demonstrate a potential temple design to an inquisitive patron. Pierre Baptiste’s second essay in the volume, “The Pageantry of a Vanished Kingdom: The Collection of Parabaiks in the Musée Guimet,” runs side by side the more than eighty pages of parabaik paintings reproduced in this volume. Ceremonies, military training exercises, and popular entertainments that are otherwise difficult to apprehend are helpfully explained in this necessary and very readable essay. Again, the editorial [End Page 333] choice to reproduce the parabaik paintings in toto lends real academic heft to the Illustrations of Myanmar, and Baptiste...


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