As a soldier in the Burma Defence Army, U San Hlaing endured prolonged hardships during World War II. Later in life, his personal memories of the war have provided inspiration and subject matter for his artwork.
Sculptor Kyaw Kyaw Min said that U San Hlaing, who at age 90 is considered one of Myanmar’s oldest artists, creates paintings “that come from his memories and feelings”.
“One of his paintings shows a realistic scene of a brigade of soldiers holding rifles as they listen to General Aung San’s speech at Minder Ground in 1945, with Shwedagon Pagoda in the background. U San Hlaing was a member of that battalion,” Kyaw Kyaw Min said.
“The painting is priceless because U San Hlaing depicted what he saw, felt and experienced.”
Kyaw Kyaw Min said the painting will be one of several artworks by U San Hlaing that will be displayed at Dagaung Art Gallery in Yangon on March 31 from 10am to 4pm.
On that day U San Hlaing will pose while Kyaw Kyaw Min creates a sculpture of the elderly painter. Meanwhile another artist, Shwe Myint, will make a painting of Kyaw Kyaw Min sculpting U San Hlaing.
U San Hlaing showed aptitude for art at an early age by drawing pictures on wooden boards and the floor.
“I left school after I completed seventh standard. My family couldn’t provide for my education,” U San Hlaing said. “Instead I tried to pursue art under the tutelage of U Hmat and U Thein Nyunt in my hometown of Pyapon in Ayeyarwady Region.”
At the age of 13, after moving to Yangon, he started a career drawing film posters for British Burma Film and A1 Film companies.
“I also studied painting from famous artist U Ngwe Gaing in the pre-war years,” U San Hlaing said.
But in 1943, in the midst of World War II, U San Hlaing returned to Pyapon and joined Burma Defence Army.
“At that young age, I was burning with indignation to fight against the Japanese invaders, so I gave up painting and joined the army. Life as a soldier was very harsh,” he said.
“Our daily ration was a slice of dried fish. We didn’t know when the war would end, so we saved our rations and looked for sympathetic villagers to share their food with us. In the afternoons, we went looking for someone who would serve us tea.”
During the war he did not have spare time to make art, but shortly after the assassination of General Aung San in 1947 he resigned from the army and since then has devoted his time to painting.
U San Hlaing has created a number of historical paintings over the years, including one depicting the assembly of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League. Some of these historical paintings have been collected in the Myanmar Tatmadaw Archives.
Kyaw Kyaw Min, who has already made sculptures of 15 artists, said U San Hlaing differs from other painters who make art by looking at photographs in combination with their imagination.
“What makes U San Hlaing unusual is his attachment to traditional style. He has never deviated from it. His paintings are purely traditional and he never makes any alteration in his style of painting,” Kyaw Kyaw Min said.
“I’m proud to know such an artist, who still preserves Myanmar traditional art, which is why I plan to sculpt him individually.”
Dagaung Art Gallery is located on Mahasa Sasana Yeiktha Road in Bahan township.