RANGOON — In a one-room wooden house in the northern part of Burma’s former capital, happy the man is Kin Maung Yin whose only wish and care is to paint.
Recognized as a leader in the first generation of Burma’s modern art movement, Kin Maung Yin is a living legend in Burmese contemporary art today, but he leads an austere lifestyle. He does not own a refrigerator or a washing machine at his home in Rangoon. Blank canvases are piled high where a television might otherwise stand, and he sleeps on the floor, not far from the spot where he paints. He has no family.
“Less is more,” says the 75-year-old. “I have everything I need here.”
With no easel, the old painter sits on a floor littered with brushes and Winsor & Newton acrylic paint tubes, brushing vibrant colors onto a canvas that leans against a wooden shelf. He spends the day listening to his favorite European classical music, and when the power cuts, he shakes his head, wailing out in a trademark shrill crescendo and then uttering, “This is Burma, this is Burma.”
When he tires of working, he drags himself across the floor with his arms, unable to stand without assistance, He reaches his favorite chair, near the door, and pulls himself up onto the worn-out cushion, reading for a while or gazing outside to his overgrown garden.
“These knees trouble me,” he complains. “I can no longer move as freely as I did before. And I have some memory loss. Doctors blame that on the stroke I suffered in 2000.
“I want to survive for another five years. That’s enough, as I have been through so many years.”
As a younger artist, Kin Maung Yin used to say that his paintings were not so popular in Burma. But he was a poor prophet, because collectors today are on hot on his trail. At his latest show, earlier this month in Rangoon, nearly all of his 50 paintings on display sold out. “Maybe they like it, I’m not sure,” he says.
But he’s being modest.
“He is a very rare artist,” says Aung Soe Min, an art collector who co-founded Pansodan Gallery in Rangoon. “He’s famous not only for his style—his personality and lifestyle have also become artistic. You cannot leave him out if you’re talking about Burmese modern art.
His paintings, Aung Soe Min says, feature unexpected colors. “His unique style and lifelong creations have become an inspiration for younger artists. … He is leading a solitary life, devoting himself only to art, paying no attention to popularity or making money.”
Kin Maung Yin started painting in the 1960s but trained earlier as an architect, gaining an appreciation for form and color that would later influence his art, according to his friend and fellow artist Sun Myint.
As an architect, he devoured books about art and tried his hand at portraits, abstracts and any other form he learned through reading. “I’m a self-taught painter,” he says. “All I know about art is that simplicity is perfection.”
Indeed, many of his paintings are almost child-like in their simplicity, according to Sun Myint, who wrote a forward in a biography about his friend and noted, “He thinks and paints freely.”
Anyone familiar with Kin Maung Yin’s style would agree. His abstracts include riots of vivid colors and bold brushstrokes. He says the Italian modernist Amedeo Modigliani inspired him to paint portraits with mask-like faces and elongated forms.
“I even prefer him to Picasso,” Kin Maung Yin says of Modigliani, primarily a figurative artist. “So I painted in his style for nearly 10 years.”
He adhered to that style in his famous portrait series “Seated Dancers,” as well as another series six years ago depicting democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. The Suu Kyi series was especially renowned among collectors because it was created when the former military regime was still in power, Suu Kyi was being held under house arrest, and the police could arrest anyone in the country who possessed a photo or painting of her.
These days, now that a quasi-civilian government is in power and Suu Kyi has won a seat in Parliament, the old Burmese artist continues to spend his hours simply, painting. He wakes up every morning at 6 and spends half an hour keeping still, thinking about the good old days and his parents. Sometimes he tries to visualize what he will create later in the day. “The result always turns out different,” he says.
He opens his house to anyone who visits, warmly welcoming strangers and friends alike to a seat on the floor and offering a cup of coffee or tea.
If asked to name the most important thing in life for an artist, he answers frankly: food.
“It would be nonsense for me to name something ‘big’” he says. “We all need food to survive, whether you are an artist or not. That’s all.”