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Update August 24, 2016

Tai Yai Reverse Glass Paintings of Wat Chong Klang in Mae Hong Son

The individually-painted reverse glass paintings at Wat Chong Klang in Mae Hong Son (Photograph by Nittaya Phongkanpai)

By Michael Martin

Tai Yai (Shan) people began to migrate over one hundred fifty years ago to Mae Hong Son Province from towns, along the Salween River, in Shan State (Burma/Myanmar). They brought with them and preserved the beliefs, lifestyles, traditions, and cultures from their former homelands in Shan State. Presently, the Tai Yai represents the largest ethnic group in Mae Hong Son.

Among the rich cultural heritage brought to Mae Hong Son by the Tai Yai are 185 individually-painted reverse glass paintings, each 30 x 30 centimeters, housed on three walls on a raised platform in a corner of the main building of Wat Chong Klang in Mae Hong Son.

These remarkable glass paintings show scenes from the Phra Vejsandon Jataka. Each painting depicts a short story within a larger narrative of the various lives and incarnations of Lord Buddha as well as then-contemporary lifestyles of the people.

The scenes and colors of the paintings are quite vibrant as is consistent with the style of reverse glass painting. The paintings, reportedly brought to Mae Hong Son also in 1857, were created by Shan craftsmen from Mandalay in Myanmar. However, some sources mention that the paintings came in 1997 to Wat Chong Klang from Taunggyi in Myanmar’s Shan State. Unfortunately, the lack of good records or documentation of the paintings makes it difficult to identify their true provenance. Catherine Raymond, an associate professor of art history and the director of the Center for Burma Studies at Northern Illinois University in the USA, has begun a Reverse Glass Painting Project which, among other objectives, will seek to determine the origin of these reverse glass paintings in Myanmar.

Each glass pane has a written Myanmar number and short caption. The paintings were intended to be installed in sequence to place related stories within a larger narrative. Unfortunately, the paintings on the walls are not arranged sequentially in regard to their respective narrative in the Phra Vejsandon Jataka.

A number of the paintings have been either damaged or destroyed as a result of an earthquake. The damaged paintings have cracked glass with tape holding the glass together; while others have the paint peeling off the glass or are missing broken-off pieces of painted glass.

Attempts have been made over the years to restore and reproduce replacements for these badly-damaged or destroyed paintings. Unfortunately, many of these efforts have not produced good results. These artists utilized different styles and color palettes in the restorations or reproductions, resulting in painted pieces which were not consistent with the originals. In recent years, a reverse glass painting artist from the USA, Ms. Judy Jensen, has worked with the Wat to reproduce damaged and poorly-restored/reproduced reverse glass paintings. Currently, thirty-three paintings have been reproduced by her for the Wat. She encountered some difficulties in the reproduction process as to the accurate matching of the original scenes and colors. Also, the original glass is different from modern glass which has a greenish tint. Consequently, the initial painting on the back of the glass did not look the same when viewed from the front of the glass. Incremental adjustments were necessary in the reproduction process to overcome this visual effect. Her reproduced paintings were installed in front of the originals on the walls; thus preserving the original paintings in situ. However, these fragile reverse glass paintings are still subject to damage in the earthquake-prone area of Mae Hong Son.

In Europe, the oldest, surviving examples of reverse glass art are Roman dishes from the 3rd and 4th centuries. A gold design was sandwiched between two layers of glass in the dishes. Reverse glass painting was widely used for sacred paintings beginning in the Middle Ages and later influenced Renaissance art, especially in Italy. Towards the end of the Renaissance, the technique was adapted for wider use with water-based paints. It subsequently grew in popularity across Europe during the period of the 15th-18th centuries in line with the spread of glass making skills and the support of the Catholic Church and Central European nobility. However, the introduction of color lithography and photography in the latter part of the 19th century adversely affected the demand for reverse glass paintings and subsequent production in Europe. As a result of these changes, the artistic technique of reverse glass painting almost disappeared.

Chinese artisans adopted the art form from reverse glass painting examples originally brought from Europe to China in the 18th century. The style initially focused on secular subjects, but later tended largely toward religious aspects. Reverse glass painting later spread by Chinese traders into Southeast Asia where Chinese diaspora painters established workshops in Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. As with Europe, the art of reverse glass painting lost its popularity because of changes in modes of art expression. Thus, a work of art produced by this unusual method of reverse glass painting is rarely seen anywhere today.

In reverse glass painting, the image is painted on glass, using acrylic or oil paint, in the same manner as on canvas or other common surfaces. However, the painted image is on the back of the glass. When painting is finished, the painting is turned over: the painted image is then behind the glass when viewed from the front. A viewer looks at the image through the glass. The glass provides support and a protective cover to the painting.

Everything is backwards from traditional painting. Images and objects are painted as a mirror image so as to be correct when the glass is turned over to be viewed. The background is painted first, instead of painted last; while images and details, which would be painted last, are painted first. Details must be correct since corrections cannot be made without destroying the underlying work. What is painted first is in the front of the painting and cannot be changed - one cannot paint over a mistake. Also because of the prominence of color in reverse glass painting, great thought must be given to color palette choices. Thus, reverse glass painting can be difficult and time consuming.

So when speaking about the “reverse” of reverse glass painting, there are three aspects to this term:

1. Painting is done in “reverse” order.

2. The painting is seen in “reverse” with the left side of the painting now appearing on the right side of the paining when turned over.

3. The glass of the finished painting is “reversed”, that is, turned over, to display the painting.

Reverse glass paintings are best viewed with light focused directly on the glass panes.  The interplay of paint and glass in reverse glass paintings produces a brilliance and radiance quite different from other artistic modes of expression.

Thus for many reasons, the reverse glass painting collection at Wat Chong Klang is extremely unique, not only in Asia, but also globally. It represents an important part of the artistic cultural heritage of both Thailand and Myanmar. Consequently, these reverse glass paintings should be carefully preserved. Also, this collection of reverse glass paintings should provide the foundation and impetus for the resurgence of this method of artistic expression in Thailand.

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Tai Yai Reverse Glass Paintings of Wat Chong Klang in Mae Hong Son