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
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
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.