Elephants and Trucks with Logs is a signature example of Ngwe Gaing’s naturalist works that demonstrates his superb technical skill in oil painting. It depicts a quintessentially Burmese scene where labourers clad in longyis toil to remove precious teak and hardwoods from the jungle alongside an elephant and a truck. Behind them sits a hill with a white stupa perched at its summit; in the background, the forest on the cliffs recedes into the distance, where the faraway bulk of Mount Popa looms on the far left side of the painting. The sense of spectacle accompanying this magnificent scene lends the work an alluring, almost cinematic quality that elevates its timeless appeal.
The balance and handling of colour in this beautiful piece is its most brilliant aspect. The entire work has a golden-brown tinge which touches on the details of the landscape—the warm greens and golds of the foliage, the reddish-brown of the earth scorched by the blazing sun, the sheen of the elephant’s wrinkled skin—and reflects the natural colours of Burma. Ngwe Gaing’s acute sensitivity to colour and shading, as exemplified in his deft brushwork, reflects his mastery of Western oil techniques. This is made more impressive considering that he was a largely self-taught artist whose formal education amounted to a correspondence course and a year spent in London’s museums studying the great works of European masters.
Rarely does one come across such a large work by Ngwe Gaing in the art market. Elephants and Trucks with Logs is an important work that embodies the spirit and themes of the nascent Burmese modernist art movement in the 1960s. At the same time, Ngwe Gaing’s juxtaposition of tradition and modernity in this scene reflects the contradictions and challenges facing a young nation caught between nostalgia for the past and looking forward into the future.
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