Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Southeast Asia, 1900 A.D.–present

British colony, 1886–1948
Democracy, 1948–62
Military dictatorship, 1962–present
French Indochina, 1862–1953
Khmer Rouge, 1975–79
Constitutional monarchy, 1979–present
French Indochina, 1893–1949
Communist, 1975–present
British colony, 1874–1957
Constitutional monarchy, 1957–present
Chakri dynasty, 1800–1932
Constitutional monarchy, 1932–76
Military rule, 1976–83
Constitutional monarchy, 1983–present
French Indochina, 1883–1945
Vietnam War, 1945–75
Communist, 1975–present
Dutch colony, until 1949
Democracy, 1949–present
American colonial period, 1898–1946
Democracy, 1946–present


Encompasses present-day mainland (Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam) and island (Indonesia, Bali, etc.) Southeast Asia

Mainland Southeast Asia

Most of Southeast Asia continues to be colonized during the first half of the twentieth century: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos by the French; Malaysia and Myanmar (Burma) by the British; Indonesia by the Dutch; and the Philippines by the United States. Only Thailand remains independent. During World War II, the colonizing powers relax their grip on the region, and the Japanese encourage nascent independence movements to push for freedom. Though the Japanese occupation of Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Malaysia, and Indonesia proves Japan's propaganda to be self-serving, Southeast Asia is not prepared to resume the colonialist yoke when the war ends. Between 1945 and 1957, all of Southeast Asia gains its independence.

With independence, several Southeast Asian countries turn to democracy or constitutional monarchy. However, struggles between communist and anticommunist factions plague the region for much of the 1960s and '70s. After the Vietnam War, Vietnam is united under communism and Laos also becomes communist. Cambodia suffers under the Khmer Rouge's genocidal communism in the late seventies. Indonesia has a strong communist party, which is influential under its first president, Sukarno (1901–1970). However, the military purges thousands of suspected communists in 1965. As for Burma, the country enjoys almost fifteen years of democracy, before a military coup installs a repressive and highly isolationist government. Overall, Southeast Asia faces economic difficulties, social and ethnic unrest, and political struggles through much of the mid-twentieth century. By the 1980s, conditions have improved, but the "Asian financial crisis" in the late 1990s is a serious setback for the region.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, Southeast Asian art is highly influenced by European art. Realism, Impressionism, and Expressionism are the favored styles. Landscapes and scenes of daily life are highly romanticized, while naturalistic portraits exalt the region's elite. Artists study in the West throughout the twentieth century, and embrace elements of Western modernism, particularly Cubism and abstraction. With the rise of nationalism, however, artists and critics in several countries turn to increasingly political subject matter, and, in some cases, begin to question their dependence on Western techniques and idioms. Often artists turn nostalgically to traditional and folk arts in the search for new, non-Western styles. Mid-century, the dominant debate in the arts is over the relationship between East and West: modernism is equated with Westernization and the erosion of indigenous values, while tradition is embraced in the search for authentic national idioms. Naturally, many artists and intellectuals are critical of these simplistic formulations. Giving a national character to modern art remains a concern, but by the 1980s and '90s, artists are less anxious about Westernization. Borrowing freely from a wide range of sources, many artists succeed in creating imagery that is at once personal and worldly, savvy of global trends while rooted in local concerns.

The arts develop much more slowly in communist Southeast Asia, and under Burma's repressive military regime. Under communism, artists in Vietnam and Laos practice Socialist Realism in the service of the state. Greater freedoms are given to artists in the 1980s, but neither country encourages a sense of the avant-garde in the arts. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge put a decisive end to the arts, along with all forms of intellectual life. Following their reign, however, the country begins to develop a vibrant cultural life. In Burma, there is still a very limited art scene.

Island Southeast Asia

Among Southeast Asia's indigenous peoples, missionary activities continue to increase in scope and intensity and by mid-century most groups have been converted to Christianity. This conversion often has a devastating effect on local sculptural traditions as people cease to create, and in some instances destroy, images of ancestors and supernatural beings, which conflict with their newly adopted Christian beliefs. The region's textile traditions, however, continue to flourish, although weavers increasingly employ artificial dyes and other introduced materials.

Beginning in the 1970s, the broader Western interest in the art of the world's indigenous peoples results in greater attention to and collecting of works from the indigenous cultures of Southeast Asia. Much of the region's surviving sculpture and large numbers of textiles are acquired by dealers and collectors and enter Western museums and private collections.

    • 1904 Cesare Ferro is the first European painter to work for the Siamese (Thai) court.

    • 1905–10 The Buddhist stupa of Borobudur in Indonesia undergoes a major restoration, after which a monumental monograph is published (1919) with photographs of all sculptures and reliefs.

    • 1906 Puputans take place in Bali (ritual mass suicide of rulers and court in battles against the Dutch).

    • 1907 Italian artists decorate the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall in Bangkok.

    • 1912–13 The Poh Chang School (School of Arts and Crafts) is created in Thailand to redress the decline of traditional arts and the domination of Western influences.

    • 1917 George Groslier (1887–1945) builds the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. King Sisowath (1840—1927) inaugurates the Museum in 1920.

    • 1925 The French establish the École des Beaux-Arts de l'Indochine in Hanoi. Until this time, painting is little practiced in Vietnam. The school promotes the art, providing training in oil painting techniques. It produces a generation of widely admired painters who blend European and Asian subjects and styles.

    • 1930 Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969) forms the Indochinese Communist Party.

    • 1932 Thailand's absolute monarchy is replaced with a constitutional monarchy in a coup d'état.

    • 1937 The Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts opens in Singapore.

    • 1938 Persagi (Persatuan Ahli Gambar), an association of Indonesian painters, is formed in reaction to the romantic landscapes, genre scenes, and portraits patronized by the Dutch.

    • 1942–45 During World War II, the Japanese occupy Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

    • 1946 The Young Indonesian Artists is founded in Yogyakarta. The group believes that art should serve the struggle for independence. On this basis, modern Indonesian art becomes very political.

    • 1946 The Philippines achieve independence.

    • 1948 The Union of Burma is formed, independent of the British.

    • 1948 A major exhibition of contemporary Thai art opens in London.

    • 1949 Laos becomes independent of French rule. Indonesia's 1945 declaration of independence gains international recognition; the country becomes the Republic of Indonesia.

    • 1949–54 The Indonesian artist Affandi (1910–1988) travels and exhibits outside the country, becoming the first modern Indonesian artist to achieve international recognition.

    • 1950 Akademi Seni Rupa Indonesia, a fine arts academy, is established in Yogyakarta; its teachers include many of the country's best-known artists. In addition, the Art Department at the Institut Teknologi in Bandun, Indonesia, is created.

    • 1950s In Vietnam, two art colleges are established in Ho Chi Minh City (then Saigon): the Hanoi College of Fine Arts and the Gia Dinh National College of Fine Arts.

    • 1952 The National Museum of Myanmar is founded.

    • 1953 Cambodia achieves full independence from the French.

    • 1954 A treaty divides Vietnam into communist North Vietnam and anticommunist South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969), leader of the Viet Minh independence movement since 1941, becomes president of North Vietnam.

    • 1957 Malaysia is granted independence from the British.

    • 1957 Thai Marxist critic Chit Phumisak (1930–1966) publishes Art for Life and Art for the People.

    • 1962 A military coup in Burma/Myanmar establishes a military regime.

    • 1963 Malaysia's National Museum in Kuala Lumpur opens.

    • 1964 The Gulf of Tonkin Incident leads to the escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

    • 1965 Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk (born 1922) establishes the Royal University of Fine Arts. The university encourages Cambodian study of national court and folk arts and traditions.

    • 1965 A failed coup leads to military reprisals in Indonesia; the military purges suspected communists and leftists.

    • 1966 The Contemporary Artists Group is formed in Thailand.

    • 1966 The National Museum of Fine Arts opens in Hanoi.

    • 1967 Indonesia, Malaysia, the Phillipines, Singapore, and Thailand create the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In the 1980s and '90s, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar/Burma, and Cambodia join as well. The aims of the association are to promote economic and political stability, social progress, and regional culture.

    • 1968 The Taman Ismail Marzuki Art Center opens in Jakarta. The academy encourages freedom among its artists for the first time in Indonesia.

    • 1970s–'80s Increasing interest in the arts of Southeast Asia's indigenous peoples on the part of collectors and museums results in large numbers of Indonesian and other works of island Southeast Asian being exported to Europe and the United States.

    • 1974 Inspired by the revolutionary writings of Chit Phumisak (1933–1966), who was imprisoned for his Marxist beliefs from 1957 to 1964, the Artists Front of Thailand forms.

    • 1975 Vietnam is unified under Communist leadership.

    • 1975 The communist Khmer Rouge take Phnom Penh in Cambodia and rename the country Kampuchea. During their four-year rule of forced deurbanization in which the Cambodian population is driven into collective farms at gunpoint, some 1.2 million people are killed. Artists and intellectuals are purged and art and culture destroyed.

    • 1975 The Pathet Lao (Communist party) takes over Laos and renames it the Lao People's Democratic Republic.

    • 1976–83 Military rule in Thailand.

    • 1977 The National Gallery of Art opens in Bangkok.

    • 1978–79 The Vietnamese invade Phnom Penh and drive the Khmer Rouge from power.

    • 1983–86 In Thailand, departments of fine arts open at Chulalongkorn University, Chiang Mai University, and Rangsit University.

    • 1997 Massive speculative attacks on Thailand's currency precipitate the Asian Financial Crisis, which spreads to Indonesia, South Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Hong Kong.