Arts of Asia January – February 2002
By Kerry Nguyen Long
The development of lacquer as a medium for the artist is one of the more singnificant a chievement in the art world of 20th century Vietnam. Although China produced lacquered folding screens with landscape and traditional decorative imagery, as a medium for the artist lacquer did not hold appeal.This also seems to have been the case in those other countries that have a traditional of lacquer handicaft production.Thus,it was only in Vietnam that the artist turned to lacquer.Those artists in the forefront of this nascence nurtured the dream that this would be a medium in which Vietnam would excel, and which they could claim as their own.These aspirations can be seen as a product of the twin stirrings of nationalism and modernisation seventy years have now passed,and those pioneer artists are dead.The Fine Arts Museums of Vietnam,Hanoi in particular and to a lesser extent Ho Chi Minh City, have a bracket of representative lacquer paintings from this early period. Apart from a relatively small circle of connoisseurs the genre is not well known outside Vietnam.This paper presents a brief history of its development with some insights into technical features. It is primarily concerned with flat lacquer paintings although some relief work is included. It is not concerned with the genre that is carved and coloured with gouache.
A word of explanation is in order at this point. The term paint is used repeatedly in a discussion such as this.Lacquer is of course a particular type of paint, and is used both raw and after various degrees of processing.Thus the term lacquer and paint tend to be used interchangeably. The term lacquer painting is also misleading. Although the artist applies the lacquer paint with a brush, the essence of a lacquer painting depends upon the artist’s skill in rubbing or burnishing the lacquer to reveal the image beneath. The Vietnamese Son Mai( grinding paint) accurately describes the process. Unfortunately, in English there is no equivalent term.
That lacquer painting is such a recent development and confined to Vietnam, may seen remarkable in view of the fact that since ancient times lacquer has been used to embellish religious and household objects. Recent archaeological discoveries also show lacquer had been used in Vietnam for several thousand years.So lacquer as a medium for the last seventy years its development has been nurtured with diligence and pride. Lacquer is a difficult and time-consuming medium and to turn out a single painting may require years of work.
The use of the medium by artists originated in the north early in the second quarter of the 20th century. That it occurred at this time is no coincidence. It is allied to the spread of modern technology, the growth of a market economy, and wider opportunities for Vietnam to access education and to travel overseas. In the early 1930s a huge increase in the publication of newspapers, books and magazines in Quoc ngu( romanised script), brought a new literature much of it focusing on debate of issues such as tradition versus change. The impact of these developments was most felt in urban centres. In Hanoi there was a trend to westernise and to modernise. That it was in Hanoi that artists first turned to lacquer as a medium to express their perceptions of current develpments is therefore not surprising.
It was during this period that the Indochina Fine Arts College was established in Hanoi in 1925. The school was founded on the initiative of the French artist Victor Tardieu with the first students graduating in 1930. Students were instructed in the European style of painting. But in addition to offering instruction in oil painting students were also encouraged to experiment with traditional mediums such as lacquer and silk. This was the first time a programme of formal instruction of this nature had been available outside the traditional guild system. This environment ushered in changes to the ancient tradition of lacquer handicafts. New techniques, colours,production processes and ideas about the use of space brought changes in perception that also opened a window to the possibilities lacquer offered as a medium for the artist. The time was ripe and the talented young artists of the day enthusiastically seized the opportunity to use lacquer in this new way.
In 1932 lacquer used on a painting of student Tran Van Can was mixed with pine resin rather than the traditionally used flat tree oil. This combination was more effective in holding the coating of lacquer and also the colours, and when the surface was burnished the image revealed itself with greater clarity. This discovery is said to mark the turning point in the use of lacquer as a medium for the artist. It further stimulated new ideas among artists who committed themselves to the new medium. This is seen in the work of arists such as Nguyen Gia Tri,Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Nguyen Sang, Le Quoc Loc, Nguyen Khang, Dinh Van Khang, Nguyen Trong Niet and Nguyen Viet Cuong. But the most famous, and generally acknowledged as the artist who had the greatest impact on the direction of lacquer painting is Nguyen Gia Tri.
(1908 – 1933). Tri studied at the Indochina Fine Arts College in Hanoi between 1928 and 1933. His teachers included the artist Joshep Inguimberty and craftsman Dinh Van Thanh. Tri did not complete his studies but was later invited back by Professor Inguimberty. Nguyen Gia Tri’s creativity and experimentation had been much lauded for having imbued lacquer painting with a new spirit and lifted it to another plane. He is credited with introducing colours such as silver white, orange, azure blue and green, and also the use of eggshell.
He was to execute some monumental paintings. Among them Thien thai(paradise), which was to hang in the French Governor Gereral’s Palace in Hanoi. The style of the composition in Thieu nu trong vuon(Maidens in a garden) has come to be associated with him. Against a background dominated by one colour, in this case gold, a bevy of young girls appear to float in a garden lanscape. The girls are positioned in three groups, both seperated and united by the vegetation. The theme on the obverse titles Trong vuon (In the Garden) features huge taro – like leaves in low relief. Tri employs scoring for large veins. Gold coloration provides accents, while the eggshell provides textural effects. Fine parallel lines are scored on the banana leaf to depict its typical corrugated patterning. His later abstract paintings move far from this genre.
But Nguyen Gia Tri used this earlier style to paint the ambitious Vuon Xuan Trung Nam Bac( Spring Garden in the Centre, South and North). This painting took five years to complete, some say longer. It was commissioned by the government of the Republic of South Vietnam but eventually was purchased from the artist by the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City for an estimated US$100,000. The highest price ever paid for a painting by a Vietnamese government.
In this painting a pink background prevails and a bevy of sophisticated maildens dressed in richly decorated, colourful Ao Dai traditional dress pose veriously in a spring garden filled with vegetation typical of the three regions. In trance – like postures the young women appear to almost float across the landscape. Tri andows his women with an unreal mystical grace, in a style that continues to find favour. At the top and bottom of each of the nine panels that make up this huge painting a decorative cartouche is filled with floral motifs painted in the classical style. The parallel sentences on the sides of the painting read: “ The moon spreads its light on the surface of the water” and “ The light perfume of flowers drift in the breeze”. In lacquer painting it is not unusual to employ a fellow artist or an artisan to assist in certain tasks such as applying eggshell. It is known, for example, that Nguyen Gia Tri had an assistant work with him on Spring Garden in the Centre, South and North.
In Thieu nu ben cay phu du ( Maidens beside the Hibiscus Tree) painted in the 1944, one colour dominates and influences the personality of the painting. This treatment is also present in the work of other early artists such as Nguyen Tu Nghiem. It would become one of the idiosyncratic features of lacquer painting.
The nubile young girl in form-fitting ao dai dress appears frequently in painting of this period. This is the sophisticated new urban fashion of the thirties. The combination of lightweight fabric and form-fitting cut showed off the body shape to a degree that was especially provocative when the front and back panels of the dress stirred in the lightest breeze. Previously the body shape was concealed in a loose modestly cut garment. Nguyen Phan Chanh’s silk paintings of the same period show this modest attire on the country girls in his genre paintings. Unlike Nguyen Phan Chanh, Nguyen Gia Tri seems to have been charmed by the new urban style. But his sophisticated lasses pose in beautiful gardens rather than any recognizable urban setting. These are romantic imaginary landscapes in which Tri brings together two of his favorite themes, beautiful sophisticated women and beautiful plants.
Nguyen Gia Tri is quoted as saying he had not paid much attention to traditional paint until he saw the lacquers of Tran Quang Tran. In the early thirties Tran had experimented with new ideas and is credited with the introduction of the technique of sprinkling gold dust on a red- brown background. This created beautiful nuances of light in the lacquer.
In the first decade of the 20th century, a great number of Vietnamese nationalists looked to Japan as a possible model for modernization. The movement called Travel East encouraged young Vietnamese to visit Japan, but fearful of the consequences the French exerted pressure an Japan the technique of sprinkling gold dust on lacquer, known as make-e, had already been used for hundreds of years. Those early years of intercourse between Vietnam and Japan may have facilitated a transfer of knowledge related to make-e technology. But the period of contract was brief, and not concerned with this field of endeavour. Since Tran Quang Tran’s experiments took place more than twenty years after the Vietnamese had been compelled to leave Japan, and at the time of writing there is no evidence that might support any supposition of Japanese influence, we might assume that Tran Quang Tran’s experiments were independent of the outside world. There is no reason why this should not be so.
The 1990s brought the phenomenon of the beach resort and in sophisticated circles it became fashionable to go bathing in the sea. In 1994 Nguyen Van Ty painted Thieu nu va bien(Maidens and the sea) featuring three girls. The girl in the center of the painting, unlike her two companions appears to have discarded her ao dai. The title makes no reference to sea bathing, but the disrobed central figure certainly suggests this possibility. The colour scheme is in essence black and white, but the addition of silver introduces additional light, adds depth and heightens the colour contract. A year later Ty completed Dình Chem(Chem Communal House), a gentle sensitive painting in which thirteen women and children interact in the grounds of the beautiful old communal house. The women’s dresses are in the new style but soft and flowing, pants and dresses of some are in the new green- blue Nguyen Van Ty was among the first artists to experiment with the use of blue coloration. Tiny delicate white flowers formed from eggshell stand out like specks of light against an otherwise subdued blue. Unobtrusive relief is used on the eyebrows, spokes of an umbrella and the red thread that leads from the hand of a child to a small winged kite.
Pham Hau’s (1903 – 1994) poetic rendition of Gio mua ha (Summer Wind) is also from this period. Using a subdued palette the artist focuses on a corner of a lotus pond buffeted by wind and rain. A dragonfly holds a swaying lotus stem while petals of a white lotus are dispersed by the same gust of wind. On a lower and more sheltered level of the pond a frog sits unperturbed under an overhanging leaf.
The August Revolution of 1945 and the war of resistance against the French interrupted this period of fermentation and experimentation. Artists joined the battle field, and the idyllic themes of the previous decade were eclipsed by those of war, peace, nationalism and ideologies. Nguyen Khang’s painting title Hoa binh va huu nghi(Peace and Friendship) (1958) features four girls and two doves. Apart from the gold highlights, a red hair-bow on the head of a girl at the center is the only bright colour in an otherwise subdued palette. The painting progresses from a calm and quiet disposition indicated by rippling water and languid fish to a swirling climax full of movement with waving hands and flapping wings, signifiers of a joyous celebration of peace and friendship played out on a background of splayed leaves.
These themes dominated the following decades as artists continued to experiment with different styles. Nguyen Tu Nghiem’s Tre em vui choi (Children Happily Playing) painted in 1972, illustrates an angular style that might be attibuted to several influences. Its appearance coincided with a retrospective period in which artists turned to the past for inspiration. The ancient Dong Son style may have exerted some influence. The fact that Nghiem looked to legendary figures, traditional dance and games for theme material supports this observation. But at the same time influence from cubism cannot be entirely discounted.
Children Happily Playing shows a group of children of various ages sitting on a red mat. Some are playing with toys, but the majority are deeply engrossed in either making a drawing or in observing a drawing take shape. But, each drawing shows weapons of war. The viewers’ first response is that these children are drawing what they have seen around them. But the subjects of their drawings do not match with the title of the painting. In this there is certainly ironic intent. The key to understanding the full meaning of this painting lies in the small boy in the centre of the red mat holding a yellow star above his head. The children are rallying around their flag.
It was a painting of Tran Van Can’s that, in 1932, heralded the beginning of the radical changes in lacquer painting. A quarter of a century later Can was still painting with lacquer. Mua thu (Autumn), 1958-1961 is impressive for its meticulous attention to detail and effective use of colour. This nostalgic theme depicts a group of women and children enjoying clement autumn weather, some engaged in needlework, others guiding the children perhaps in writing. The limited palette is dominated by strong warm reds and yellows. But the interlacing of white, provided by eggshell, and the discriminate use of black creates a pleasant balance. Started in 1958 the painting was completed in 1961.
The process of creating a lacquer painting is tedious and time-consuming. Simply to prepare the board takes from one to one and a half months. Good quality plywood is used for the core of the lacquer painting and this must undergo numerous step of preparation. The unembellished board is initially brushed with an undercoat of traditional black lacquer, each side left to harden for twenty-four hours after which it is sanded back using 240-grade sandpaper. The core is then sealed with a mixture of lacquer and plaster of Paris. The ground is next applied. It is made of thoroughly mixed lacquer, plaster of Paris and alluvial soil. After application it is completely wrapped in gauze and the same mixture is again applied. The ground provides a surface that, in comparison to wood, is more sympathetic to the reception of paint while the gauze also adds strength and helps prevent warping. There are certain regional variation in the use of materials for the ground. After the ground has dried numerous applications of lacquer follow. Each is left to harden for twenty-four hours before sanding back. Various grades of sandpaper are used with both wet and dry sanding employed depending on the stage in the process. Burnishing is carried out using a variety of stone types. The last step in this long process is the sanding of the board with 600 grade sandpaper. The final surface is as smooth as silk. The board is then ready for the artist who has in the meantime sketched a preliminary drawing on paper complete with colour.
Lacquer paint requires a specific type of hot humit environment in which to harden. If too dry or too moist it will not harden. Thus, although Vietnam has a humit elimate, human intervention is needed to provide the precise conditions. Given the often crammed conditions in which artists work, considerable ingenuity is required in order to create the desirable environment. This in itself is time-consuming and energy draining.
With the thoroughly sealed, grounded and silk smooth board in front of him, the artist is finally able to begin work on the actual painting. The composition is built up by applying layers of lacquer, black, coloured and clear, Each layer needs a day to harden followed by burnishing or rubbing back. The artist needs to be alert to where he has placed any images, and mindful of the different layers of colours. If burnishing is insufficient desirable features will remain hidden, if excessive certain subtleties of detail or colour will be lost.
The addition of locally processed gold leaf and silver leaf is particular favoured by northern artists. These materials are, however, expensive. The gold leaf, which is 99.99 per cent pure, comes in a little packet, each leaf sandwiched between ttwo sheets of special paper. In addition to its decorative qualities, gold leaf also has a number of technical function such as providing depth. The gold leaf is applied in the final stages of the painting to a still tacky surface, deftly pressed with the heel of the hand, while at the same time removing any moisture that might exude.
Silver serves a number of purposes. It is an effective shading device and, when used against white, plays an important role in often creating grey tones. It is also used to create skin colour. How this is done is rather interesting. The typically oval shape of the face is painted in black and superimposed are the features, also painted black. Silver dust is sifted and brushed onto a still tacky surface. After the lacquer has hardened the facial features will be brought out by burnishing. This process takes approximately three days to complete. The subject of colour in lacquer painting is a substantial one and deserves an article of its own. It is the hatched rather than the unhatched shell of the chicken and of the duck, for example, is a subtle blue. There are several ways of applying the shell, but if applied early it sits flatter and looks more natural. After the eggshell is in position lacquer is applied to fill any gaps. This application also covers the shell and, depending on the effect desired, might be coloured. Applied shell requires a thirty-six hour drying period.
Traditionally Vietnamese lacquer artists lean to warm colours. Northern artists generally favour subdued colours while southern artists prefer bright colours. Though these preferences are largely explained by climatic influences, one of the strongest impacts must surely be that lacquer from the north comes from a diffferent specie of tree to that used in the south. The two types of lacquer respond to the addition of chemical colours in different ways. This too has been a significant factor that influenced the differences in the range of the palette used in the north and in the south. Lacquer obtained from the specie Rhus succedamea, grown in the north primarily in Phu Tho province, is unable to take chemical colours to the extent of the specie that supplies the southern artists. Southern artists use what is commonly called Phnom Penh lacquer, meaning it comes from the specie Malanorrea laccifera that grows in Cambodia. Since this lacquer is less sensitive to chemical additives those who use it have access to a wider palette of colours.
Lacquer is an organic substance obtained from the tree in a similar way to rubber. It comes out of the tree as a white sap that changes to brown upon exposure to air. The sap is stored in airtight container for three to four months to allow settling. Each layer has special qualities and particular uses. The second layer of sap provides the paint used by the lacquer artists but will first undergo a number of processes. Traditionally it is placed in a ceramic container with a rough interior surface, and stirred for seven days with an iron rod. The chemical reaction of the lacquer with iron turns this lacquer black. Another portion from this second layer, placed in a wooden container and stirred with a wooden paddle, will retain the original cockroach-wing brown colour. The two colours undergo further refinement with the addition of quantities of other locally available and processed natural substances. Imported cinnabar stone, which is the basic of the range of red colours, is processed in Vietnam. The majority of the other colours are obtained from chemical derivatives.
As a tool for the expression of abstract ideas, the evocation of mood, the creation of impression and the depiction of graphic design, lacquer is an excellent medium. These attributes make it ideally suited to the Vietnamese artistic temperament. The successful lacquer artist must not only be skilled in drawing but also have a high level of technical skill in lacquer processing. Due to this long process it is not possible for the artist to be spontaneous in execution. What can be captured is a form of delayed spontaneity. Thus considerable skill and experience is needed to produce a painting that conveys a sense of spontaneity, livelines and movement.
Each generation brings a different perspective to lacquer painting. Do Xuan Doan’s (born 1937) women in Tram tu (Pensive) poses in the traditional classical style against a background that suggests rather than actualises. Nguyen Van Hai’s (born 1968) untitled painting is quite different. Its meticulous detail articulates the velvetiness of the dress fabric and the irregularities of the slats of the bamboo blind.
Do Xuan Doan was the student of Nguyen Gia Tri and only thirteen when he began his apprenticeship. This was followed by formal study at the Fine Arts University in Ha noi. In the painting Dong Huong Tich (Huong Tich Cave) he pays homage to the atmosphere of the cavernous interior of Huong Tich Cave, its damp darkness, heavy with incense smoke, which obscures visibility, and the throng of hundreds of pilgrims, the majority of whom are women. The painting depicts three groups of women at various shrines holding bundles of red incense sticks. The women on the left with wishful expressions pray for success in conceiving a child, while the group in the centre pray for success in finding a suitable husband. Alone women, on the right foreground standing beside a gold coloured pillar, prays for wealth. Rather than use Tri’s device of an imaginary garden, Doan chooses Huong Tich Cave, Which is a popular pilgrimage destination for women, Whereas Tri used vegetation to define the different areas of his composition, Doan uses the long plumes of incense smoke, an image that is synonymous with the arrival of the pilgrimage season.
In Mua ha (Summer) three girls stroll under the gnarled branch of a flame tree that extends across two panels. The girls white ao dai flutter in the breeze against an intense red background. This is a simple uncomplicated painting, with a nicely balanced composition. There is a pleasant rhythm in the swing of arms, and flow of ao dai. In this painting Do Xuan Doan pays homage to the simplicity of style associated with the work of the late Nguyen Sang.
Cho hoa (Flower market) features what the artist describes as his personal style. This is a more realistic rendition. Colourful flowers provide a vivid background for a vendor-customer transaction. The palette is confined to three colours with gold highlights. It includes blue, a colour not often used by this artist.
Nguyen Van Hai, a 1992 graduate from the National University of Pedagogy in Hanoi, is from the younger generation. The painting featured in this article is one of a series in which the main subject is placed against the back-drop of a bamboo blind, variously rolled or unrolled. Presently this artist also paints in oils and it will be intersting to see in which medium he eventually feels most comfortable.
In Cho mien nui (Mountain Market) Hoang Sung (born 1926) shows a crowded mountain market full of busy activity. The compact throng of people are colourfully rendered in blacks, maroons, yellows and whites. These colours thread their way across the painting and weave together a vibrant scene in which no one colour dominates. Mountain markets are a popular theme among Vietnamese artists. The exotic faces and colourful dresses of the ethnic minorities that live in the highlands have endless appeal.
Nguyen Tien Dung (born 1954) has painted the children’s festival Trung thu (mid-Autumn Festival), in an appealing native folk art style in bright, clear colours against a background of gold with crushed eggshell. The procession that winds its way across the canvas features lanterns, drum players, unicorn, Ong Dia, and the full autumn moon, traditional images associated with this festival. The painting style and bright colour are appropriate to and enhance the innate characteristics associated with the theme. This painting was among those selected for the recently concluded National Fine Arts Exhibition 1996-2000.
In Mot goc que (A Corner of the village) Nguyen Duc Duong’s (born 1940) cool colours focus on an understated shady corner at the foot of an old banyan tree where a lime covered limepot rests. Limepots occupied a privileged position in village life and when past their prime were never discarded but placed in a village shrine. An ancient village tree acquired the status of a sacred shrine and so was an appropriate resting place for an old limepot. Duong, who teaches lacquer painting at the University of Industrial Arts, Hanoi, has a tendency to tease the painting a women lies in repose at the base of the tree.
Pham Thu Nga’s (born 1968) painting Dong cam (Empathy) shows two members of the Cham ethnic minority playing gong and horn. Their body language conveys the message that this is a melancholy tune. The gong player’s expressive face shows a deep and introspective sadness. The horn player’s body sways to fully embrace his instrument and become one with it. His extended neck, and thrust back head, lends support to sensuous lips fully engaged with the mouthpiece, while long tapering fingers and well-articulated toes move to the rhythm.
Nguyen Quoc Huy’s (born 1971) Nang trong vuon (Sunlit garden) also featured in the national exhibition. In this otherwise unremarkable view of a northern vilage, golden sunlight floods the sky, splashes the ground wherever it is able to penetrate through the leafy canopy, and endows the scene with a marvellous illumination.
There has been a greater diversity of style and of theme in the last decade of the past century, but on the whole the lacquer artist is still occupied with national themes and nationalism. It might be appropriate to conclude with Do Xuan Doan’s ruminations on lacquer painting. Lacquer painting is a new medium and there are many areas that await research. Conscious of this, Doan himself strives towards contributing what he can to the continuation of this tradition. He hopes young artists, even while they indulge in unorthodox experiments, will remember the traditions that lie behind Vietnamese painting.