Indulging a love for lustrous lacquer

The Vietnamese knew how to process raw lacquer more than 2,000 years ago, but it was only in the early part of the 20 th century that it was transformed from a decorative craft into the modern pictorial art form we know and love. Le Ha reports.

Past master: Phan Ke An , a renowned lacquer artist who painted the award-winning picture Remembering an Afternoon in the Northwest. — VNS Photos Viet Thanh

Golden moment: Remembering an Afternoon in the Northwest by painter Phan Ke An .
Autumn leaves: Pho co Ha Noi (the Old Quarter) by artist Pham Chinh Trung. — VNS Photo Le Ha

Lustrous finish

Vietnamese lacquer painting is a unique art form. The harmonious combination of traditional materials originated in the wet-rice civilisation but underwent a renaissance in the 20 th century under French occupation.

Lacquer is durable, beautiful and natural. A lacquer painting is alive, and as it ages, its appearance changes and its surface becomes more lustrous.

Lacquer holds a mysterious power, as anyone who has visited one of the many art galleries on Nguyen Thai Hoc Street or walked around the Old Quarter in Ha Noi can attest.

I have long been a lover of lacquer. Lacquer art lovers should visit the second floor of the Viet Nam Fine Arts Museum , which has an impressive array of paintings and lacquerware on show.

One of the finest paintings for me in the museum is Remembering an Afternoon in the Northwest, by Phan Ke An , which won first prize at the National Fine Art Exhibition in 1955 in Ha Noi .

So you can imagine my joy when I went to meet the master on a beautiful crisp December afternoon.

An lives on Tho Nhuom Street in Ha Noi ‘s Hoan Kiem District. An elderly woman selling green tea enthusiastically directed me to his house, which doubles as his workshop and gallery. He welcomed me at the door with a broad smile.

He is a gaunt man, with long bony fingers and thinning hair. He is wearing dark trousers, a grey checked sports jacket over a cobalt blue cardegan and collared white shirt. Despite his 90 years, he retains the handsomeness of his youth.

No sooner am I across the threshold he launches into the subject of art with evident rapture.

It might take us up to three or four days to describe what lacquer art is and a whole life to thoroughly understand it ,” he says, looking at me intently.

He directs me to his workshop and we sit in two armchairs slightly at right-angles to one another.

“When I was a child, I used to visit Mia Pagoda in Ha Tay ‘s Duong Lam Village . There I saw many beautiful lacquered hoanh phi ( plaques horizontally laid ) adorned with Chinese characters and Vietnamese lettering which obsessed me so I became a student at the Indochina Fine Arts College . Although I was not trained in lacquer, I really liked it and decided to pursue this art form as a profession.”

In Viet Nam , lacquer has a long tradition. More than 2,000 years ago, during the period of the Dong Son culture, the Vietnamese already knew how to process raw lacquer to make decorative items. As far back as the Ly dynasty (11 th century ) or even earlier, lacquer was widely used in the ornamentation of palaces, communal halls, temples, pagodas, shrines and ancient tombs in northern Viet Nam.

Lacquer is made from the resin of Rhus succedanea, which is grown mainly in Phu Tho Province ‘s Tam Nong District . When tapped, the sap is milky in appearance but it turns brown when exposed to air and gradually becomes black as it dries.

Many villages throughout the country have taken up lacquer work as their main source of income. Among the leading exponents are Ha Thai Village in Ha Noi , Cat Dang Village in Nam Dinh Province and Tuong Hiep Village in Binh Duong Province .

Many artists say that when they first laid eyes upon lacquer they were captivated by its lustrous blackness. An says the blackness of lacquer is like the darkness of the universe that holds all things in its incredible depth.

According to Pham Chinh Trung , who teaches at the Ha Noi College of Industrial Fine Art, Vietnamese lacquer art is extremely labour-intensive and time-consuming.

Despite Viet Nam ‘s long lacquer tradition, it was only in the early 20 th century that it was used for paintings, rather as European artists used oil, because it is a notoriously difficult material to paint with.

A typical Vietnamese painting goes through 20 stages and takes more than 100 days to complete, regardless of its size. “However, many young artists don’t enjoy traditional lacquer. They prefer Japanese industrial paint which is not only easy to produce and rich in colour but far less time-consuming to work with. This type of paint also dries quickly and is unaffected by the weather. Therefore, young artists can create many paintings in a short period of time,” Trung says.

Age cannot wither thee:Celebrated lacquer painting Thieu Nu ( a beautiful girl ) by Pham Chinh Trung.
Reunification: Lacquer picture Nam Bac mot nha ( South and North United ) painted in 1961 by renowned artist Nguyen Van Ty .

In addition, the colour of the lacquer is liable to change when mixed, making the outcome unpredicatable.

However, Trung says Japanese industrial paint leaves a far thinner layer on the canvas when rubbed and polished, and the outcome lacks the visual depth of lacquer.

An points out that the complexity of making a lacquer painting adds to its ultimate beauty.

“Rubbing and polishing are the most important stages when making a lacquer painting. Unlike with oil, a lacquer painting is dried under wet conditions. Ultraviolet light and heat will fade the lacquer and make it crack, which reduces its beauty and endurance,” An says.

In Viet Nam , in the early 1930s before the Indochina Fine Arts College was founded, lacquer was used for decorative and practical purposes on boats, tables, panels, and ornaments. However, it was limited to just five colours: brown, black, red, yellow, and white.”

Gradually, the college’s first generation of Vietnamese artists discovered new techniques for making additional colours and textures by inlaying egg, crab and mother of pearl shells and bamboo splints. They then applied new polishing techniques.

It is only due to the success of Nguyen Gia Tri that lacquer painting really become true art ,” An says.

Nguyen Quoc Huy , who has been painting with Vietnamese lacquer for years, has won 19 top prizes at home and abroad for lacquer ware, oil and silk paintings.

“The old artists preferred to use traditional colours such as black, red-brown, and red mixed with silver and gold foil, shells, which creates the fanciful and beautiful paintings,” Huy says.

“Although there is a small number of artists who do not follow the strict technique of Vietnamese traditional lacquer art, I believe they will return to it in the end because of its salient features.”

Le Tien Tho , deputy minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism , says: ” Vietnamese traditional lacquer paintings have greatly enriched the Vietnamese contemporary fine arts scene since 1930. Vietnamese lacquer paintings are now highly rated abroad.”

Dang Thi Mai Anh , deputy head of the Basic Art Department at Ha Noi College of Industrial Fine Arts , has worked with lacquer for more than two decades. She says she continually strives to create new effects with lacquer.

In 1994 , I joined a national project on using composite in art, which was hosted by professor Bui Thi Phai . I think that using new materials in lacquer art is a very necessary development.

“Composites are engineered or naturally occurring materials made from two or more constituent materials with significantly different physical or chemical properties and which remain separate and distinct at the macroscopic or microscopic level within the finished structure.

Lacquerware made from composite materials is the future ,” Anh says.

However, Trung, from the College of Industrial Fine Art, is pessimistic about the future.

“I’m really worried about lacquer art because of the number of students who study lacquerware in fine art schools are becoming fewer and fewer. Meanwhile more and more artists are choosing to use Japanese industrial paint, which could surpplant Vietnamese traditional lacquer ware.”

Trung believes the Government should issue policies to encourage more artists to specialise in lacquer.

Huy says lacquer works should also fetch far higher prices.

“Just by enhancing the value and the beauty of Vietnamese traditional lacquer , the number of students and artists who pursue it will certainly increase. It is the most effective method to preserve and develop traditional lacquer art.”

He believes the traditional art form must change to meet modern tastes. Something that he says is inevitable.

“The art form will change with time. Hopefully there will always be a place for traditional lacquer art in every home and gallery,” An says.

Meanwhile, painter Huy says lacquer art is of world importance.

Lacquerware deserves to be recognised as world cultural heritage ,” Huy says. — VNS

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